For longtime fans of the Toronto Argonauts, this week's trade that brought Ricky Ray to Hogtown must have felt a tad familiar.
A blockbuster deal for a star quarterback is the oldest call in the Argo off-season playbook, one repeated in the acquisitions of Matt Dunigan, Tracy Ham, Kent Austin, Doug Flutie and Kerry Joseph, among others, over the years.
Sometimes it's worked out and sometimes it hasn't. But when you're a franchise that's gone more than 40 years without developing its own star quarterback, (the last one being Joe Theisman) there's not much choice but to go shopping.
Still, there's good reason that Argo fans were pinching themselves on Monday at news that a star quarterback who is still in his prime (although Jim Barker's suggestion that his best years are ahead of him is a bit of a stretch) was available without Toronto having to give up any of its own best players.
At age 32, Ricky Ray is coming off his sixth season of throwing for more than 4,500 yards, throwing 24 touchdown passes against just 11 interceptions and once again proving to be among the most durable quarterbacks in the game.
He's the best pure passer to come to Toronto since Doug Flutie and even brings with him some star power, something the Argos have desperately lacked during the parade of Michael Bishop, Kerry Joseph, Cody Pickett, Cleo Lemon and Steven Jyles in recent years.
The Argos have now traded away their first-round draft pick for the second year in a row. And Ray's salary will make it difficult to compete for free agent talent come February. But for a team that has finished dead last, or second last, at throwing the football for three consecutive seasons, the addition of a seasoned passer is like a cool glass of water in the desert.
The Eskimos side of this deal is a lot more subtle, with Eskimos general manager Eric Tillman dialing this one up straight out of his own off-season playbook.
It was Tillman who dealt both Austin and Joseph to the Argos from B.C. and Saskatchewan, respectively, both fresh off Grey Cup wins. Neither player came close to repeating in Toronto what he'd done before.
Tillman generally shuns large contracts and savours cheap talent, especially if it's Canadian.
After putting together an 11-7 season in his first year in Edmonton, there's not a lot of pressure on Tillman right away (as opposed to Barker coming off a 6-12 season in Toronto), which gives him the opportunity to look a little further down the road from his end of the deal.
It's quite possible the Eskimos will take a step backwards in 2012 by parting ways with Ray. But in shedding his salary and adding a young Canadian along with a high draft pick, Tillman has set his team up for this winter's free agent market as well as the opportunity to re-sign much of his team's core players when it's time to renew them after the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
The gamble comes in being able to fill the void he's created at quarterback with one of Jyles, or youngsters Matt Nichols and Eric Ward.
There's little in Jyles performance over the past two seasons with Winnipeg and Toronto that suggests he's a star in the making. And at age 29, he's not really a kid anymore. (Ray had won two Grey Cups and spent a season with the New York Jets by the time he was 29.)
But when Tillman traded Joseph after Saskatchewan's Grey Cup win in 2007, he believed it was Jyles – not Darian Durant – who was mostly likely to take over the starting role in Saskatchewan. Then-Rider head coach Ken Miller preferred Durant and was proven correct, but Tillman never lost his eye for Jyles.
If Jyles is a bit of an enigma to this point in his career, what's behind him is a complete mystery in Ward and Nichols. (38-year-old Kerry Joseph may be back but is a stop-gap at best.)
The Eskimos are expected to sign former Oregon and Ole Miss quarterback Jeremiah Masoli this off-season, but it's impossible to predict how that might turn out.
But with Ray out of the way, the young quarterbacks will play and gain experience and the Eskimos appear willing to live with whatever hiccups that may bring along the way. And Tillman is betting the end result will make the Eskimos a power and keep them that way long after Ricky Ray's best days are well behind him.
Like the Argos making a trade for a star quarterback, it's a play call that's worked for him before.
The Conspiracy Theorists
It wasn't long after word of Monday's trade leaked that suggestions were being made that the move of Ricky Ray to Toronto was somehow engineered by the CFL league office to prop up the Argonauts for a season in which they are playing host to the 100th Grey Cup. It was noted that at November's Grey Cup, commissioner Mark Cohon had said that the Toronto market was the league's number-one concern and the league was contributing a $1 million marketing effort this season to raise the league's profile in its biggest market. Then within a month of that pronouncement, one of the league's biggest stars arrives Toronto in what some consider a lopsided trade.
That's interesting, but ridiculous.
For starters, in a league of competitive general managers, none is moreso than Tillman. The notion that he would agree to make a deal that he didn't believe was in the best interests of the Eskimos is preposterous. Like the rest of the league's GM's, Tillman would rather eat dirt that make a deal that benefited another team above his own.
And the suggestion that Tillman would never have traded Ray without being forced to do so by the league is shattered by the fact he very nearly dealt him to Hamilton a year ago.
Last winter, Tillman had a deal in place to ship Ray and his $515,000 per season contract to the Tiger-Cats, one that was held up because Hamilton first wanted Ray's contract to be restructured. Ray agreed to take pay cut of more than $100,000 per season. But upon re-doing the deal, Ray's agent, Ken Staninger, asked for assurance that Ray would not be immediately traded out of town. Tillman kept his word and the deal to Hamilton died.
The Tiger-Cats were again at the table this time around before Tillman pulled the trigger on the deal to Toronto, but offered a less appealing package built around the rights to former Sherbrooke University receiver Sam Giguere, who has spent three seasons in the NFL but remains an unsigned free agent.
So like almost all conspiracy theories in sports, the CFL-forced trading of Ricky Ray to Toronto is pure bunk.
Austin Stays Put
It was hardly surprising when former Saskatchewan head coach Kent Austin officially withdrew his name from consideration for head coaching vacancies in Hamilton and Saskatchewan this week. The only puzzling part was what took him so long to do so.
For at least two weeks, speculation had mounted (mildly in Hamilton, feverishly in Saskatchewan) that Austin might be available if the price was right, a notion he did nothing to dispel by remaining silent.
His removal from consideration means the Roughriders and Tiger-Cats are down to a similar cast of candidates, a list headlined by Calgary offensive co-ordinator Dave Dickenson, Hamilton defensive co-ordinator Corey Chamblin, Toronto special teams coach Mike O'Shea and Winnipeg defensive co-ordinator Tim Burke – all of whom have interviewed for both vacancies. (The Ticats also interviewed running backs coach Rick Worman and the Roughriders have spoken to some as-of-yet unidentified coaches in the NCAA with CFL backgrounds, as well as both Richie Hall and Craig Dickenson from their current staff.)
What stands out among O'Shea, Dickenson and Chamblin, widely perceived to be the leading candidates, are their ages of 41, 38, and 34, respectively. It may be that the days of recycling head coaches or anointing longtime assistants is over, with teams seeking younger head coaches who can relate to today's players.
O'Shea has two years of coaching experience, Dickenson three years and Chamblin six, but only five in the CFL.
Are each of them ready? In one or more cases, we're likely about to find out.