It’s an enjoyable thing to see, this Ray-naissance.
Ricky Ray, the masterful corner route passing artist, the man who first stormed the CFL fifteen years ago as an Edmonton Eskimos rookie, is having a comeback season, an emphatic answer to the doubters who’d said he was past it.
He is not.
However, that doesn’t mean the Toronto Argonauts can sit back and shelve plans to uncover the heir apparent to Ray. The machinery of pro football keeps churning and whether Ray plays one game more or a hundred, Toronto general manager Jim Popp is endeavouring to do what has been no easy trick for him nor for so many GMs in the past; Find and develop “The Next One.”
“You’re not gonna manufacture another Ricky Ray,” says Popp, opening up a long discussion about the challenges of identifying and developing any young man who would be next in line to be QB1 for the double blue, or any team for that matter.
It is Popp’s mandate to ensure the Argos’ quarterbacking future is safe, whenever that future comes. If he had his way, that future would be down the road a piece. “I hope he plays for five more years,” says Popp of the 37-year-old Ray. “That would be outstanding. That’s what we would love to have happen.”
With Ray playing so well, with him rebounding so sharply after missing a game with a bruised shoulder, the Argos’ pivot picture seems well secured, so long as the team can keep him protected, for the balance of this season. Beyond that, there would be no reason to believe he can’t play another handful of campaigns, if the desire within continues to burn and should he be spared a constant bombardment of hellacious backfield hits.
“The guys we have? They’re talented. How great they’re gonna be? No one will know that until they’re ever having to play game after game after game. There’s plans in place.”
– Toronto Argonauts GM Jim Popp
That’s Plan “A” and why wouldn’t it be? Ray is looking like his usual dominating self after a number of frustrating seasons filled with major injuries and rehab time.
There is always a Plan “B” though. The unpredictability of the sport makes it an imperative.
Popp, of course, has designs on being at the football operation controls of the Argos for many, many years – his stay in Montreal lasted twenty-one seasons and he was the GM in Baltimore for two years before the team moved north – and if he succeeds in locking down a long tenure, the time will indeed come when he needs to have the next Toronto franchise quarterback in place.
You could trade for a starter, of course. Or attempt to. Wait for free agency and sign somebody. But wouldn’t it be nicer for a general manager’s ego to seek out, develop and unleash the next superstar from the ranks of unknown college graduates?
“I’ve never thought that way and I don’t know any GM that does,” says Popp, insisting that however you get your starting quarterback in place, it only matters that he is, indeed, in place.
The Argos have a long history of picking up established CFL quarterbacks who then led them to Grey Cup glory. Condredge Holloway and Joe Barnes in 1983. Matt Dunigan in 1991. Doug Flutie in 1996 and 1997. Damon Allen in 2004. And Ray in 2012. Who knows? That might well be the avenue Popp takes when Ray finally hangs ’em up but it is not the way a general manager plans these things and Popp will continue to do as the others do; Beat the bushes, scour the landscape and try to come up with a breakthrough talent.
“You want them to be able to have everything,” Popp says when asked about what, in particular, he looks for in a young, twenty-something quarterback. Then he adds: “Now, most don’t.”
“Most of them that come to this league are talented,” he adds, noting that it is just about impossible to get on a CFL team’s roster without having something in your game that is absolutely special. “Most of ‘em have some aspect that really made them good enough for people to look at them.”
“It’s not a prefect science,” Popp says, a couple of times during the conversation, and I doubt there’s a football observer anywhere that would disagree with that. There have been too many “can’t miss” prospects who’ve come into the league who did just that – missed.
Popp has had mixed results in the past. In 1998, he brought in a 25-year-old Anthony Calvillo to back up incumbent Tracy Ham in Montreal.
As a rookie, Calvillo had looked like maybe a quarterback to watch out for when he played for the Las Vegas Posse but his stock fell dramatically when he played with the Hamilton Ticats over the next three seasons. An inglorious, early exit from the world of pro football seemed imminent. Popp thought it might be otherwise.
The transition in Montreal went smoothly. Calvillo got some playing time during his first season with the Alouettes, more in his second, and then became the starter in the year 2000. You know the rest.
After Calvillo’s retirement, at the end of the 2013 season, the Alouettes’ quarterbacking picture became muddled, an ongoing rotation of newcomers who showed promise but ultimately failed to take control.
After Popp’s dismissal last autumn, the team made a trade, landing veteran Saskatchewan quarterback Darian Durant, hoping that would settle the situation.
“There was a lot quarterbacks that went through there,” says Popp of his post-Calvillo search, as he explored some of the reasons why the transition away from Calvillo did not go as well as the transition to him. “A lot of quarterbacks that were viewed as the next star in the CFL were in Montreal.”
Jonathan Crompton showed promise. So did Troy Smith. Rakeem Cato, Vernon Adams, Brandon Bridge. Tanner Marsh. None remained consistent for the Alouettes and veteran Kevin Glenn was brought in to try and steady the ship in 2016.
Not all of that is on the quarterback, Popp says, nor is it necessarily a reflection on their talents. Changes in Montreal’s personnel, for a multitude of reasons – and on Popp’s watch – meant the Alouettes didn’t have the consistency he believes is essential when bringing along quarterbacks. There were injuries to many of those emerging pivots as well and that certainly didn’t help.
