He’s played just five games this year but already Ricky Ray appears to be in mid-season form.
The Toronto Argonauts veteran quarterback is third in CFL passing with 1,355 yards despite missing a game due to a knee injury. His 11 TD passes are second only to Saskatchewan’s Darian Durant (15), and Ray and Durant are the only starters to not throw an interception.
But what really stands out is Ray’s solid 76.4 per cent completion average, which is tops among CFL starters. The 33-year-old Californian has been hot lately, completing 34-of-38 passes (89.5 per cent) for 438 yards with five TDs in his last two starts.
“We’re just executing pretty well,” Ray said following Tuesday’s practice. “Obviously the gameplans our coaches give us have been pretty good but we’re just playing good football all around and that’s what happens.
“You see a lot of guys have success when all 12 of us are playing together and that’s what’s happening for us offensively.”
That’s certainly not good news for the Edmonton Eskimos (1-5), who visit Toronto (4-2) on Sunday. The West Division squad will be minus linebacker JC Sherritt, the CFL’s top defensive player last year, who is out indefinitely after recently undergoing successful thumb surgery.
“He’s a good player who’s all over the field,” Ray said of Sherritt. “He makes a difference.
“He seems like he’s always around the ball, he’s just got those football smarts and is always there and makes a lot of tackles. For us, we’re not too sad about that.”
After starting the season 1-2, the defending Grey Cup champions have won three straight and outscored their opponents 111-44 over that span. The offence has done its part as Argos starters have completed 55-of-63 passes (87.3 per cent) for 691 yards and eight TDs with no interceptions in those games.
Ray was a sensational 19-of-20 passing for 286 yards and two TDs in Toronto’s 35-19 win over Winnipeg on July 19 before suffering a knee injury. Backup Zach Collaros stepped in and completed 21-of-25 passes for 253 yards and three TDs in a 38-12 victory over B.C. on July 30.
Ray returned and hit 15-of-18 passes for 152 yards and three first-half touchdowns in staking Toronto to a 31-3 half-time lead over Montreal on Thursday. He sat the second half after re-aggravating his knee injury.
Ray says there’s a simple explanation for this success — familiarity. Ray and most of his offensive teammates are playing their second season under head coach Scott Milanovich.
The six-foot-three, 210-pound Ray struggled initially as he learned Milanovich’s offence after being dealt to Toronto following nine seasons in Edmonton. After returning from a knee injury Oct. 19, Ray surpassed the 300-yard passing plateau in three of his final five starts, including a 399-yard performance in Toronto’s 27-20 road win over Montreal in the East Division final.
And Ray was a big reason why Toronto captured the 100th Grey Cup, finishing the CFL playoffs completing 69-of-97 passes for 869 yards and five TDs with just one interception.
Toronto has a new offensive co-ordinator in Marcus Brady but he’s very familiar with Milanovich’s offensive approach and schemes. The two worked together as assistants in Montreal before Milanovich took the Argos’ head job.
And it shows, as Toronto’s offence is tied for second overall with Calgary in TDs with 21 (one behind league-leading Saskatchewan) and is third in scoring (32.3 points per game). The Argos also boast the CFL’s second-leading aerial game (305 yards per game) and are third in net yards (377 per game).
The passing game is a huge part of Toronto’s offensive success as it leads the CFL in completions (150) and completion percentage (75.8 per cent). By comparison, the Argos’ ground game is ranked second-last overall, averaging 86.7 yards per game.
But in Canadian football an offence’s success usually begins under centre and Milanovich, a former quarterback, has nothing but praise for Ray’s play.
“He’s playing great football and really has been for about the last 10 games he’s played,” Milanovich said. “We’re just trying not to talk about it too much and let him go out there and continue to do what he’s doing.
“I think it’s comfort level with the offence and his progressions . . . he’s really feeling and seeing what the offence is giving him. He’s comfortable back there, obviously we’re protecting well for him, which is huge, and Marcus is doing a nice job calling the game.”
There’s also an obvious rapport between Ray and his receivers. Chad Owens, the CFL’s outstanding player last year, is again leading the league in receiving with 43 catches for 470 yards and a TD. Canadian Andre Durie has 29 receptions for 370 yards and a touchdown while former Eskimo Jason Barnes — who was released, then re-signed by Toronto last season — has 16 receptions for 238 yards but a team-high four touchdown grabs.
“It’s a lot easier when you’ve been through it one time before,” Barnes said. “Everybody understands not only their position but other positions as well so it helps out with our spacing and cohesiveness.”
“We were in this system last year and a majority of the same guys are back,” he said. “Ricky is comfortable, he understands it and besides that he’s just an unbelievable quarterback.
“I can’t say enough about his poise, how he is in the pocket and his ability to deliver the ball on time and in the perfect spot.”
And with both Dontrelle Inman and Canadian Spencer Watt both nursing leg injuries, rookie John Chiles has contributed nine catches for 155 yards and three touchdowns. Inman might play against Edmonton and Watt could return soon as well, creating an interesting situation for Milanovich.
“All good problems to have and they tend to take care of themselves through injury and other factors,” he said. “That becomes a pretty good six-receiver package that maybe you have look into.
“We’ll try to find a way to get all of them on the field, they deserve it.”
Predictably Ray downplayed Sunday’s game saying it won’t mean nearly as much to him as his first meeting against the Eskimos or even last year’s East Division semifinal game against Edmonton.
Barnes agreed, sort of.
“It’s another game for us,” he said. “But at the same time I know me and Rick always love beating our former team so I’m looking forward to it.”
NOTES: The New England Patriots released former Winnipeg defensive end Jason Vega on Tuesday . . . Montreal signed defensive end Anwar Stewart to its practice roster. The 37-year-old helped the Alouettes win three Grey Cups in 10 seasons with the club and was the CFL’s top defensive player in ‘04. Stewart is also Montreal’s all-time leader in sacks with 66 but played with Calgary last season. The Als added Canadian receiver Ismael Bamba to their roster, signed defensive end Eze Ibiorato to the practice roster, released receiver Youssy Pierre and put Canadian defensive end Ameet Pall on the nine-game injured list.