November 9, 2012

QB connection the key to Argos’ 2012 success

Adam Gagnon

When the Toronto Argonauts hired Scott Milanovich as their new head coach almost one year ago, they knew the offence was going to be in for some major changes.

For one, it would be built through the eyes of a quarterback. After all, Milanovich was a quarterback himself before entering the coaching ranks, enjoying an eight-year professional career.

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Coming off a six-win season, the rookie head coach appeared to have his work cut out for him – but the former Maryland Terrapin started building the offence the way he wanted it, from the perspective of a quarterback.

“I look at [the offence] through the eyes of the quarterback and I think that everybody needs to,” said Milanovich.

“For me it’s important for people to be able to understand what the quarterback’s going through because if he doesn’t play well, you’re not likely to win.”

The first step was for the former quarterback was to determine, as such, the team’s starting quarterback. Enter Ricky Ray.

In a sudden off-season trade that caught everyone off-guard, Milanovich suddenly had the kingpin of his offence in place – merely one of the greatest pure passers the Canadian Football League has ever seen. And one of the brightest minds, too.

It appeared to be a match made in heaven, especially considering Milanovich had played a key role in the Montreal Alouettes’ offence as offensive coordinator before joining the Double Blue, where Anthony Calvillo was the man under centre.

A lot of people would say Calvillo and Ray have a lot of similarities in their game, and that Ray gives Milanovich a quarterback that could easily fit his mold.

Finally, by the turn of the new year, the trifecta was completed when Jason Maas was hired to become the team’s quarterback coach.

Three of the league’s great offensive minds, together in one offence. The objective: to build a winner.

How could anyone bet against them?

“I wasn’t consciously thinking about that when I hired Jason, but quarterbacks tend to see the picture a little bit more clearly,” said Milanovich.

He appears to be onto something.

With 19 weeks of regular season play come and gone, the Boatmen are ready for their first home playoff game since 2007, despite being predicted as cellar-dwellers by many heading into the summer.

Yet even with so many new faces on offence, both on the field and on the sideline, the Argos appear to be as dangerous as any team in the league.

A winning combination

Ricky Ray and Jason Maas

“I think any time you get more quarterbacks together, the ideas you come up with, usually someone’s done it once or twice. So you have more opportunities to think about plays and think about things and how to read plays.”

– Jason Maas

A huge part of that has been the budding chemistry between Milanovich, Maas, and Ray. It’s something that, as all three would tell you, has come quite naturally.

“The best part about it is Scott’s not only the head coach, but he’s a big part of the offence,” said Ray, currently playing his best football as an Argo with eight touchdowns in his last two starts. “He’s played quarterback before so he really can relate to his quarterbacks and makes it as easy as he can for us, but prepares us really hard.”

Ray said while he played under former CFL starting quarterback Marcus Crandell as his offensive coordinator in his final season with Edmonton, he’s never had a head coach that played quarterback.

“It just makes things a little bit easier, they understand what you go through because they’ve been there and done that and they try not to put too much on your shoulders,” said Ray. “It’s just a good situation.”

Adding Maas to the equation only made it sweeter, as the two enjoy a personal friendship as well as a working relationship from time spent together as quarterbacks in Edmonton.

Having three quarterbacks in on the game plan was unique, but something Maas admits has allowed the offence to function so well.

“I think any time you get more quarterbacks together, the ideas you come up with, usually someone’s done it once or twice,” said Maas. “So you have more opportunities to think about plays and think about things and how to read plays.

“I think if anything, when you have quarterbacks on the staff or three quarterbacks together, the ideas you can come up with are greater.”

Maas played for the Eskimos with Ray from 2000 to 2005, and after time in Montreal and Hamilton, closed out his career back in Edmonton for one last stint from 2008 to 2010 as Ray’s backup.

During his one season with the Alouettes in 2007, he met Milanovich, who as on the Als’ coaching staff. The two kept in close contact when Maas left, and when there was an opening with the Argos, the rookie head coach gave Maas a call.

The next step was to install a brand new offensive playbook and scheme – one that only Milanovich had a grasp of coming into training camp, seeing as it was his offence.

By the end of the season, both Maas and Ray each understand their head coach’s offence quite well – but each with a different perspective.

“Ricky’s coming at it from a whole different level of experience and perspective when we call plays and run our offence,” said Maas. “We have different aspects of knowledge.”

“Going into the playoffs I’ve played in playoff games, Ricky’s been in playoff games, Scott’s been around a lot of Grey Cup teams up here, so I think all of that knowledge and experience helps.”

And with the run to the 100th Grey Cup on the horizon, the relationship between coaches and quarterback becomes even more valuable.

“Our relationship’s grown and Ricky’s more vocal, I mean I still have to draw it out of him but I’ll get an opinion from him if I ask for one,” said Milanovich.

“It’s been good. I’m more comfortable knowing what he likes too so there’s not as much indecision as to where we need to go in a certain situation.”

As the comfort level continues to rise, there’s no telling what the Argos’ quarterback connection can accomplish.