The CFL schedule maker has done Ryan Dinwiddie and the Toronto Argonauts no favours.
The league kicks off its abbreviated 14-game '21 schedule Thursday night after cancelling the '20 campaign due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Toronto will play its opening two contests on the road against the Calgary Stampeders (Saturday night) and the defending Grey Cup-champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers (Aug. 13).
Dinwiddie will make his CFL head-coaching debut in a familiar setting. He served as Calgary's quarterback coach (2016-19) before being hired by Toronto.
"No one has more respect for coach Hufnagel (Stampeders GM/president John Hufnagel) and coach Dickenson (head coach Dave Dickenson) than myself," Dinwiddie said during a recent videoconference. "And my best friends are on that staff but we won't talk much, we'll talk more after (the season opener).
"It's going to be an extremely tough football game. The team that's the most physical will be the one that wins that one and hopefully it's us."
Toronto's schedule doesn't get any easier when it returns to BMO Field for its home opener Aug. 21, which will be a rematch with Winnipeg. After hosting Edmonton on Aug. 28, the Argos will face the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (Sept. 6 at Tim Hortons field, Sept. 10 at BMO), the defending East Division champions in a home-and-home series.
Seven of Toronto's opening nine regular-season games, and 10-of-14 overall, are against teams that had winning records the last time the CFL played. Included are four contests versus Hamilton, which finished atop the East Division with a CFL-best 15-3 record in 2019.
"It's going to be a tough challenge," Dinwiddie said. "But to be the best you have to beat the best. Period.
"We're all in this business to win the Grey Cup. (The early '21 schedule) could hurt us in that we get caught up in a hole or it could accelerate us to where we need to be with some great momentum. It's a challenge but we're looking forward to it. It's going to say a lot about our football team."
Toronto has certainly been busy since the '19 season ended.
The franchise appointed Mike (Pinball) Clemons, the former Argos standout player and head coach, as general manager and hired Dinwiddie as head coach. And it has completely revamped an offence and defence that both struggled in 2019.
Dinwiddie's offence will certainly have a Calgary flavour to it. Toronto signed quarterback Nick Arbuckle this off-season as a free agent and the receiving corps will feature Juwan Brescacin, DaVaris Daniels and Eric Rogers. All four were on the Stampeders' 2018 Grey Cup-winning squad.
The six-foot-one, 207-pound Arbuckle impressed in 2019 when he won four-of-seven games he started in place of injured Calgary starter Bo Levi Mitchell. Arbuckle completed 174-of-238 passes (73.1 per cent) for 2,103 yards and 11 touchdowns with just five interceptions. He also ran for 76 yards and four TDs.
Arbuckle's play prompted Ottawa to acquire his rights and sign him to an extension. But the 27-year-old Californian never played with the Redblacks due to the pandemic and was released after the franchise signed former Argos quarterback Matt Nichols.
Arbuckle nursed a hamstring ailment during training camp. If the ailment gets worse, Toronto certainly has a veteran presence on the depth chart with McLeod Bethel-Thompson and Antonio Pipkin.
Bethel-Thompson started 13 games for Toronto in 2019 and led the CFL in TD passes (26) while finishing third in passing yards (4,024). Pipkin began the '19 season as Montreal's starter before suffering an injury and relinquishing the No. 1 job to Vernon Adams Jr.
In 2019, Toronto finished ranked last overall in offensive points allowed (29.9 per game), rushing yards (118.6), TD passes (36), points off turnovers (39), tied for last in offensive TDs allowed (58) and seventh against the pass (314.6 yards per game).
So it was no surprise the Argos added the likes of linebackers Henoc Muamba (CFL's top Canadian in 2019), Dexter McCoil and Vontae Diggs, rush ends Charleston Hughes, Shane Ray (former NFL first-round pick) and Canadian Cameron Judge as well as defensive linemen Cordarro Law (another former Stampeder) and Drake Nevis in preparation for the '21 season.
Toronto will also have a new kicker after acquiring veteran Boris Bede from Montreal for Canadian Tyler Crapigna.
"This team is a group of players that have not had the opportunity to play together and it's about how soon can we come together, especially in an abbreviated season," Clemons said. "But this is a group of players and coaches that are going to be around for a long time and are going to have success, absolutely."
The Toronto Argonauts open the CFL season in Calgary on Aug. 7. Some facts.
General manager: Mike Clemons (entering first season)
Head coach; Ryan Dinwiddie (entering second season).
2019: Posted 4-14 record to finish third in East Division, missing CFL playoffs.
Home Field: BMO Field (capacity approximately 25,000)
Additions: QB Nick Arbuckle, WRs DaVaris Daniels, Eric Rogers, Juwan Brescacin, OLs Philip Blake and Darius Bladek, REs Charleston Hughes and Cam Jordan, LBs Henoc Muamba, Vontae Diggs and Dexter McCoil, P/K Boris Bede.
Departures: Head coach Corey Chamblin, receivers S.J. Green and Derel Walker, RB James Wilder Jr., DL Shawn Lemon, Cleyon Laing and Frank Beltre, QBs James Franklin and Dakota Prukop.
Players to watch: Arbuckle, Rogers, Hughes, Muamba and Bede.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 3, 2021.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press