Pro athletes hate leaning on externalities – and injuries in particular – to justify performance, chalking a result up to luck or fate sounds suspiciously like an excuse.
And yet, it can have a profound influence.
Take the Toronto Argonauts, who had two cruel twists of fortune in the first quarter of Sunday’s pivotal encounter with the Montreal Alouettes.
The first was a fumbled snap that squelched a shortish Argonaut field goal try with the score 7-0 Montreal; the second was franchise quarterback Ricky Ray injuring his left knee in a seemingly innocuous collision with one of his own tumbling linemen.
It’s not known how bad the damage is to Ray, but he did not return.
Football is, as every fan knows, a zero-sum contest, so one team’s horrible misfortune is inevitably another’s grinning providence.
For the second straight week the Als were faced with a back-up quarterback, and just as they did against Saskatchewan, they punished the Argos second-stringer en route to victory, in this case cantering to a 31-10 final score that was also due to a couple of propitious bounces.
The win gives Montreal an 8-4 record and some breathing room over the Argos (6-6) and Hamilton Tiger-Cats (4-8) in the race for top spot in the division – which comes with a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the Eastern Final.
Not that head coach Marc Trestman is about to pat anyone on the back just yet, there are still six regular season games to play.
“Our guys know this game didn’t guarantee us anything … if we’re thinking farther ahead than Friday night [in Hamilton], we’ve got to be out of our minds,” he said.
The Als have won six of their seven games since losing to Toronto on July 27 – the Argos would have carried a tie-breaker advantage had they won Sunday – and quarterback Anthony Calvillo topped 300 yards in passing for a ninth time this season, aided by the return of injured receiver Brandon London (five catches for 118 yards).
Montreal scored on its opening possession for the fourth straight game, and the defence limited Jarious Jackson to 15-of-31 completions for 198 yards, sacking him once and picking him off once.
So a good effort from Montreal, and a let-down for Toronto.
“I’m disappointed. I thought we’d win the game; we didn’t, so credit to them,” said Argos coach Scott Milanovich, who may want to mutter an invocation or two for his starting quarterback ahead of next week’s tilt in Winnipeg.
It’s hard for any team to overcome the loss of as influential a player as Ray, especially when the opposition keeps drawing the high cards.
Want an example?
In the second quarter, Montreal receiver Jamel Richardson was galloping in the open field when he was hit from behind and fumbled the ball.
As two Argos scrambled to scoop it up, the pigskin squirted back to Richardson, lying on his stomach with an opponent perched on his legs. Moments later the Als scored a touchdown.
Even the Alouettes special teams, which have been awful all year, sprang to life, bottling up the ever-dangerous Chad Owens and contributing a touchdown.
When Toronto kicker Swayze Waters booted a 41-yard field goal attempt wide left early in the fourth quarter, Montreal returner Trent Guy, standing at the very back of the end zone, dropped the ball.
It bounced straight back into his hands, and a few strides later he was sprinting down the right sideline, showing a clean pair of heels at his pursuers – at 129 yards, it was the longest kick return in Alouette annals (the league record is 131 yards, which involved a lateral between two Argos against these self-same Als in 1958. History has a sense of irony.)
“We had the wall set up on the sideline … I just went to daylight,” said Guy, a rookie out of Louisville who had an object lesson on the dimensions of a CFL field. “It’s definitely longer, I’ve never had a 129-yard return, I had to pick my knees up at the end, I was tired, man.”
The football fates can be vindictive, as well – just ask Argos linebacker Marcus Ball.
Indulge in an over-zealous face-masking penalty on second and long on the third play of the game, will you? The drive will be extended all the way down the field.
Hot-dog and preen after knocking Als running back Victor Anderson for a loss in Toronto territory, will you Mr. Ball? Not a problem, Anderson will take a short dump from Calvillo on the very next play and scamper 40 yards for a score.
Anderson, a CFL rookie making just his second start in relief of the injured Brandon Whitaker, later rushed for another touchdown.
Anderson also attended Louisville and his former teammate, Guy, also had a second major – on a pretty catch-and-run play in the first half.
“First professional touchdown,” said Guy, who has spent time in the NFL with the Carolina Panthers. “That was exciting.”