November 3, 2012
Ray provides intrigue in Argos-Esks showdown
By FRANK ZICARELLI, QMI Agency
The wait is now over, the permutations and possibilities no longer in question, the stage now set.
It's highly doubtful Edmonton's arrival for the Nov. 11 East semifinal will attract the kind of audience a team such as Hamilton or Saskatchewan would draw, but the biggest storyline is as big as it could possibly get without resorting to fiction.
Ricky Ray versus the Eskimos, a team that traded its two-time Grey Cup quarterback, a team that twice beat Ray and his Argos during the regular season.
The trade will be revisited, the merits of securing cap space debated and the state of Edmonton's quarterback landscape put under the microscope as the countdown to playoff football begins.
In Edmonton, there is no clear-cut incumbent who will line up under centre, as it is in Argoland.
In Kerry Joseph, the Esks have a veteran who came off the bench to beat the Argos during Edmonton's one and only visit to Toronto in late August.
In Matt Nichols, the Esks have an emerging talent who has yet to take a snap under the glare of the post-season.
One-sided may be too weak a word to describe the advantage the Argos have, but at the same time Edmonton has clearly shown to devise a scheme to neutralize Ray.
In the season opener, which was played in Edmonton, Ray was warmly welcomed back, admittedly uneasy at the emotions tugging at his heartstrings.
The Argos would lose the game, but it was hardly Ray's fault.
Twice the visitors were denied touchdowns, when a perfectly thrown ball to Chad Owens was dropped in the back of the end, the second on an even better thrown ball to Spencer Watt, whose major was called back on an holding fraction.
What the Eskimos did was basically play a lot of zone, forcing the Argos to go underneath and wrap up.
It was a defensive clinic executed to near perfection, but there were moments the Argos simply had to seize and they failed, in part because the Argos were getting in their own way.
When the teams met in Toronto, Ray, in a nutshell, forced throws into windows that required check downs or throw-aways to avoid turnovers.
Twice Ray would be picked off, including one in the red zone J.C. Sherritt would intercept in zone coverage.
Now that Ray has distanced himself, emotionally and mentally, from his Edmonton roots, he's now better prepared to play his former team with a shot of advancing to the East final in Montreal, where one more win puts the Argos in the Grey Cup.
At no point during his time in Toronto has Ray looked as sharp as he has since returning from a knee injury, posting sublime numbers, looking in complete control of the offence and making plays when a game had to be won in Regina, a victory that assured the Argos of playing host to a playoff game for the first time since 2007.
Unless the Eskimos reinvent the defensive wheel, it's not likely Ray will see something so foreign that he won't be able to make the necessary in-game adjustments.
A pocket quarterback such as Ray is rendered ineffective when looks in the secondary are disguised, when pressure forces quick throws, when turnovers are committed.
The Argos' offensive line will be tested, but in Ray it's no longer necessary to hold blocks longer given his release and ability to deliver the football to the right receiver.
If Ray continues to play at his current level, the Argos will win.
It's that simple.
If the Eskimos can somehow make Ray impatient, Edmonton will win.
On the surface, an Argos-Esks playoff matchup in a non-Grey Cup backdrop evokes nothing, especially in a season that saw Edmonton lose its final three games to close out the season.
A date with Hamilton had the potential to draw 30,000, but the Ticats simply did not deserve to appear in the post-season and their fate was fitting.
Saskatchewan's fans travel so well that Rogers Centre could have seen yet another wave of Rider Nation.
There's nothing sexy about an Argos-Esks date in a CFL crossover, but the Ray factor is appetizing, the key factor in deciding the eventual outcome.
Naturally, field position and winning the turnover battle are important, as they always are in any football game, let alone playoff football.
The CFL spotlight will now shine its brightest, intensifying each week until the 100th Grey Cup gets staged on Nov. 25.
The spotlight is clearly on Ray and how he handles it will decide how far these Argos are capable of going.
It won't be easy because Edmonton just might have Ray's number.