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Familiar faces on Argonauts' crew Add to ...

It seems sentimental at first glance, and like an ill-advised way of doing business in the Canadian Football League.

The Grey Cup defending champions are in camp here at the University of Toronto's Erindale campus looking almost identical to the team last seen celebrating late into the night of their triumph in Ottawa last November. Only one significant member of that cast is gone, offensive lineman Sandy Annunziata, traded in the off-season to the Edmonton Eskimos. Otherwise, they're all here, a year older and wiser, which in the case of the quarterbacking grandpa Damon Allen, must make him very wise indeed.

Usually, a little turnover is considered healthy for a football club, since physical skills erode over time, since the competition is sure to improve. And usually, in the CFL, it's something of an economic necessity as well.

Replacing older, more expensive players (especially imports) with fresh, hungry recruits willing to play for the minuscule league minimum is the easiest method of payroll maintenance.

The worst sin for a general manager is to be stuck with a guy a little long in the tooth who is also earning, in the context of this league, a whole lot of money.

But there is method in what the Argos are doing, Adam Rita explains.

The club's general manager lays out an operating philosophy with which it's tough to argue, given the results last year.

"We spend a lot of time on developing players," he says. "We teach them. They learn to work within the system. They start to know what we expect of them."

So there's a comfort factor there that works both ways.

Head coach Michael Clemons and his staff know their players well, know their strengths and weaknesses, know how they perform not just in camp or in practice, but also in game situations. The players, for their part, understand the coaches' style, understand the team's system and attitude. There's no need, then, to re-establish the basics.

From the first day here this spring, it's been back to business as usual.

But there's something else at play as well. The core group of veterans among these Argonauts have lived and played through some mighty trying times.

They experienced managerial and coaching wackiness, ownership uncertainty, a tumble into bankruptcy and finally, league stewardship. They played at times when it was unclear whether there would be a paycheque at the end of the day, and they stuck together, rallied around Clemons, and built a tremendous bond.

"They have been through a lot of fires," Rita says.

That was obvious last year on the drive to the Grey Cup. Even after Allen's injury, which in other circumstances might have derailed the entire season, the team hung tough.

In the playoffs, with Allen back in form, the Argos sailed past Hamilton, and then arrived for the East final in Montreal loose and confident, apparently unaware that they weren't supposed to win. That same attitude carried them to the championship victory over B.C.

Pinball may have provided the pregame theatrics, but that inner quality is mostly a quiet, unstated thing. Continuity is surely a big part of it.

"They all know what they have to do," Rita says. "So as long as they're productive, they stay."

To that end, the Argos, under their current ownership, have made it a practice to lock up their essential players with contract extensions, a process that will continue throughout this season.

"When we can extend," Rita says, "we don't wait around."

That cuts away some of the insecurity, eliminates the resentment of players who feel unappreciated, or who are playing out their options. There are certainly cheaper ways of doing it, but the proof is in the trophy case.

For the backups and the new arrivals, who still might displace one or two from the gang of 2004 from a starter's job, the hope is that they become absorbed into the mix, that they pick up the values, that when the time comes for transition, it's seamless.

"Now," Rita says, "the old guys have to teach it to the younger guys."

sbrunt@globeandmail.ca

 

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