It's tough for a quarterback to get into the zone when he's faced with one. At least, that's the message you get from the Argos brain trust when you broach the subject of an offence that has had trouble remaining consistent this season.
That is the case with veteran quarterback Ricky Ray, who's still finding his way in an offensive scheme that is relatively new to him, even after eight weeks of a regular season. The Argo coaching staff is asking him to rethink the way he makes decisions when he drops back against a zone defence.
"The whole method of reading, for him, is different than it's been. It's one of those things that he's got to continue to improve on," said general manager Jim Barker.
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When you ask the GM about the little things that are holding the Argos offence back at this point in the season, he zeroes in on Ray's continued assimilation to a complicated set of decisions that happen every time Ray takes a snap and scans some kind of zone. Remaking a veteran quarterback's mental modus operandi is not easy, and the Argos do it with Ray with the insistence that big, big dividends will start to flow, when things become second nature to him.
"We have to go through some of these downs to get to that level where he can go out and jut let it rip," said Barker.
"And get to a point where he can just go out and play and not have to think. Right now he's playing like a quarterback who's thinking too much. But, you can't think too much at quarterback."
It's a given that, facing man to man coverage, Ricky Ray dines out. He's picked apart one on one coverages for his whole career. That's precisely why most teams choose to throw as much zone defence at him as possible.
"We get more zone, generally, than most teams get, I feel that's a pretty accurate statement," began quarterbacks coach Jason Maas. "It seems most teams try to take that part (attacking man coverage) of our offence away and make us be patient and make Ricky check the ball down. Or go to underneath things (as a primary plan)."
"Over the years teams have been more successful against him (with zone coverage) and they feel like he won't try to fit in in a tight window (between defenders) and he will check it down more often," continued Maas.
So, there's where the stalemate sits, at least for now. Ricky Ray will kill you against man coverage. So, he doesn't see much of it. Ricky Ray is still working on getting to a place where he can more quickly make decisions against different types of zone coverage, so the passing suffers from a little sugar in its gas tank.
"It comes down to the quarterback and distributing the ball," offered Barker, when asked if Ray's receiving targets are doing their part. For the most part, Barker believes they are, although he did point out that drops on what should be easy catches need to be eliminated.
"For Ricky it's a new offence," continued Barker. "The reads are different. I mean, the method for reading is different. Man to man's easy for him. Because he knows right where he's going to go with the ball and he can drop a dime better than anybody that's ever played."
As an example, Barker points to Monday night's 26 - 17 loss the Edmonton Eskimos;
"The other night he had Jeff Johnson open (in the end zone) but threw it with not enough velocity and a little late. Those are things that are all part of seeing it a little quicker and getting the ball out of his hand.
That's going to get there with Ricky Ray. There's no harder worker in this organization than that guy and he will get that stuff down."
Maas agrees, assuring me that Ray's frame of mind is excellent and that he's not getting too frustrated.
"He's fine. He wants to be better, do more and win more games. But, he's perfectly fine. He's disappointed that we're four and four, just like anybody around here is. But he understands it's a process. He's going to continue to do what he does and that is work extremely hard and be prepared to play."
"We have a pretty complex offence," said Maas. We're eight weeks into it. There's varying degrees of why your offence isn't successful (on a drive).
It's different reasons; Ricky not making a great decision, or maybe pass protection wasn't perfect for that particular play or maybe a receiver didn't quite get his depth of route. If the timing is just a little bit off, that creates a problem for our offence."
What everyone knows is that opponents are going to throw as much varied zone coverage at Ray as they can muster. As Maas pointed out, the Argo offence probably faces more of it than any other unit. Because of that, it is incumbent on Ray becoming a master of quick decision making, in a more complicated setting. Maas says making a choice when facing man to man coverage is a heck of a lot easier than making one against zone schemes.
"Most defences don't do a great job disguising man to man. You know immediately after the ball's snapped where you're going because generally your first read has to be open. Most receivers are good enough to beat a guy man to man. Most quarterbacks, if it's a man read, don't go from the first read to the second read to the third read because generally the first guy is open. So, the ball comes out of their hand faster and they're in better rythm, all that."
"The reason teams won't play Ricky man to man is that he tears man coverage apart with downfield throws. He has a knack for throwing the ball accurately down the field. That's the reason, generally, teams don't want to play him man to man."
Generally speaking, the ball gets out of a quarterback's hands in 1.6 seconds or less, when he's dropping back to pass against man to man coverage. The read's quick and easy. Zone coverage takes a little longer, with more information pouring into a pivot's brain. Information that has to be analyzed, dissected and then acted on. Ray's challenge is to master the art of making those calculations a little more quickly.
"Slowly that's going to come," said Barker. "It's one of those things, that, we have to give time and obviously it's one of those things that's still a work in progress."
He's sure that when the switch gets flipped in the mind of Ricky Ray, a more productive offence will follow.
If it looks like the Argos aren't calling enough deep passing plays to you, you might be surprised to know that they, indeed, call plenty.
However, when Ray comes to the line and he sees a deep zone, which as mentioned is often, forcing the ball downfield becomes much more difficult.
"The defence generally dictates where you are throwing the ball everytime. There's only a few patterns in our offence where we're throwing it no matter what," said Maas.
"We do call quite a few routes down the field. But when the defence takes it away, we're trusting Ricky to make the right decision and we have guys we feel that when we throw to them underneath can usually make a guy miss.
To a person on the outside looking in it might look like you're not (scheming) to throw the ball downfield."
It's not that deeper routes aren't ever open against zone, and Maas concedes that the quarterback is sometimes responsible for a miss.
"Last game there were a couple of downfield routes that we called and Ricky didn't quite make the throw that we need him to make, that we talk about him making. So, some of that's on him. Some of them, coverage takes away. It's usually a combination of things why deeper routes aren't working. It's not any one thing otherwise it'd be easy to fix."
"We just want him to do what's right in our offence. If the window's there to hit it, we want him to hit it. If it's not there, we want him to check it down. He's doing exactly what we're asking him to do and that's what we care about more than anything," said Maas.
Don is a very familiar voice to Toronto radio listeners. His razor-sharp wit, easy on-air manner and superb interview skills made him a morning radio staple for more than 10 years, at the helm of the FAN 590′s breakfast show. Follow Don on Twitter @ArgosLandry
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