TORONTO — The Edmonton Eskimos traded away the face of their franchise Monday, gambling that their future is brighter with better Canadian talent and a quarterback who can beat a team with his legs.
The Eskimos sent nine-year veteran Ricky Ray to Toronto for fellow quarterback Steven Jyles, Canadian kicker Grant Shaw and the Argonauts first pick – No. 2 overall – in the 2012 CFL Canadian College Draft.
“We’re getting younger at quarterback, a mobility component and emphasis on Canadian content,” Eskimos GM Eric Tillman said at a news conference at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton.
Tillman said it was difficult to deal Ray, but noted the quarterback is 32 years old and Toronto was determined in its pursuit. Tillman added the Argos not only initiated trade talks but twice sweetened the pot, prompting the Eskimos to begin asking some hard questions about their offence.
Tillman said while Ray has made his mark in the CFL with pinpoint accuracy on short-to-medium passes – Ray has a career completion average exceeding 66 per cent – he and coach Kavis Reed want to stretch opposing defences more in 2012.
“When (the defence) has to honour the perimeter, it puts pressure on the defensive ends and defensive backs and opens up some inside running lanes,” Tillman said. “So from a style standpoint, where we’re trying to go in the long term this is a step (in that direction).”
Ray wasn’t immediately available for comment. The Argos will officially introduce their newest addition Wednesday morning in Toronto.
“I would like to thank the Edmonton Eskimos and their fans for nine years of good memories and for giving me the opportunity to play for such a good organization and win a couple of championships,” Ray said in a statement.
Reed said Ray was “disappointed” to be leaving Edmonton but understood the nature of the deal. Reed added he’s onside with Tillman’s decision.
“As a coach you always look at the big picture and what’s right for this locker-room and this football team,” said Reed. “I believe the pieces we’ll be getting will in the long term probably make us a better football team.”
But it’s hard to not feel Toronto got the better of the deal. The Argos certainly got the best player in Ray, who is not only a proven commodity having thrown for over 4,500 yards six times in his career but is also very durable, having missed just six regular-season games over nine CFL seasons.
Jyles, meanwhile, has only made 20 career starts over six CFL seasons and has thrown nearly as many interceptions (29) as interceptions (31). His best regular-season campaign was 2010 with Winnipeg when he had 2,804 yards passing in 16 games (11 being starts).
And Jyles won’t be handed the Eskimos’ starting job. Tillman said he will have to compete in training camp for the No. 1 position against veteran Kerry Joseph and youngsters Matt Nichols and Eric Ward.
Shaw, an Edmonton native, was Toronto’s second-round pick in 2010 and served as a punter and kicker during his two seasons with the Argos. He joins an Eskimos team that already boasts two kickers in veterans Damon Duval and Derek Schiavone, although Schiavone is scheduled to become a free agent in February.
Acquiring the No. 2 pick, though, is solid for Edmonton because this year’s draft class is considered to be a deep one. Having the early selection will give the Eskimos a great opportunity to secure a blue-chip prospect.
Argos GM Jim Barker said he pursued Ray aggressively because he feels his best football is yet to come. And that’s important for a Toronto team that finished last in the East Division with a 6-12 record and missed the CFL playoffs for the third time in four years.
“No, I didn’t think we’d get him,” Barker said. “When it started, we were actually talking about a lot of different players and I threw out a scenario (to Tillman) that involved Ricky Ray.
“It went back and fourth … and then in negotiations the price would go up, obviously. I stayed persistent after it, there’s no doubt about that.”
Ray has spent his entire CFL career with Edmonton, leading the Eskimos to two Grey Cup titles over that span.
The trade was Barker’s first since relinquishing head-coaching duties to concentrate on being Toronto’s general manager. Barker hired Scott Milanovich, the former Montreal Alouettes’ offensive co-ordinator, to assume the head coach’s job.
The acquisition of Ray gives Toronto a much better fit under centre for the type of offence Milanovich likes to run. Veteran quarterback Anthony Calvillo, very much a drop-back passer, anchored an Alouettes offensive unit that helped the team win consecutive Grey Cup titles in 2009 and ’10.
The six-foot-three, 210-pound Ray is a lot like Calvillo and more of a pure passer, while Jyles’ best asset is his mobility and ability to use his feet to escape pressure and extend plays.
“The transition from what Scott was doing in Montreal to what he can do now here won’t be as drastic as what it would’ve been,” Barker said. “The biggest thing is you’ve got an experienced guy who has won Grey Cups and steps in and is your starting quarterback.
“Scott and I both felt to have a veteran quarterback with a rookie head coach, you can’t put a pricetag on that. We’re getting a guy who has shown year in and year out that he’s going to be near the top in the league in touchdowns, completion percentage, quarterback rating and all those things. He suits what our new head coach wants to do.”
Ray is one of the CFL’s top passers, having amassed over 40,000 career yards with a completion average of 66.8 per cent with 210 touchdowns and just 130 interceptions..
Ray also immediately improves a Toronto offence that struggled this year, finishing at or near the bottom of several offensive categories.
And with the Argos hosting the 2012 Grey Cup – the 100th anniversary of the CFL’s title game – the club desperately needs to prove to its fanbase that it will indeed contend for a championship.
Tillman said his offence needs an overhaul as well. He said that despite making it to West Division final before losing to the B.C. Lions, his team was sixth in both points scored and first downs in 2011.
Ray gives Toronto its first bona fide quarterback since veteran Damon Allen retired following the ’07 season. But he comes at a cost as Ray is one of the CFL’s highest-paid players, having multiple years remaining on a deal that reportedly pays him in the neighbourhood of $400,000 annually.
Ray finished third in CFL passing this season with 4,594 yards, registering 24 TD strikes against 11 interceptions as Edmonton finished tied with B.C. and Calgary for the CFL’s best record at 11-7.
Toronto had re-signed Jyles to a long-term deal earlier this month. The six-foot-one, 202-pound Jyles began his CFL career with Edmonton in 2006 before being traded to the Saskatchewan Roughriders prior to the 2008 season.
He was traded to Toronto from Winnipeg in March 2011 but spent the first half of the season on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. Jyles was the Argos’ starter for the second half of the season after incumbent Cleo Lemon was released.
In eight starts, Jyles completed 124 of 218 passes for 1,430 yards with seven touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
“We signed Steven Jyles thinking he was going to be our quarterback and I believe he will be a great quarterback in our league,” Barker said. “But with a young head coach I thought we had a chance to give him a guy that has won two Grey Cups and has been one of the premiere players in this league and is coming into the prime of his career and
his best years are coming up.”