“When you’re changing people all the time – I’m talking about coaches, coordinators – every time you change a coordinator or a coach, philosophies change and those people are looking for different aspects in players. So, all of a sudden, you’re looking at players over and over and over and there’s no consistency,” he says.
If that’s something that the Argos’ general manager would like to do differently this time around, Popp is likely to get what he wants with Marc Trestman as head coach. The Argonauts should be able to look forward to a steady philosophy on offence and that, theoretically, will only help when it comes to developing a young quarterback.
“The key is to maintain consistency, have a system in place that someone’s learned for a period of time,” says Popp. “Over that time they build up into a guy that might be a consistent starter.”
“Most of the time what you will see with (positive) development of quarterbacks are the guys that have been in a consistent system for a while. Then that guy, somewhere along the way, gets the opportunity.”
The Argos, under a different management team, had that at one point prior to Popp and Trestman arriving. While Ray was in and out of the line-up during – and after – leading the team to a Grey Cup in 2012, Scott Milanovich (head coach) and Jim Barker (general manager) were consistently grooming both Zach Collaros and Trevor Harris as future starters. “The coaching staff here did a great job with them,” says Popp.
Whether the Argos have the next Collaros or Harris in place now, just isn’t known. What is known, Popp says, is that the stable of young arms the club has gets ticks on the checklist when it comes to talent.
“How good they’re gonna be… are they the future? We surely think they have all the tools to be a guy that if Ricky is not playing, gives us a chance to win.”
Cody Fajardo would be considered number two on the depth chart behind Ray at this point in time, being the short yardage QB and the man who came on in relief when Ray suffered that bruised shoulder during a game against Calgary on August 3rd. He also replaced Jeff Mathews at halftime when the Argos’ offence was struggling against Montreal two weeks ago.
Beyond that, Popp still has faith in Mathews, saying the 26-year-old is still getting assimilated to what is “not an easy system” of offence to master, in his first year as an Argonaut. Popp is also intrigued by two other quarterbacks in the system.
One of them is 29-year-old McLeod Bethel-Thompson, an NFL roster journeyman who is on the team’s six-game injured list at present.
Then there is Dakota Prukop, the 23-year-old who is earning his keep as a special teams tackler at the moment but whom Popp considers to have great potential. “He’s such a great athlete,” he says. Popp originally put Prukop on the Montreal neg list a few years ago, when Prukop was still a freshman in college. The GM is still high on him, apparently.
Prukop’s rights were shifted to BC after Popp left Montreal but he swung a trade with the Lions to get those rights for the Argos.
Prukop seems a natural fit for the timeline and football education that Popp figures most quarterbacks need in order to emerge as stars in the CFL.
“I think most players that actually excel at that position in the CFL don’t spend a lot of time somewhere else,” Popp says. “They come right out of college or they had limited time, maybe, in the NFL and they embrace, they grow and they learn the CFL. There’s not many of ‘em that ever have great success at a young age. Ricky Ray was one of those guys that did.”
As did Jonathon Jennings, the BC Lions quarterback who took over the starting job in Ray-like fashion, during his rookie season in Vancouver.
Others have needed more time, of varying lengths. Mitchell became the Stampeders’ starter in his third season, showing much promise the year before. Reilly had three seasons under his belt in BC before being traded to Edmonton, becoming their starter. Nichols, the Blue Bomber quarterback who is enjoying a sterling season in 2017, didn’t become a starter until the age of 29, although his development most certainly was delayed by two major injuries suffered while he was with the Eskimos.
And Nichols’ rise serves to illustrate another of the variables Popp brings up in discussing the development of quarterbacks: Time and place.
Nichols was sinking into the background in Edmonton, struggling and – to some eyes – regressing. Traded to Winnipeg halfway through the 2015 season, he became the team’s named starter before the 2016 season reached the halfway point. Like Calvillo some twenty years before, Nichols found he could be re-defined under the right circumstances.
“There’s only so many places that are the right fit or you’re there at the right time,” says Popp. He wonders if that might also be the case for a couple of his stalled Montreal starters. Both Bridge and Adams are now in Saskatchewan.
“If someone lets someone go, it may be a diamond in the rough for another team where it does fit with what they’re doing.
And someone flourishes elsewhere,” he says.
Popp’s focus, though, is not on Montreal or Saskatchewan. It’s on Toronto and the veteran quarterback he has the pleasure of watching right now, a quarterback that he hopes will give him the luxury of developing the next one in a methodical, patient way.
It could be Fajardo, or Mathews or Prukop. It could be Bethel-Thompson.
“The guys we have? They’re talented,” Popp says. “How great they’re gonna be? No one will know that until they’re ever having to play game after game after game.”
“There’s plans in place,” he says, before acknowledging, again, the uncertainty of what is not a perfect science.
“There will always be other quarterbacks that will challenge all of them.”
Popp and Trestman will be challenged, too, making calculations, assumptions and assertions, hoping they hit on the right formula in order for the next young gun to rise in time to meet their big moment.
Until then, they can enjoy the resurgence of Ricky Ray, protecting him as best they can, while plotting an eventual course for life without him.