For much of the league's history, the key to CFL success has been having a dominant quarterback. Top quarterbacks aren't easy to find or develop, though, and once one shows up, his team usually hangs on to him with iron claws. That's what makes Monday's news that the Edmonton Eskimos have traded quarterback Ricky Ray to the Toronto Argonauts for quarterback Steven Jyles, kicker Grant Shaw and a draft pick so stunning; with one fell swoop, Toronto has gone from a basement-dwelling team with quarterback questions to an ambitious team with a proven veteran under centre, while the Eskimos' run to the West Final will now be overshadowed by a multitude of queries about what they're going to do next. The crucial question here is on the Argonauts' end, though; can Ray be the dominant quarterback they haven't had in ages, and can he lead them back to the promised land?
It's no secret that the Argonauts have had quarterback issues for decades. Matt Dunigan earned them a Grey Cup in 1991, Doug Flutie led them to back-to-back Grey Cups in 1996 and 1997 and Damon Allen fought off age long enough to win a Grey Cup in 2004 and a Most Outstanding Player award in 2005, but most of the rest of the last 20 years have been terrible on the quarterback front in Hogtown. The Argonauts have had an embarrassing parade of atrocious quarterbacks in that time, including Ricky Foggie (whose play certainly lived up to his name), Cody Pickett (who succeeded about as well as his namesake charge), Kerwin Bell (who's most known for his football-in-the-groin celebration). Almost nothing has seemed to work on the quarterback front, as proven veterans like Tracy Ham and Kerry Joseph flopped in Toronto, guys with NFL experience like Cleo Lemon never really panned out and the most lasting contribution from a once-promising Steven Jyles (acquired to great fanfare last offseason) to the franchise might be his role as part of the package sent to Edmonton for Ray.
Given the history of Argonauts' quarterbacks, Ray (seen above with Edmonton teammate Jason Barnes) is no sure bet to succeed. Heck, the last time Toronto pulled a blockbuster trade for a quarterback was to nab Joseph, who was coming off a 2007 season where he was named the league's Most Outstanding Player and won the Grey Cup with Saskatchewan. His career promptly went downhill fast to the point where he was out of football after the 2009 season. Ironically enough, Edmonton brought him back as a backup to Ray in 2010 and he's still there. Ray will certainly be hoping things work out better for him under centre in Toronto than they did for his former teammate.
There are plenty of reasons to believe that Ray can pull this off, though. For one thing, Ray may not be coming off a season where he won the MOP or the Grey Cup, but his 2011 campaign was better than Joseph's 2007 on almost every statistical front. Ray completed 65.2 per cent of his passes against Joseph's 57.3, threw for 4,594 yards to Joseph's 4,002 and put up a 99.3 quarterback rating to Joseph's 97.1. Both threw 24 touchdowns and Joseph tossed just eight interceptions (against Ray's 11), but there's a strong case to be made that Ray is currently a better quarterback than Joseph was in 2007. Keep in mind that Ray was operating behind an inconsistent-at-best offensive line all season and didn't have a consistently reliable ground game or an incredible defence. The 2007 Roughriders were a better all-around team than the 2011 Eskimos, but Edmonton's quarterback turned in a much better performance.
It's also worth keeping in mind that although it feels like Ray's been around forever (his CFL career started in 2002, one year before Joseph's), he's still quite young at 32. By contrast, Joseph was 34 when Toronto traded for him and his passing numbers were already declining. Ray appears to be entering a much better situation as well; the Argonauts have a solid offensive line, a great running back in Cory Boyd and a defence with plenty of stars, and both new head coach Scott Milanovich and offensive coordinator Jonathan Himebauch are well-experienced in running brilliant passing offences from their time in Montreal with Anthony Calvillo. Ray's high-accuracy, high-completion percentage style is about as close to Calvillo as you can get at the moment (B.C. quarterback Travis Lulay is also very effective, but he plays a much different game based more on mobility and deep throws), so he should be a perfect fit in the Argonauts' offence. Of course, plenty of things could still go wrong, and Toronto will still need to find some capable receivers for Ray to throw to, but the indications are promising.
The question for Edmonton is why make this trade? Granted, Eskimos' general manager Eric Tillman was the man who traded Joseph away in 2007, and that worked out very well for Saskatchewan, but as pointed out above, Ray is both younger and coming off a superior season. The Eskimos also don't have an obvious replacement for him; Joseph seems past his best-before date, Jyles was utterly ineffective in Toronto this past season (although he was decent in Winnipeg in 2010 and has a history with Tillman; in fact, he was one of the candidates to take Joseph's job in 2008, but lost out to Darian Durant), and Eric Ward and Matt Nichols are both still acclimatizing to the CFL. Trading away a franchise legend (Ray had been in Edmonton since 2002 except for his NFL stint in 2004, and led the Eskimos to Grey Cups in 2003 and 2005) for an unsuccessful quarterback, a kicker and a draft pick is an incredibly gutsy move, but it's one that doesn't look all that promising unless Jyles rediscovers (and improves upon) his 2010 form or Ward or Nichols emerges. The Argonauts appear to have found their quarterback; now the Eskimos will have to do the same.