How conclusive was the Toronto Argonauts' dismantling of the Edmonton Eskimos? Much, much more than the mere 16-point spread on the scoreboard. It was curtain-call conclusive; it was Ricky Ray coming out of the game with 90 seconds left and applauding the crowd as if he were some soccer player being substituted.
Scott Milanovich's initial instinct when his players dumped Gatorade on him was to scold. Kind of an "act like you've been there before" admonition, he said later. "Even though we haven't," the Argos head coach added.
Not as a unit, maybe, given the turnover in the past two seasons. But Ray has been down this road several times, which is why he is the singularly most important player in the CFL right now. With one more win, the Argos get to play in the Grey Cup game at home and cash in on their best chance in years to re-establish their brand.
Sunday's 42-26 triumph was Ray's first win over the Eskimos since his controversial trade from Edmonton to Toronto, a deal that has set back the Eskimos franchise.
Sunday at Montreal's Olympic Stadium he will take on Anthony Calvillo and the Alouettes, guiding a team coached by Calvillo's former offensive co-ordinator. Milanovich urged people to look past the game as being: "Me against [Alouettes head coach] Marc Trestman or Anthony against Ricky." Too bad, it won't work.
Even if the CFL didn't recycle quarterbacks, the Eastern final would be Calvillo against Ray because this is a quarterback-driven league. Always has been, going back to "the day."
And while the Argos were full measure for Sunday's win across the boards - their special teams provided a touchdown, their defensive line adjusted nicely from an opening drive non-appearance, somebody in the spotter's booth screamed loud enough for Milanovich to throw the challenge flag on an interception in the Eskimos end zone that was overturned - it was Ray's nuanced play at QB that made the difference. His 12-yard dump pass to Chad Kackert put the Argonauts on the scoreboard, and his composed seven-yard run six seconds before halftime put an exclamation point on a record-setting 31-point quarter.
"Tough call with six seconds left," Milanovich admitted. "That was the case of having a veteran quarterback. I trusted Ricky and said 'Listen, Ricky, if this thing doesn't open up wide and you're going to walk it in, you go down so we don't lose the opportunity for a field goal.' If we didn't have a veteran quarterback? I kick it there."
During the regular season, the Argos were the worst team in the CFL in red zone touchdown percentage - only the Winnipeg Blue Bombers' 50.9-per-cent rating came close to the Argos' miserable 46.2-per-cent conversion rate - but Ray, who was 23-for-30 for 239 yards and had no interceptions on Sunday, put them into the end zone all three times they were in that area in the second quarter. His pass to Kackert was a veteran's pass - he checked down against the Eskimos' zone defence, then flipped the ball to his third choice.
Ray, of course, was traded to the Argos on Dec. 12 last year by since-fired Eskimos general manager Eric Tillman, in return for Steven Jyles (who entered Sunday as the Eskimos' third-string quarterback and couldn't get a sniff despite the fact Kerry Joseph proved once again that his mere presence is a sign of how thin the CFL is at the position, and despite the fact that Matt Nichols dislocated his ankle in the third quarter) as well as placekicker Grant Shaw and a 2012 first-round pick.
Given the fact that the CFL hasn't been able to attract new quarterbacks of any quality for years, and with rumours that Tillman will ultimately end up with the Argos, let's keep hoping this was simply a case of a GM out-smarting himself. In the meantime, Edmonton? Toronto and the CFL thank you very much.