Inside the Ricky Ray deal

Argos quarterback Ricky Ray smiles after being introduced to the media at the CN Tower in Toronto,...

Argos quarterback Ricky Ray smiles after being introduced to the media at the CN Tower in Toronto, Ont., Dec. 14, 2011. (MIKE CASSESE/Reuters)

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:01 AM ET

TORONTO - When Eric Tillman relented in his second conversation with Jim Barker, admitting that Ricky Ray was, in fact, available, it got Barker to thinking: What’s wrong with the quarterback?

This is how general managers play their game for real. They reach beyond their means and when the other side surprisingly says yes, the instant response is suspicion.

If they want to trade Ray, what’s not right with him? Barker thought for a moment or two, discussed it with his new head coach, Scott Milanovich, and then the two spent the better part of a week researching Ray, watching film, asking questions, talking as quietly as possible to people in what management like to call due diligence.

“It’s amazing it didn’t get out,” said Barker. “But we spent the better part of a week doing our research. We want to make sure we were doing the right thing.”

The first phone call to Tillman, made less than two weeks ago, did not start with a conversation about Ray. It was the usual general manager shmooze. They talked about this. They talked about that. They threw around some possibilities. And then Barker asked the question: What about Ricky Ray?

“I’m not going to tell you what Eric said,” Barker said. “Although I’m not sure you can print it, anyhow.”

That was phone call No. 1. By the time the call ended, Barker had a sense Ray was available. After hanging up the cell phone, he went back to dinner with his coach and asked Milanovich: What would you think if I told you I think we can get Ricky Ray? Milanovich’s answer was a big wide smile.

In phone call No. 2, the real dancing with the Edmonton Eskimos began. GM Barker made a proposal, GM Tillman countered with his. The two went back and forth with several ideas. The truth: Barker wanted to keep Steven Jyles and still make the trade. Tillman would not hear of it.

By the end of the second conversation, Barker knew he had a chance at getting Ray. Tillman seemed to be onside. The problem in Edmonton: Convincing head coach Kavis Reed that trading Ray made sense.

In the third conversation with Tillman, Barker wanted to pump his fist because he knew how close he was getting to the quarterback. The last time the Argos had a quarterback with these kind of credentials, they won a Grey Cup. He could feel he was getting close to a deal — and as reluctantly as Tillman may have played it, Barker knew he was on his way.

“The thing you worry about when you’re dealing with Eric is how shrewd he is,” said Barker. “He’s done this before. He’s traded Kent Austin away, traded Kerry Joseph away, in what looked to be the prime of their careers. Now he’s doing the same with Ricky Ray. A part of you wonders, what does he know that we don’t know. But when you take a step back, and see what we’re getting, and what they’re getting, I think you can understand this.”

Actually, you can’t. The Argos are getting a sure thing quarterback, one of only three in the CFL. The Eskimos are getting a high Canadian draft pick, an inexperienced kicker with a monster leg and a quarterback who looks like Tarzan and plays like Jane. “Eric’s done this before,” said Barker. “And he’s always won the deal.”

In all, there were five phone calls of negotiation, 10 days of text messages being exchanged, and a lot of wondering, worrying and excitement. “Once Kavis was comfortable with making the deal, we knew we were close. I just kept after them,” said Barker. “And we tweaked it, and tweaked it until we got to where we were both comfortable.

“They bailed at least twice, maybe three times on it. This was a difficult deal to make. It’s a difficult move for them, a ballsy move. It takes a lot of courage to do this.”

Barker was criticized last year for trading a first-round pick for Jyles, and then including a first-round pick for Ray. But without the first trade, he said, the second trade doesn’t happen. “If we don’t have Steven Jyles, there’s no deal. And if I don’t think it makes us better, I wouldn’t do it,” said Barker.

“When we first realized we could get Ricky Ray, and then getting him, I’m not sure what the word is. Stunned. Excited. I know Scott’s feeling great about this.

“He sees Ricky the way he views Anthony Calvillo. Anthony was 32 when he started coaching him. He hit his stride in his last years. We see the same thing happening with Ricky. This is for now, and this is for the future.”

In the end, it was about getting a quarterback for the Argos, about money for the Eskimos.

At $400,000 a year, the Eskimos deemed Ray too rich for their blood. They could have kept him, but at the expense of having little financial flexibility going forward, especially with half a roster nearing free agency a year from now.

The Argos had just signed Jyles to a new contract, paid him a large bonus which worked on last season’s cap. In essence, they paid Jyles $75,000 to leave town, a nice going away present.

Ricky Ray didn’t come cheap in the end. Franchise quarterbacks, in a league with only three, never do.

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/simmonsteve


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