Ricky Ray chuckled a bit when asked if he wasn’t a bit like a rich guy who opens the garage door and then has to choose which in his fleet of luxury cars to take for a spin.
“We’ve got speed guys, we’ve got shifty guys,” said Ray, touting the weaponry in the Argos’ arsenal. “We’ve got backs that can run tough, backs that can make guys miss in the open field, so we’ve got a little bit of everything.”
The 2014 Toronto Argonauts’ offence is blessed with variety, as well as some impressive depth of talent, too. That garage is a big one with gems, it seems, filling it from corner to corner. Some run smoothly. Some still need tinkering before they’ll hit on all cylinders and that’s a fact that Ray, in his third year at the Toronto helm, would like to underline.
Plenty of raucous joy rides are forecast for this Argonauts’ offence, with the league’s 2013 all-star quarterback at the wheel. They should have them, too, although real performance driving might not be evident right away as the team’s rubber hits the regular season road on Thursday night in Winnipeg.
“Obviously, the one thing you want to do as a player is try not to make the same mistake twice,” said Ray, explaining that some of the new offensive recruits are still wrapping their heads around their specific jobs. “Hopefully we can learn and grow and just become better and be playing our best football at the end of the year.”
There’s the thing about this edition of the Argos’ offence. While there are returning veterans who know the system very well – vets like Chad Owens, Andre Durie, Curtis Steele and Jason Barnes – there are newcomers who need the repetition of game play in order to smooth it all out. While the media and fan focus during this year’s training camp has been on a rebuilt defence, that Argos’ offence has some familiarizing to do as well.
No shortage of options
“We’ve got speed guys, we’ve got shifty guys. We’ve got backs that can run tough, backs that can make guys miss in the open field, so we’ve got a little bit of everything.”
Argonauts QB Ricky Ray
“It takes time,” said Ray. “We’re not a simple offence. We do a lot of different things. We carry a lot of plays into games and some of them have little nuances that you’ve got to learn.”
Notably, there are learning curves on the offensive line and in the backfield to be addressed.
While the offensive line is anchored by all-stars Jeff Keeping and Chris Van Zeyl, the Argos are hopeful the left side can be capably protected by youngsters Matt Sewell and Tyler Holmes, giving Ray and company the time to read and react. Ray was impressed with Holmes’ ability to catch on when he joined the team mid-season in 2013 and likes Sewell’s upside, careful to note that he is young and on the upswing.
“He’s still learning out there, Ray said of Sewell. “Hopefully, the veterans can show him the ropes and get him up to speed.”
With the retirement of running back Chad Kackert, the Argos think one of Steele, Jeremiah Johnson or Steve Slaton will be able to settle in to the number one role, even if they do start the season platooning them until the right amount of comfort is achieved.
Ray sees that there is good talent lining up behind him, but knows it will take a little time before assignments are checked off successfully in a consistent fashion. While Steele enters his second year as an Argo and therefore has more comfort in the offensive system employed, Slaton and Johnson continue to get things down.
“They know the base stuff but it’s the little things that they’re trying to pick up and have down,” said Ray. “That’s the hardest thing. Running back is probably the position on our offence that we ask to do the most.”
Reading blitzes correctly and knowing protection schemes well are challenges that take some time to master.
“They’ve got a lot to learn and it’s a process,” explained Ray. “You can tell that they’re still thinking a little bit right now and not being able to go out and relax and play. Hopefully, as we finish up practice this week and the first few weeks they’ll be able to settle down and be able to just go out and play.”
For his part, Ray is completely at ease with the schemes and philosophies of the offence he conducts. That showed last season, when he posted unconscious numbers (a 77.2 completion percentage and a QB rating of 126.4 in 10 regular season games). There’s been a little editing of the playbook heading into this season, but nothing major.
“Most of the same concepts are here,” the 12th year vet said of an offence that he really started to grasp tightly late in the 2012 season. “We’re basically running the same offence. We may have just tweaked some route depths and how we’re going to read it. Overall, it’s very similar to what we’ve done, just some minor tweaks here and there that we think will help us out.”
Speaking of tweaking, Ray has spent a good portion of training camp working out the kinks in his delivery. While he maintains that the shoulder injury he suffered last season is of no concern now, he did need to reacquaint himself with the physics of launching a football in his own, comfortable style.
“I’ve always kind of worked on my mechanics, but this year it was just one of the focusses coming off the injury, getting it back and making sure the mechanics were right,” he said.
Downfield from that rotating shoulder, Ray finds Owens and Durie as sure bet receivers. Barnes, too. There is excitement, as well, over what second year receiver John Chiles might be able to accomplish this season and Ray is eager to see what his chemistry with Chiles is becoming.
“He’s able to separate and he’s good off the line,” said Ray of Chiles, who caught 44 balls for 725 yards and 8 touchdowns in 11 regular season games, last season.
“When DB’s try to come up and get their hands on him on the line, he’s able to work different releases and get that first step on ‘em. And he’s physical. When he gets to the top of his route, if the DB is squattin’ on him, he’ll be able to use contact to get a little separation.”
Ricky Ray’s garage is crowded with high octane potential. The job now is to get things finely tuned and rolling.
The Extra Point
Ray has spied the rebuilt Argos’ defence in practice and from the sidelines during pre-season. While he knows the offence may have to carry an extra load early in the season as that defence comes together, he likes what Tim Burke is concocting.
“The thing that they do well is that they’re able to just rush four and get a lot of pressure on the quarterback. There’s not a lot of one on one match-ups down the field. Playing against it (a Burke designed defence) over the years, you’re holding on to the ball, waiting for guys to get open and that rush is getting to you. It should be pretty exciting for Argos fans to watch this defence.”