MISSISSAUGA — Jim Barker called quarterback Cleo Lemon into his office after a Week 3 loss to the Montreal Alouettes and told him he was in danger of losing his starting job.
“When I told him that if his play didn’t pick up he was done, it kind of clicked in,” the Toronto Argonauts head coach and general manager said Wednesday. “I don’t know if that’s what it was. I don’t know if Cleo needs that kind of pressure.
“When I brought him into the office and said, ‘The time has come,’ he responded to that. That was kind of the turning point for me.”
During his last four games, Lemon has thrown just one interception and has a quarterback rating of 104.6. His rating after the first two games of the year was 74.5.
Toronto (1-6) will host the Saskatchewan Roughriders (1-6) on Thursday and Barker is eager to see if Lemon, who turned 32 this week, can continue to build on his recent success.
“I’m not saying Cleo Lemon has turned the corner by any stretch,” Barker said. “If he does that for a few more games you can say, ‘Yeah, this guy’s turned a corner and he’s a guy who can be an elite quarterback in this league.’
“I’ve seen him getting better and better and progressing and the whole key in this league is consistency. Can you consistently do what he’s doing, which is throwing the ball accurately, making good decisions, not taking sacks, not turning the ball over?”
Toronto gained 506 yards during Saturday’s loss in Hamilton. It was the first time they had accumulated that many yards in a game since 2008.
“Cleo looked very comfortable in the pocket,” Roughriders head coach Greg Marshall said. “I know having [tailback] Cory Boyd back there helped him as far as their run game goes. They were a complete offence last week.”
Argos receiver Brandon Rideau caught six passes for 147 yards and two touchdowns against the Tiger-Cats en route to being named CFL offensive player of the week. Overall, six Toronto players had at least three catches.
“He knows exactly where his receivers are at and how they’re going to come out of breaks,” Barker said.
“Just watching Cleo, he seems a little more aware, a little more precise out there,” Roughriders defensive tackle Dario Romero said.
For his part, Lemon said he is feeling more comfortable with the Canadian game. He is no longer trying to do too much. If a play is not working he will throw the ball away instead of forcing the issue.
Lemon has been sacked just once in the last two games. Toronto allowed 12 sacks during the first four games of the year.
“It was a good feeling,” said left tackle Rob Murphy when asked about last week’s game. “It was like my time in B.C. when our offence was explosive and that was the feeling you had. We weren’t one dimensional and, as an offensive line, that makes it easier.”
The Roughriders have allowed the most points (32.7 per game) this season and opposing quarterbacks are completing 66.4% of their passes. Only the Argos (71.9) are allowing opponents to complete a higher percentage of throws.
But Barker does not think his offence will have an easy time against Saskatchewan.
“Greg Marshall and [defensive co-ordinator] Richie Hall have always given us issues,” he said. “They run a lot of the old Cowboy and Redskin fronts and that means a lot of movement. Dario Romero is playing as good as he’s played in a long time. I think he gives them a force inside.
“They got some young guys in the secondary that Richie will do a great job with. They’re going to get better and better as the season goes.”
The stakes will be high on Thursday as both teams are desperate to salvage seasons that are slowly slipping away. If Lemon cannot lead the Argos to more wins then Barker will have options in the second half of the season.
Backup quarterback Dalton Bell replaced Lemon, who was cramping up, for one series on Saturday and led the Argos to a touchdown. Meanwhile, Steven Jyles appears to have recovered from a shoulder ailment.
“Jyles is sitting on our nine-game injured list and now throwing the heck out of the football and that’s coming,” Barker said.
“Competition creates pressure and whether a light went off … Cleo’s seeing things much better.”