MONTREAL — Between the Pix-IX metro stop and Olympic Stadium you walk past the minor-hockey kids with change buckets, the girl scouts selling chocolates, the scalpers, the kid selling plastic horns, the credit-card hawkers, the survey-takers, the cops, the paramedics, the security guards, the Alouettes cheerleaders selling calendars. They all know their roles; everyone has done this before. This was the ninth CFL East final in Montreal in the last 13 years, and the Alouettes had won seven of the previous eight. It is practically tradition.
And this year, everything changed. The Toronto Argonauts were the more resilient team, even while performing a pile of circus-reel mistakes. The Argonauts were the team with the better quarterback, the better receiver, the better running back, the biggest plays. And the Argonauts, last in the East in 2011 and a 48-17 loser in this game in 2010, won this one 27-20, and get to play the 100th Grey Cup at home.
“Montreal is where we want to be,” said general manager Jim Barker, who should be getting a few questions about a contract extension this week. “Where Montreal is now, and has been, is where we want to be. That’s the goal. That’s the benchmark. Every move we’ve made has been about that.”
It was a messy, loopy, down-to-the-last possession football game Sunday, but it belonged to Toronto. The Argonauts rolled up 530 total yards to Montreal’s 394, and were loaded with stars. Chad Kackert, the running back this team believed in when it cut loose All-Star Cory Boyd, ran 13 times for 139 yards and a touchdown. Chad Owens, the East nominee for Most Outstanding Player, caught 11 passes for 207 yards — the fourth-most in CFL playoff history, and the second-most since 1956 — and rolled up 346 combined yards.
“I felt like I was unstoppable tonight,” Owens said. “That’s what it takes. You need your playmakers to make plays. You need everyone to make plays.”
Quarterback Ricky Ray was the fulcrum, throwing for 399 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions while the blitzing Alouettes treated Ray’s ribs like a toddler treats a xylophone.
“When you’re slow and unathletic, you’ve got to stand in there and make some plays,” said Ray, half-joking. “It’s not like I watch film and say, ‘I’m going to stand in there and take this hit to prove something.’ ”
But he did, nonetheless. Edmonton coach Kavis Reed told the Edmonton Sun on Sunday that he argued with since-fired general manager Eric Tillman that trading Ray to Toronto could set the Eskimos back five to 10 years. He did not mention what getting a franchise quarterback could do for Toronto.
“That’s why he’s here,” said Argonauts head coach Scott Milanovich, who, like Ray the week before, buried his old team. “That’s why he’s the guy we wanted.”
“[He’s meant] everything,” said Barker, who traded Steven Jyles, a first-round pick, and a kicker for Ray. “I mean, it doesn’t matter if you’re behind. He’s tough. He hangs in and takes hits … but they kept bringing five, six. Scott told him on Monday that he would take a pounding, but if he hung in there, great things were going to happen … and he did. That’s what makes him such a great player.”
And still, it was a game. The Argonauts made so many early mistakes — fumbling on their first drive, getting stuffed on third-and-1 on their second, turning to seldom-used backup quarterback Jarious Jackson on three doomed plays from the Montreal one-yard-line that were stuffed, one after another, for another turnover on downs. Late in the half, the Argonauts had to settle for a field goal after blowing a first-and-goal from the five. They trailed 17-10 at halftime by putting together two field goals, a safety, and a pair of rouges. It was a bit of a mess.
Milanovich, however, played it cool. He counselled his team to stay the course; he calmed down Owens, who was glowing like a lit fuse, telling him, “Trust me.” And on Toronto’s third play from scrimmage in the second half, Ray found Owens over the middle as the blitz rushed in, and Owens took it 70 yards to the three-yard line. Toronto tied the score, watched Anthony Calvillo throw off his back foot into coverage, and took a 24-20 lead on a 49-yard run by Kackert. The crowd, announced at 50,112, went silent, and it must have felt like the aquarium-blue roof at Olympic Stadium was caving in.
And still, it came down to the end. Toronto’s Pacino Horne stripped Eric Deslauriers with seven minutes left and the Alouettes inside Toronto’s 30-yard line; Andre Durie, after fighting off two tackles, fumbled at his own 49-yard line three minutes later, and Montreal had another chance. Calvillo threw his second oddly panicky interception of the day to Marcus Bell, delivering a wild throw under mild pressure, but the Argos went two-and-out and Montreal had another chance. In the CFL, it always feels like Montreal has another chance.
And after advancing to Toronto’s 23 with 59 seconds left, Calvillo had three plays left in his season, and on the third one he threw a beautiful ball over outstretched fingertips and into the chest of Brian Bratton, in the end zone. Bratton dropped it, and later said he would have to live with it for the rest of his life. This wasn’t Montreal’s year. It was Toronto’s.
“I expect [Toronto] to embrace the festivities, to embrace the CFL,” said Durie, the Toronto kid. “I think it’s lost its groove [in Toronto] the last few years, and I think this is a good opportunity for the CFL to bloom again.”
“This is what we needed,” said Owens, still trying not to bounce off the walls. “This is what Toronto needed. And I expect it to be full of double blue this week.”
Toronto’s tradition, these days, is to treat the Argonauts — and the CFL — like an afterthought, an anachronism, something to leave alone. This week, Toronto gets another chance.