Argos QB Ricky Ray in rhythm at right time
By FRANK ZICARELLI, QMI Agency
|Argonauts quarterback Ricky Ray takes a snap during practice at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ont., Nov. 8, 2012. (DAVE ABEL/QMI Agency)
TORONTO - Coincidence, circumstance, a confluence of different factors, whatever one prefers to cite, Ricky Ray has evolved to the point where no read is foreign, no throw daunting and no excuses if the Argos come up short in Sunday’s Eastern semifinal against his former Edmonton team.
For much of the year, Ray has looked a little uncomfortable in a new offence, a style of play rookie head coach Scott Milanovich basically brought to Toronto from his days in Montreal.
A lot was thrown at Ray, a lot expected, but far too often the offence struggled, especially when drives inside the opponent’s red zone would lead to turnovers or field goals instead of touchdowns.
During his time in Edmonton, a place where Ray would lead the Esks to two Grey Cup titles, he and Fred Stamps pretty much made the deep corner route a playbook staple.
In the Milanovich offence, deep throws are entertained, but the core fundamentals involved quick reads, quick throws and being decisive in a quarterback’s progression.
A lot has been made of Ray’s four-game injury absence, a time of inactivity Ray believes allowed him to better see the entire offence and the opponent’s defence from a different perspective.
For those inclined to draw upon numbers to make a case or argument, there’s no more compelling a body of work than the two games Ray played the moment he was medically cleared to play, a two-game stretch that saw Ray throw for eight touchdowns, one interception, a combined 683 yards and a quarterback rating that exceeded 141.0 in each outing.
“I think a little too much has been mentioned,’’ said Milanovich, referring to Ray’s injury absence. “He did mention it to me, but I think it probably would have happened.”
The it Milanovich expressed is the success Ray has had in his return from a left knee sprain suffered in the first quarter of a loss to the host Als on Sept. 21.
And now that he’s had a week off to further rest his knee, Ray enters Sunday’s meeting in arguably the best shape, physically and mentally, of his brief run in Double Blue.
The knee brace Ray wears does limit his mobility, but the pocket passer was never known for his feet.
Admittedly, there were two occasions in Regina, Ray last’s appearance in a game, where a healthy knee could have moved the chains.
“He’s throwing the ball great,’’ Milanovich said of this week’s preparations. “It’s coming off his hands. He’s going to be in good shape.”
As long as Ray gets time, the Argos have just a good a chance to advance, even if the Eskimos play error-free football.
In a quarterback league such as the CFL, no team can win a game, let alone in the post-season, without solid play from its leader.
Cleo Lemon did lead the Argos to their last playoff win, but that win in Hamilton was such a fluke that only the misguided would even try to compare Lemon with Ray.
Milanovich believes the turning point arrived in the aftermath of a home loss to Edmonton on Aug. 27.
“It started after that Edmonton game,’’ Milanovich said. “And you really noticed it after he came back (from the knee injury). His rhythm is so good, his accuracy, it looked like he had played in this offence his whole life.
“I think it was a gradual process, but he certainly picked it up after he came back from his injury.”
Milanovich admits it took him longer to figure out what Ray liked to do, the shuffling of bodies on the offensive line, the uncertainty at running back, a position that saw three players line up as starters, and injuries to the receiving unit to account for Ray’s lack of rhythm.
When he joined Marc Trestman in Montreal, Milanovich recalls a time when so much was thrown at Anthony Calvillo, whom Ray contacted when Ray’s trade to Toronto was engineered.
“I threw everything we used in Montreal at Ricky,’’ Milanovich said. “We wanted to see what would stick, what he was good at. We added some of the things he liked to that package because we knew it was going to change.”
The most obvious is the deep ball, an area many in three-down football insist separates Ray from virtually every quarterback who has played in the CFL.
The challenge on Sunday is that Edmonton is going to play zone and force Ray to throw underneath.
But when shots down the field are available, you know Milanovich and Ray will take them.
It’s the ultimate chess match, a game that really is the essence of football.
And now that Ray has his A game, it’s up to his former team to match him.