A key CFL storyline so far has been how bad the East Division has been. The Toronto Argonauts are currently the division's top team at 2-2, and they're the only one with a chance to end Week Five at .500 or better thanks to an unusual Tuesday night game (there thanks to the Argos' ongoing scheduling issues, part of their ongoing stadium issues) against the B.C. Lions (7:30 p.m. Eastern, TSN/NBCSN). However, Tuesday's clash isn't going to be an easy win for the Argos: they'll likely have even less of a home-field advantage than normal thanks to the unusual schedule, they're facing a powerful B.C. team, they're missing key players like Chad Kackert, and perhaps most importantly, they won't have star quarterback Ricky Ray.
It's always dangerous to ascribe too much importance to any one player, as that's how such lunacy as quarterback wins is arrived at, but Ray has been a crucial part of the Argonauts' rise from perennial East Division basement-dwellers to Grey Cup champions. The team went 4-14 in 2008 and 3-15 in 2009, and while there was a slight resurgence once current general manager Jim Barker arrived in 2010 (9-9, with one narrow playoff win thanks partly to Hamilton kicker Sandro DeAngelis' struggles before an East Final pounding from Montreal), any revival based around Cleo Lemon at quarterback wasn't going to last too long. The Argos slipped to 6-12 in 2011, went through a motley crew of quarterbacks (Lemon! Steven Jyles! Dalton Bell! B.J. Hall!) and looked to be back almost where they started. That was until the franchise-altering trade for Ray that offseason. Yes, it didn't bring instant success, as they went just 9-9 during the 2012 regular-season campaign while Ray and the rest of the team adjusted to new head coach Scott Milanovich, but the team put it together in the playoffs, beat Saskatchewan handily, downed their old Montreal nemeses and claimed the Grey Cup at home. There were plenty of other crucial players involved, but that championship doesn't happen if Ray isn't under centre. Thus, the prospect of playing without him is a frightening one for Toronto.
Fortunately for the Argos, Ray's knee injury doesn't sound as bad as originally feared, and they have a bye coming up, so he should have time to heal. What's going to be interesting to watch is how well Zach Collaros does in relief, though. He's a known name south of the border thanks to his experience with the NCAA's Cincinnati Bearcats, even if that wasn't all positive (while he came in in 2009 after Tony Pike got hurt and played well en route to their Orange Bowl appearance, and while he recorded solid regular seasons in 2010 and 2011, he was sat in the 2010 Sugar Bowl in favour of Pike, and was part of a Liberty Bowl win over Vanderbilt in 2011, but only put up a 12/29, 80 yard, 1 TD, 2 INT performance there), but he's barely appeared in the CFL since signing with the Argonauts last year. (Moreover, big-name NCAA quarterbacks haven't always worked out here.) He has just 21 career passing attempts north of the border, so he's a new face for most CFL fans. What will we see from him? Postmedia's Sean Fitz-Gerald got some solid answers on that front from Argos' head coach Scott Milanovich and offensive coordinator Marcus Brady:
"Zach's a very emotional guy and he'll be jazzed up," Argos coach Scott Milanovich said. "I think he thrives on his emotion and I don't want to change that. He's not Ricky. He's a different style of player and a different personality." ...
"I think he has all the tools," Brady said. "It's going to be his first start, so I can't project too far ahead. But I have all the confidence that he's going to execute (Tuesday) night. And then we'll go from there."
In Collaros' favour, at least he's had over a year to learn the CFL game (he signed with the team last June), and he's been learning from such noted CFL offensive minds as Ray, former backup Jarious Jackson, Milanovich and Brady. Jumping into the Canadian game can still be a huge adjustment for American quarterbacks, however: the three downs, larger fields, 12-a-side matchups and expanded motion rules mean that a lot of what they've learned over the years is no longer applicable. We saw a couple of solid first starts from backups this week, though, with Bo Levi Mitchell putting up one of the best CFL debuts ever for Calgary and Justin Goltz doing decently for Winnipeg. There was another solid backup performance, too, even if it wasn't his debut, as Drew Willy led Saskatchewan to victory and a 5-0 record with a win over Hamilton in just his second CFL start. We'll see Tuesday night if Collaros can follow suit or if Ray's absence will return the Argonauts to the poor team they were before his arrival.