The way Maurice Mann describes it, Ricky Ray throws the football so his receivers can comfortably pluck it out of the air, rather than fighting to stop it zipping through space.
The Toronto Argonauts acquired the popular quarterback from the Edmonton Eskimos on Monday, in exchange for Toronto’s starting pivot, Steven Jyles, kicker Grant Shaw and the second-overall pick in the 2012 CFL draft.
Those who have worked with Ray before – like Argos receiver Mann – say the signal-caller’s unique touch on the football makes those around him remarkably better.
“He plays like Drew Brees in the NFL – not throwing hard, but with perfect timing,” said Mann, who played in Edmonton from 2007 to 2009. “If he was two steps faster, he’d be all over the NFL, because his accuracy is crazy. You see the ball, all you have to do is go snatch it.”
Mann had his best CFL season in 2009, catching passes from Ray, nabbing 73 balls for 917 yards and six touchdowns. At first, Mann mistook Ray’s quiet leadership for a lack of fire, but he soon learned the even-keeled nature was part of his success.
“He has a very patient but strategic way of approaching the game – a very consistent guy with ridiculous timing,” Mann said. “If he’s got a cold, he’s going to throw the ball in your chest. If he’s tired or he’s got a sore shoulder, he’s still going to throw it in your chest. It’s always right there.”
Newly-hired Argonauts offensive co-ordinator Jonathan Himebauch is in Atlanta this week, coaching at the HBCU All-Star Bowl, a premier game for recruiting U.S. college talent.
He says he’s keeping an eye out for new receivers for Ray, who will be on hand Wednesday, during a press conference in Toronto.
“From watching him, you see he’s always on time with his throws, and it’s very apparent that he knows the defences and what a co-ordinator will throw at him,” Himebauch said by phone from Georgia. “His experience is invaluable because he’s not taking so much time to go through that in his mind when he’s looking to throw, because he’s got so much of it figured out pre-snap.”
Veteran Argonauts kicker Noel Prefontaine says he had not watched a quarterback complete so many passes with such precision in practice before his two-plus seasons with the Esks (2008-10). A former quarterback himself, Prefontaine marvelled at Ray’s knack for throwing with perfect velocity, not with the sort of overzealous mustard he had seen some blister the football.
“He doesn’t throw the ball hard because he doesn’t need to – he anticipates breaks and [defensive]coverages and that anticipation allows him to throw the deep ball so well,” Prefontaine said. “He really gives the receiver every possible chance to catch the ball. And I assure you the receivers in Toronto are going to love him, because they’re going to have more success because of it.”
Ray, 32, joined the Eskimos in 2002, and has been with the team his entire CFL career, winning two Grey Cups along the way. The 6-foot-3, 210-pounder from Happy Camp, Calif., leaves as the Esks all-time leader in many categories, including career passing yardage. In his nine years in the CFL, he’s become one of the most accurate passers in league history (66.8 per cent completions, 96.1 quarterback rating).
He had a bounce-back 2011, passing for 4,594 yards and 24 touchdowns against just 11 interceptions with a 99.3 quarterback efficiency rating that topped the CFL. He took the Esks from a 7-11 team in 2010, to an 11-7 squad with a playoff victory.
“It’s hard to explain to people how exciting it is to play with someone who makes you better by making things so easy on you,” Mann said. “Grey Cup, here we come. This is a blessing for all of us, for me, for Toronto, for everyone here.”