The greatest two teams in Toronto Argonauts history were quarterbacked by the incomparable Doug Flutie and coached by the incorrigible legend, Don Matthews.
They won 15 regular-season games two years in a row and two consecutive Grey Cup championships: In all 34 wins, six losses and the first back-to-back Argos titles in half a century.
They are or were the greatest two teams — until this season. And even saying that doesn’t necessarily make sense.
Flutie had won four Most Outstanding Player awards before the CFL bent their salary-cap rules and allowed him to sign in Toronto in 1996. If he wasn’t the best player in CFL history, his final two seasons pushed him to that unrecognized crown.
The 1996 and ’97 Argos are probably the best teams we’ve ever seen. Until this year, under very different circumstances.
Chad Kelly is in his first season as a starting quarterback in professional football. It is not insulting in any way to say he’s no Flutie.
What he has been this season — starting 16 games, finishing 15 of them, winning 15 of them — has shown the kind of field general he can be.
He doesn’t lead the CFL in passing the way Flutie did. He doesn’t have the weapons that Flutie had — Robert Drummond and Pinball Clemons running and passing, Paul Masotti and Mookie Mitchell, so many places the football could go.
Kelly has one receiver in the top 30 in the CFL. Himself, he’s fourth in a nine-team league in passing.
His best running back, the bulldog A.J. Ouellette, is fourth in the CFL in rushing. Yet all they do is win. Or all they have done is win.
Since the CFL went to a 18-game schedule, some 322 teams have played. Only one before this season won as many as 16 regular-season games: The 1989 Edmonton Eskimos.
This year’s Argos equaled that total and have a chance to better it with a win on Saturday against the Montreal Alouettes and maybe another win a week later in the Grey Cup at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton.
The 1989 Edmonton team lost in the Western Final. The Argos know that. Have been told about that. Realize that all they’ve done all season long means little if they lose on Saturday.
The one connection from Flutie’s two title teams here to this year’s team is the connection of all Argos connections: It’s Pinball. He was a key player on those ’96 and ’97 teams. And he is, by title, the general manager of the Argos today.
That was his team when he played. This is his team as manager. In between, he won a Grey Cup as coach. That’s what Pinball has always found a way to do in Toronto: He finds ways to win.
That’s what Kelly does at quarterback, too, with a bevy of receivers whose names are barely known around here. He finds ways to get the ball to DaVaris Daniels to Damonte Coxie to David Ungerer. And this is with the great Canadian, Kurleigh Gittens Jr., out for the season.
The Argos basically sat Kelly for parts of three games or so down the stretch and still wound up scoring 32.8 points a game. That’s more than the ’96 Argos scored and four points behind the ’97 team.
That’s impressive for anyone who has ever played. That’s remarkable for a first-year starter of a team that stunningly won the Grey Cup last year. Last year it almost came from nowhere. This year, it’s expected.
This Argos team can be that complete.
They don’t have anyone like The Don coaching, but then who else is like The Don?
They have Ryan Dinwiddie. He has next to no profile. He isn’t a personality. Like Kelly, all he seems to do is win.
The defensive coordinator, Corey Mace, will probably be a head coach in the CFL shortly. For now, he has all-star calibre players all over his defence — from linebackers Adarius Pickett and Wynton McManis, to linemen Shawn Oaken and Dewayne Hendrix and Forim Orimolade, to ballhawks in the secondary like Jamal Peters, the kid who came from nowhere, Quan’tez Stiggers and the local guy Royce Metchie.
The Don would love this Argos team because he had a penchant for special teams. He had Pinball running back punts and kickoffs at times and he had Jimmy (the Jet) Cunningham on at least one of the title teams. The Argos of today have Javon Leake running back punts and he took four of them for touchdowns this season.
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Boris Bede, the kicker who’s built like a tight end, rarely misses. If the Argos covered kicks just a little bit better, this team would be almost perfect.
Instead, they’re 16-2. Best record in franchise history. One win better than either Flutie team. Not the best team in CFL history, mind you. We’ll give that the Edmonton dynasty years of five straight championships.
Their 1981 team, in particular, with Warren Moon and Tom Wilkinson playing quarterback, went 14-1-1 in the season, then won two more to take the Grey Cup. The 16-1-1 may never be equaled.
But this year, the Argos have a chance to do the unexpected. To make history. One win away from the Grey Cup. Two wins away from back-to-back titles.
Two wins away from the greatest season in Argos history.