Cole: Confounding Ricky Ray trade made Argos legit
Edmonton still ringing after most lopsided deal in CFL history
TORONTO — Full disclosure here: When the Edmonton Eskimos traded Ricky Ray to the Toronto Argonauts a little under a year ago, the inquiry light began to flash in the home office of this column.
And the smoke alarm went off. Also the B.S. detector.
It made no sense. Trade a proven star quarterback to a struggling franchise in desperate need of one, for a rookie kicker (Grant Shaw), a draft pick and a proven non-star quarterback (Steven Jyles)? The Canadian Football League had to be in on it, trying to bolster the Argos for the 100th Grey Cup season at the expense of the team best able to weather a crappy season or two.
That was the theory.
And Argos CEO Chris Rudge admitted Wednesday the reaction was not totally unreasonable.
“When you see a trade of that magnitude that seems to defy rational thinking, it’s naturally going to precipitate that type of speculation,” he said, fixing a beady eye on your agent. “Yours and many others’.
“And now the subsequent speculation that Eric Tillman did it because he could come to Toronto and be the general manager ...”
That last part was shot to hell when it turned out that Tillman just never had much regard for Ricky Ray’s qualities and would be unlikely to trade a QB he didn’t fancy to a market he hoped to inherit from Argos GM Jim Barker.
Then there was the idea that the CFL would ever put itself in such obvious conflict of interest ... other than, say, having David Braley own two teams who could easily have met in this Sunday’s Grey Cup game.
But that’s another column.
“You know how this works,” said Barker, taking his shot at the conspiracy theory. “Eric got fired. You don’t think if somebody had come to him and said, ‘You’ve got to make this trade for the good of the league’ that nobody would have heard about it? This league’s too small for a conspiracy like that. You can’t do it.”
“I think it’s an insult to Jim,” said Rudge. “You know, when things go wrong, the guy at the top takes the blame, and deservedly so. When things go right, he should get the credit.”
And things have gone very, very right.
Ray has the moribund Argonauts a win away from a championship, but more importantly, said Barker, he has already “turned the ship.
“You look at it now, and go ‘wow!’ ” Barker said. “But if you think about it, Ricky’d had five different offensive co-ordinators in five years and that wears on a quarterback. And, you know this, there was a huge faction of people there that felt they needed to move on.
“But we pored over film of both Ricky and Henry (Burris) and all you saw from Ricky was him getting hammered and getting back up and throwing dimes.
“Scott (head coach Milanovich) said: ‘This guy in this offence will be unstoppable once he learns it.’ And it took him about three-quarters of a season, but he knows it now and that’s the franchise-turner.
“He is the guy. I wouldn’t trade him for any quarterback in the league right now. Not one.”
Milanovich, the one-time Calgary backup quarterback and assistant coach who was on Marc Trestman’s Montreal staff as offensive co-ordinator, got the Toronto job 10 days before Barker closed the deal. He watched the same film Barker did of Ray playing against the Stampeders and concluded: “Ricky still has it. He’s the guy we want.
“Was I surprised (he was available)? Yeah,” Milanovich said. “On trades, I don’t believe any of them until they’re actually signed.”
The deal still seems indefensible from the Edmonton end, but Ray said Wednesday he understood it ... sort of.
“I knew when (Tillman) took the job that I probably wasn’t his favourite guy,” he said. “Just the style that I play — looking at his track record, he likes a more athletic type of guy, a guy that can get out of the pocket and make plays.
“And I didn’t have any history with him. We’d never won a playoff game or anything together, so he didn’t owe me anything. He just said he was going in a different direction and that was about it.
“I don’t know what happened in the room. Eric Tillman did tell me later on it was 99 per cent his decision. Regardless, I don’t think about why and what-if.”
We now know, courtesy of an interview with Eskimo head coach Kavis Reed, the coach was dead set against the trade, warning Tillman the club could be set back “five to 10 years” if it couldn’t find a ready replacement for the franchise quarterback.
Barker said it could have gone the other way.
“The trade worked out for us,” said the GM. “If Ricky gets hurt the first game, I’m probably the guy who’s out of a job. That’s the way this business is.
“I worked my ass off for that trade. It was two years of work. We brought Steven Jyles in here and built him up. We made a move on Cleo Lemon halfway through the (2011 season) and when Steven Jyles was healthy, we played him. To see what we had and let the league see what we had. That gave us the opportunity to make this deal. And if it hadn’t been (Ray), we’d have gone after Henry (Burris). Would we have gotten him? Who knows?
“I stayed persistent and Eric did what he thought was in the best interests of his club. Eric’s had a philosophy that’s worked for him in the places where he’s been. And Edmonton knew about that philosophy, so I couldn’t understand how people were shocked.”
A year later, though, it still defies rational thinking. Maybe one day, if that draft pick turns into a Blake Marshall, or Grant Shaw becomes Dave Cutler, it will all look different. Maybe a year from now, those hanging passes Ray throws just hard enough to complete, tempting defensive backs to undercut routes, won’t quite arrive in time.
But Barker thinks otherwise. He has Ray under contract for one more year and he believes there is plenty left in the tank after that.
“When I was hired here, it was to put together a long-term winner. Yes, 2012 was important, but that was not the task that was set out to me,” he said.
“I do believe Ricky understands. It’s not about going to a city he’d like to live in, necessarily, or $20,000 more. It’s about being in a place you can be successful.
“It’s like a coach. I mean, Don Matthews was a great coach, but he also had Doug Flutie. He picked his spots and that, as a coach, is what you want.
“As a GM, now we’ve got Scott and we’ve got Ricky and I’m thinking: ‘This thing is going to be good for a long time.’ ”
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