MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — The Toronto Argonauts are now Steven Jyles’ team.
Jyles assumed the starting quarterback position with the struggling Argos (2-7) on Tuesday, hours after the club’s surprising announcement it had released incumbent Cleo Lemon. Jyles will come off the nine-game injured list this week and make his Toronto debut Saturday night in Vancouver against the B.C. Lions.
“I’m expecting him to go out and play within himself and by the end of nine games we’re going to know what we have in Steven Jyles,” said Toronto coach/GM Jim Barker. “For him this is an opportunity to take control of a team.”
Lemon joined the Argos prior to the 2010 campaign following seven NFL seasons and struggled with the Canadian game, amassing an 11-14 record as the club’s starter and throwing more interceptions (23) than touchdowns (22).
His departure came four days after Lemon was benched for the first time, giving way to backup Dalton Bell to start the second half of Toronto’s 29-16 home loss to B.C., a game that saw the home team roll up just 184 total offensive yards.
The move was a huge surprise given Barker continually supported Lemon throughout his CFL struggles. Barker named Lemon his starter last season despite Bell having played better in camp and although Toronto posted a 9-9 record to qualify for the playoffs, it was due mostly to its stout defence and spectacular special teams as the offence struggled mightily.
In the off-season, Barker acquired Jyles from Winnipeg and declared another open competition at training camp for the starter’s job.
But the Lemon-Jyles showdown never materialized as Jyles missed most of camp recovering from off-season shoulder surgery before going on the injured list.
Lemon did show flashes of brilliance this year, completing 66.5 per cent of his passing with seven touchdowns against just four interceptions.
But it wasn’t nearly enough to kick-start an anemic Toronto offence that’s ranked last overall in the total yards (312.1 yards per game) and passing yards (277.3) and second-last in scoring (22.2 points per game).
Still, the timing of Lemon’s release was peculiar because while Jyles has been practising for roughly six weeks he’s yet to play.
If Jyles struggles Saturday, Toronto will now have to look to an inconsistent Bell, who has thrown eight interceptions in spot duty this season, including four in the second half against B.C.
The six-foot-two, 215-pound Lemon completed 11-of-15 passes for just 57 yards Friday night as B.C. took a 13-6 half-time lead. While Toronto’s play-calling was questionable at best, Lemon was guilty of taking a conservative approach against the Lions, opting to go to his check-down receivers rather than throw the ball downfield.
And while Lemon never spoke about the benching — he left afterwards without talking to reporters — his body language certainly indicated he wasn’t happy.
When he returned to the sidelines to start the second half of the nationally televised game, the 32-year-old Lemon stood off in the distance by himself, not getting involved in conversations with Barker and Bell despite Toronto’s offensive struggles.
Surprisingly, though, Barker elected to keep Bell in the game despite the four second-half picks.
On Tuesday, Barker steadfastly refused to discuss details surrounding Lemon’s departure, saying only it was his decision.
“We parted ways,” he said. “I’m not really going to discuss specifics.
“We felt it, like every move we make, was in the organization’s best interests to move forward this way. It’s always difficult to do those kind of things . . . . but it wasn’t a snap decision.”
There are, though, questions about exactly whose decision it was. When asked if Lemon had grasped the nuances of Canadian football, Barker praised the former NFL quarterback, saying ”he was getting it, he was progressing, he was getting better.”
If that was the case, then, why abruptly release Lemon?
“I really don’t want to get into specifics,” Barker repeated
Barker wouldn’t even say when the decision was made, although there’s an indication it came as early as Saturday.
“The day after the game we all came in and did our normal routine and he wasn’t here,” receiver Chad Owens said. “I didn’t know what was going on or what the situation was, it’s just sad the way it went down.
“Every man is entitled to his own decision-making. He’s not with us.”
Veteran receiver Jeremaine Copeland was surprised by the move.
“I thought he was getting better and better each week and definitely improved from the first time he stepped up here,” he said. “Overall I didn’t think it was a great decision and I didn’t like how it went down but it is what it is.”
Jyles gives Toronto a more mobile and CFL-savvy quarterback. A six-year veteran, Jyles played previously with the Edmonton Eskimos (twice), Saskatchewan Roughriders (2008-09) and Winnipeg (2010) and commands respect in the huddle.
“You can tell he has the veteran status as a quarterback,” Copeland said. “You can tell he knows about every situation and where the ball needs to go.
“Things are coming out a little bit quicker, reads for us are going to be a lot easier. He’s going to spread the ball around.”
Jyles started 11 games for Winnipeg last year, posting a 3-8 record while passing for 2,804 yards and 19 touchdowns after replacing injured starter Buck Pierce. Over his career, Jyles has completed 288-of-470 career passes for 3,889 yards and 24 TDs against 18 interceptions.
“The difference between Cleo and me is I look to run the ball more,” Jyles said. “Cleo is a pocket guy.
“I can be a pocket guy too, but I can throw on the run. I can run around with the ball. I think that adds a little to the team. Quarterback mobility can take the pressure off the offensive line.”