He may be a rookie head coach but Scott Milanovich knows better than to put too much stock into the CFL pre-season.
Toronto won both of its exhibition games under Milanovich, on the Argonauts’ sidelines after five seasons as an assistant with the Montreal Alouettes. But those victories mean nothing to Milanovich heading into the 2012 regular season. He’s not worried about the pre-season struggles of new quarterback Ricky Ray either.
Toronto made the biggest move of the CFL off-season, acquiring Ray on Dec. 12 from Edmonton following nine seasons and two Grey Cup victories with the Eskimos.
Ray’s adjustment to his new surroundings has been slow. The six-foot-two, 205-pound Californian finished a combined 8-of-15 passing for 99 yards and two interceptions in the two exhibition games.
But Milanovich, a former CFL and NFL quarterback, isn’t concerned about Ray, who has surpassed 4,500 yards passing six times in his CFL career and sports a sparkling 66.8 per cent career completion average.
In fact, Milanovich says there’s plenty he can do to make life easier for Ray.
“I need to do a better job of getting him out of the gate faster and getting more comfortable with the things he likes to do,” Milanovich said. “Some of the pre-season was to try and find out if Ricky was comfortable with these new plays that he hasn’t run.
“It’s a work in progress. It’s never just a quarterback and when Ricky plays well it’s never going to be just the quarterback. He’s going to be fine.”
Like Ray, Milanovich has won in the CFL, having earned two Grey Cup rings while Montreal’s offensive co-ordinator. He replaces Jim Barker, the CFL’s coach of the year in 2010 who is now the full-time GM after Toronto finished last in the East Division last year with a 6-12 record, missing the playoffs for the third time in four years.
However, Ray and Milanovich are both shouldering heavier expectations than merely getting Toronto back into playoff contention.
This marks the 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup, with the historic game to be held Nov. 25 at Rogers Centre. While there’s no denying the game will be a sellout, having Toronto field a legitimate contender would only serve to fuel Grey Cup fever in a market that’s hardly been flushed in CFL excitement in recent years.
However Milanovich isn’t feeling any extra pressure to win a Grey Cup on home soil.
“My answer to that question, because I know I’m going to get it every single day, is going to be boring and the same: We would want to win, and win the Grey Cup, no matter where it was,” Milanovich said. “And so to me, it really doesn’t put any more pressure on us.
“It’s always the goal for every team in this league.”
Ray will make his Argos debut in familiar territory as Toronto kicks off the 2012 season in Edmonton. But Ray won’t return to Commonwealth Stadium fuelled by vengeance.
“There are a lot of memories I have in Edmonton and it meant a lot to me in my career to play there for nine years,” he said. “Why would I want to win this game more than another one?
“This is my new team now. All that matters is what’s happening with the Argos.”
If Ray struggles like he did in the pre-season, he’ll be given ample opportunity to work through it.
”Pre-season is always tough,” he said. “You want to get out there and play well from the get-go because you’re not going to get a lot of time.
“Sometimes you’re going to get off to a rough start but you’ve got three other quarters to kind of get into a rhythm and figure out what the defence is doing.”
However, Milanovich cautioned fans against expecting too much too quickly from Ray.
“I think until he gets through a couple of games he’s going to be in an adjustment mode,” Milanovich said. “He’s really doing well. It didn’t show up in the pre-season . . . but we’ve seen what he’s doing every day for two weeks and it’s very positive.”
That’s good because Ray’s fortunes will mirror those of the Argos in 2012.
An anemic offence played a big role in the Argos’ woes last year. The inability to consistently score points and move the ball put a lot of pressure on Toronto’s defence to stop opponents and the special-teams unit to consistently win field position battle.
But because the offence couldn’t sustain drives, Toronto’s defence spent too much time on the field and wore down during the course of games. One bright spot was returner Chad Owens, who led the CFL in punt and kickoff returns as well as all-purpose yards while also seeing regular duty as a receiver.
Owens will again be involved in the offensive gameplan, as will tailback Cory Boyd. He finished second in CFL rushing with 1,141 yards, averaging an amazing 6.1 yards per carry but Milanovich also plans to utilize Boyd in the passing game as well.
Owens was Toronto’s receiving leader last season with 70 catches but only managed 722 yards (10.3-yard average) with no TDs. Veteran Andre Durie had 54 receptions for 665 yards (12.3 yards) and four touchdowns.
Toronto signed free-agent Jason Barnes in the off-season. Barnes spent three seasons in Edmonton with Ray, the two hooking up 99 times for 1,633 yards and 11 TDs. Current Argo Maurice Mann is also a former Eskimo and in ‘09 had 73 catches for 917 yards and six touchdowns in Alberta, all career highs.
Milanovich hired Chris Jones as his defensive co-ordinator. Jones was the architect of a Calgary Stampeders defence that in ‘08 gave up a league-low 21.5 points per game and helped the club win the Grey Cup.
But Toronto’s secondary will sport a different look with the retirement of all-star linebacker/safety Willie Pile and departure of veteran defensive backs Lin-J Shell and Byron Parker, who both landed in B.C. Anthony Cannon, a starting linebacker last season, was released while long-time starter Kevin Eiben left for Hamilton as a free agent.