TORONTO - It hasn't taken Ricky Ray long to make a positive impact on the Toronto Argonauts.
Toronto made huge headlines in December when it acquired the veteran quarterback in a blockbuster deal with the Edmonton Eskimos for journeyman Steven Jyles, kicker Grant Shaw and a 2012 first-round draft pick. After early struggles, Ray has shown the poise and polish of a nine-year veteran and helped transform the Argos into East Division contenders under rookie head coach Scott Milanovich.
Through five weeks, Toronto (3-2) is not only tied with Hamilton atop the East Division but in a five-way tie for the league's best record. Heady stuff for an Argos squad that finished last in the conference last year and missed the CFL playoffs for the third time in four years.
Ray has settled nicely into Milanovich's offence, having completed 69 per cent of his passes and standing second overall in CFL passing with 1,542 yards — just 91 yards behind Montreal's Anthony Calvillo. The two-time Grey Cup champion has twice as many touchdown passes (eight) to interceptions (four).
Jyles' transition in Edmonton hasn't been nearly as dramatic. He has completed 56.3 per cent of his passes for 993 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions although the Eskimos are among the clubs with a 3-2 mark.
But Edmonton is heavily riding a stout defence that's allowing a league-low 15.8 points per game and has a CFL-high 14 sacks. The Eskimos' offence is ranked last in total yards (308.8 per game) and passing (239.6 yards) and second-last in scoring (22.2 points per game) and time of possession (18 minutes, 46 seconds).
Ray's presence has forced opposing defensive co-ordinators to gameplan pressure schemes aimed at hurrying him and making him feel uncomfortable. Despite having thrown 181 passes, Ray has only been sacked eight times.
With Ray in tow, Toronto leads the CFL in time of possession (over 31 minutes per game) and is second in total offence and passing yards. With the Argos being able to sustain drives and limit turnovers, that has taken a lot of pressure off the defence and special teams to come up with big plays.
Yet both have thrived this year as Toronto's defence — under new co-ordinator Chris Jones — is allowing the second-fewest yards and special-teams dynamo Chad Owens has amassed a league-leading 1,291 all-purpose yards.
Owens has also flourished offensively with Ray, having registered 28 catches for 392 yards and three touchdowns, the latter two both team highs. And the three TD catches are significant considering Owens didn't have a touchdown reception at all last year.
If there has been a knock against Ray and Co., it has been an inability to cap more drives with touchdowns. Toronto is ranked sixth in TDs scored (11) but has booted a league-high 16 field goals.
Ray and the Argos will face a stiff test Monday when they host the Grey Cup-champion B.C. Lions. Montreal visits Winnipeg on Friday night in the only other league game.
Some other musings heading into this week's action:
- Toronto's 23-20 road win over Montreal on Friday was the second-most watched sports event in Canada behind coverage of the London Summer Games opening ceremony.
The Toronto-Montreal contest drew 874,000 viewers on TSN and RDS. A whopping 6.4 million viewers through the Consortium Network took in the spectacle that was the Olympics' opening ceremony but the football game was the most-watched CFL contest so far this season.
- The CFL might be a passing league but there's little difference between the league's top rusher and receiver. Toronto's Cory Boyd has run for a league-best 424 yards on 74 carries while Calgary's Nik Lewis is tops among receivers with 38 catches for 444 yards. Saskatchewan's Kory Sheets has scored a league-high six rushing TDs while Lewis leads receivers with six touchdown grabs.
- Parity is indeed live and well in the CFL with five teams tied for the best overall record at 3-2. Half of the 20 games played to date have been decided by four or fewer points with the winning margin in nine being by three or fewer points. West Division clubs do sport a 6-4 mark in head-to-head contests with their Eastern brethren.
- Seven kick-return touchdowns have been scored so far, one less than all of last season. Four have come on punt returns with the other three being missed field goals taken back for TDs. Hamilton's Chris Williams has three return touchdowns — two on punts, the other on a missed field goal.
- Hamilton rookie punter Josh Bartel is adjusting well to Canadian football. The native Australian and former Australian Rules Football star has a respectable 43.3-yard average. And he's earned it, having punted a league-high 39 times.
THIS 'N THAT: B.C. has yet to lose a fumble this season . . . Calgary tailback Jon Cornish is averaging just 3.8 yards per carry this season. He posted a 7.3-yard average in 2011. Also last year, Montreal's Jamel Richardson was the CFL's leading receiver with 112 catches for 1,777 yards and 11 TDs. So far in 2012, Richardson has 22 receptions for 300 yards and no touchdowns . . . Hamilton quarterback Henry Burris has thrown four touchdown passes in three of his last four games and has a league-best 15 TD strikes.