Veteran running back Whitaker taking patient approach in CFL free agency

Whitaker being patient in free agency

Doing everything right in 2016 hasn’t had the desired effect for Brandon Whitaker.

The Toronto Argonauts running back finished second in CFL rushing last season and was just one of two players to crack the 1,000-yard plateau. Despite being one of the team’s few bright spots in a dismal 5-13 campaign, Whitaker was dealt a punch in the gut prior to the Feb. 14 start of free agency when the Argos informed him he was no longer wanted.

“When I got the news (in phone call from assistant GM Spencer Zimmerman) I was a little disappointed and a little upset,” Whitaker said in a telephone interview. “I felt I had a really good chance to come back to Toronto . . . but I’ve been through this before.

“It’s a business and sometimes it sucks, sometimes it plays into your hand. That’s just how it goes sometimes.”

Whitaker, 31, played in all 18 regular-season games for the first time since 2011 with Montreal. The five-foot-10, 200-pound Whitaker ran for 1,009 yards on 186 carries (5.4-yard average) with three TDs, finishing behind Calgary’s Jerome Messam (1,198 yards) while adding a career-high 81 catches for 549 yards and four TDs.

However, these are chaotic times for the Argos. Last month, they fired GM Jim Barker then days later head coach Scott Milanovich resigned to join the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.

That left an untested Zimmerman to lead Toronto into free agency without knowing the direction the future GM and head coach will take in 2017. But the decision not to re-sign one of the team’s few remaining proven offensive performers was stunning.

Whitaker figured changes were coming this off-season but didn’t expect anything to this extent.

“I know it didn’t seem like it on the field but I figured we were building something really good,” Whitaker said. “Things in the locker-room were getting better . . . and I could see it developing more in the next year or so.”

Team cohesion was certainly a strength in Montreal from 2008-12 under head coach Marc Trestman. Whitaker was part of an Alouettes squad that won four East Division titles and went to three Grey Cups (winning twice) over that span.

Trestman has been linked as a potential Argos head coach. They’re speaking with former Montreal GM Jim Popp, who hired Trestman as the Alouettes coach, about their vacant general manager job.

“If that was to happen (Popp-Trestman reuniting with Argos), that would be amazing for the city of Toronto because that’s a dynamic duo there,” Whitaker said. “It’s a dangerous duo, too.

“(Montreal) is pretty much where I learned how to play pro football under Marc Trestman’s wing. Jim Popp brought me there and Scott was the offensive co-ordinator.”

Whitaker has been a durable performer during his two seasons in Toronto, appearing in 33-of-36 regular-season contests. He ran for 1,645 yards on 307 carries (5.4-yard average) with six TDs while adding 134 catches for 989 yards and seven TDs.

Whitaker battled injuries over his six seasons in Montreal but was part of two Grey Cup-winning teams (2009-10). He also rushed for a CFL-high 1,381 yards in 2011.

Whitaker feels he’s a much smarter player now than he was early in his career, thanks to the influences of quarterback Anthony Calvillo and running back Avon Colbourne, both former Alouettes teammates.

“When you first get into the league it’s, ‘Let me make a big play. I’ve got to show off so the coaches like me,’ ” Whitaker said. “Being behind Avon for a couple of years, watching him play and learning how to be a pro as a running back, I like to think I’m a much smarter football player.

“Being around Anthony and watching him prepare, I take that same approach as a running back. I watch film, I know when it’s time to run, I know when it’s time to stay in bounds, get out of bounds or just get the first down. And if there’s a blitz coming, I know which guy to pick up.”

Traditionally, GMs take a cautious approach with running backs after they turn 30. But Whitaker said experience has taught him how to take better care of himself and points to Messam, 31, of Brampton, Ont., as another veteran runner getting it done.

“Jerome led the league in rushing and was the Canadian player of the year and he’s up there with me as one of the oldest running backs,” Whitaker said. “I feel like I’m just hitting my peak now.

“I definitely still have some juice left.”

Experience has also taught Whitaker the value of patience when it comes to the business of professional football. However, that’s easier said than done when a wife and two young sons under the age of three are also in the mix.

“The difficult part for me, personally, is I have a family now and whatever is going on affects them.” he said. “Before, it was just me and whatever happened, happened.

“But for me, as far as the waiting game and business part, that’s something I’m used to . . . you just have to keep working and grinding.”

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press