As Ricky Ray's helmet struck the turf in the second-last game of the season, the cloud that has loomed over the Toronto Argonauts season grew darker and more ominous.
The Argonauts had faced maddening adversity in 2014, starting with a barrage of injuries and ratio challenges. They shuttled all over Greater Toronto to various fields all summer while the the opening of their new practice facility was delayed. They faced constant scrutiny about dipping attendance and their second-class status as a tenant at Rogers Centre. They lived in the uncertainty of being sold at any moment.
They hadn't been good enough or lucky enough, yet they had overcome a 3-7 start to hang in contention in the lacklustre East. But at least the Argos hadn't faced questions at quarterback; Ray was healthy and playing like a nominee for the CFL's Most Outstanding Player award.
With the squad's playoff fate in the balance, Ray won't play in Friday's must-win final game of the season after suffering a concussion when sacked by Montreal Alouettes defensive end John Bowman last Sunday.
Toronto entered that game in a three-team race for first place in the East and controlled its playoff destiny. But after a loss in Montreal, two things must happen in order for Toronto to make the playoffs. The 7-10 Argonauts must beat the 2-15 Ottawa RedBlacks with backup quarterback Trevor Harris under centre and hope the 9-8 Als eliminate the 8-9 Tiger-Cats with a win in Hamilton on Saturday. Like in so many other instances this year, the Argos are travelling the thornier path.
"As a general manager, this is has been my most difficult year ever in the league," Jim Barker said. "To make the playoffs, it would be a real tribute to this coaching staff and these players, because there were many times this season, particularly in August, when it was hard to look them in the eye because of all the uncertainty we were going through. But they kept themselves in a position to possibly make the playoffs. But now, we've put ourselves in a precarious spot. Last Sunday, we controlled our destiny and not taking care of business that day was painful, but that's just how our season has been."
To the few players who remain on this squad from Toronto's 2012 Grey Cup winning team, the predicament feels like something the Argos faced two years ago. Back then, the 7-9 Argos went into Saskatchewan in the second-last week of the season with their playoff fate dangling and beat the Roughriders to secure a spot.
"To me, it feels similar to 2012 – with our playoff hopes in doubt and our backs against the wall going into Sask, we really came out that day," said Argos offensive lineman Chris Van Zeyl. "We're playing for injured guys like Andre Durie, who is really close to returning. We want to give those guys hope to play another game. We've all been through the ringer this year, so it would be huge to make the playoffs. And once you're in, anything can happen."
Still, for a team that has drawn just 16,000-19,000 fans a game this season, hosting a West cross-over opponent in next week's East Division semi-finals would have its burdens too.
"It's a double-edged sword for us because we want to show we're putting a competitive product on the field, but hosting the East-semi would be a significant economic challenge for us, as the host team is responsible for so many extra costs, including travel for the visiting team," said Chris Rudge, Argos executive chairman and CEO. "For most teams, hosting a playoff game allows you to generate a big crowd and a chance to make a profit, but we face a different challenge in Toronto and have a limited marketing budget. In order to break even we would have to sell 20,000-25,000 tickets for that game."
Even if things fall in Toronto's favour this week, Ray's status is uncertain. The future hall of famer has been bundled in a parka at practice while Harris prepares.
The stakes are big for 28-year-old Harris in his first career CFL start. A year ago, the tenacious "gym rat," as his teammates call him, barely lost out on the backup job to Zach Collaros, the man now starting in Hamilton.
"Hey everybody's here in this league for a reason," said Harris. "What separates you on a given day is preparation."