Ricky Ray in Toronto, Henry Burris in Hamilton and Steven Jyles starting in Edmonton.
There was no shortage of CFL quarterbacks on the move this off-season. That should make for a tight race in the East Division and plenty of debate in the West, at least outside of British Columbia where incumbent Travis Lulay is coming off winning a Grey Cup and outstanding player award.
Anthony Calvillo, who turns 40 on Aug. 23, is back for at least one more campaign in Montreal. Buck Pierce and Darian Durant return as starters in Winnipeg and Saskatchewan, respectively, while Drew Tate begins his first full season as the No. 1 quarterback in Calgary.
Ray began his CFL career with Edmonton in 2002 and led the club to two Grey Cup titles before the Eskimos’ stunning decision to trade him to Toronto on Dec. 12 for Jyles, kicker Grant Shaw and a 2012 draft pick.
Adding a veteran quarterback who has long been one of the CFL’s best pure passers should drastically improve a Toronto team looking to contend for a spot in the 100th Grey Cup game, which will be played at Rogers Centre on Nov. 25. Ray was third in the league last year with 4,594 yards through the air.
The 32-year-old Ray will face a difficult challenge right off the bat as Toronto kicks off the 2012 season in Edmonton on Saturday night.
“You’re going to look at them as another team, a team that you’re not worried about other than going in there and getting a win,” Ray said of facing the Eskimos. ”That’s what is tough about this league, especially now with players moving around.
”You get so comfortable being on one team and a year later you’re on a different team. You just have to be able to wipe that out of your memory and be in the present.”
Ray had some of his most memorable moments in Grey Cup clashes against Calvillo and the Alouettes. Now they will be in the same division.
Time might be ticking on Calvillo but the 19-year CFL veteran isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.
He led the league last year with 404 completions and 5,251 passing yards, while finishing tied with Lulay with 32 TD passes. He also had eight interceptions, lowest among the league’s starters.
Some thought Calvillo would retire this off-season after surpassing Damon Allen as pro football’s all-time passing leader (73,412 yards) and becoming the CFL leader in completions (5,444) and TDs (418) in 2011.
But the Los Angeles native sees no reason to quit when he can still play at a high level.
”I was actually more concerned when I turned 30,” he said. ”But now that I’m going to be 40, it’s not a big issue to me because I don’t feel that I’m turning 40.
”I’m still a little kid in my mind, playing this great game of football. And I have great people in my corner who take care of me and tell me what to do in terms of nutrition and workouts. As long as I follow their lead and we have great protection here, we’re going to go out and have fun. And I’m going to stay healthy and help this team win.”
Hamilton is hoping the 37-year-old Burris can recapture the form he showed in 2010 when he led Calgary to a 13-5 record and was named the CFL’s outstanding player.
But Burris had his problems last year, resulting in Stampeders coach John Hufnagel sitting him the final three games of the season in favour of Tate. Burris ended the campaign with 3,687 passing yards, down from nearly 5,000 the year before.
In Winnipeg, the oft-injured Pierce managed to keep himself upright for 16 games last season after playing in only five in 2010. Pierce helped guide the Blue Bombers to first place in the East and a berth in the Grey Cup, where they lost to B.C.
Pierce isn’t the slickest quarterback in the CFL. He ranked seventh in passing yards (3,348) with a league-worst 18 interceptions. But his competitive nature and never-say-die attitude combine to make a strong defensive team a contender.
Calvillo sees the East being especially tough this season with Ray and Burris in the division.
”You’ve got to respect those guys because they have proven themselves, and when you’ve got a veteran quarterback on your team you have a chance to win,” he said. ”Hamilton beat us a couple of times last year and they were pretty much at par with us.
”With Henry there and a new coaching staff, I don’t see that changing. Toronto I think has made a major upgrade with their entire team.”
In the West, the Lions will be heavy favourites with Lulay, whose superb 2011 campaign earned him a two-year contract extension. B.C. rebounded from a dreadful 0-5 start to become an unstoppable force by playoff time, with Lulay taking Grey Cup MVP honours.
He now looks poised to surpass Calvillo as the CFL’s top quarterback. Lulay finished second to the future Hall of Famer with 342 completions for 4,815 yards and only 11 interceptions last year.
Saskatchewan fans will be looking for their entire team to rebound, including Durant, after a miserable 5-13 season that followed consecutive Grey Cup appearances.
Everything went south in 2011, as Durant plunged from a league-best 5,542 passing yards in 2010 to only 3,687, with 20 TDs.
Calgary picked up veteran Kevin Glenn in the Burris deal but it will be Tate under centre to start the season Sunday against Calvillo and the Alouettes.
Eskimos coach Davis Reed opted for Jyles as his starter ahead of veteran Kerry Joseph. The 29-year-old Jyles and 38-year-old Joseph had split snaps in the pre-season.
Jyles took over as Toronto’s starter from Cleo Lemon mid-way through last season with mixed results. He threw seven TD passes, but also surrendered 11 interceptions.