Forget "No Lead is Safe" as the CFL's new marketing slogan. How about "No Job is Safe". Or "Anything is Possible."
So shocking was the news that some veteran CFL observers were tweeting about a league wide conspiracy to prop up the Toronto franchise before hosting the 100th Grey Cup. One clever tweet wondered when David Braley had bought the Eskimos.
But upon further review this is vintage Eric Tillman, a GM with a resume of success, an M.O. of staying ahead of the curve and a GM with a history of liking his backup QBs more than his starters. At Monday's news conference in Edmonton, ET cited his trades of Kent Austin after winning the Cup in '94 and Kerry Joselph following Saskatchewan's triumph in '07.
Joseph's move in particular raised eyebrows because it left the defending champion with two unproven quarterbacks, Darian Durant and Steven Jyles. As Tillman quickly pointed out, history has proven the wisdom of staying ahead of the curve in that case. What Tillman didn't say was that even when Durant was leading Saskatchewan to the Grey Cup game in 2009, he was in a behind the scenes tug of war with Coach Ken Miller. Miller wanted Durant at the controls, Tillman wanted Jyles. One wonders if the Riders would have gone to consecutive Grey Cups in '09 and '10 had Tillman convinced Miller to bench Durant.
Now that Jyles has been acquired by Tillman again the Eskimos GM won't declare him the Eskimos new #1. Maybe that's better for Jyles because the Eskimo GM has a history of liking his number 2 guy better.
So why did the Eskimos give up on their marquee quarterback? Tillman mentioned the athletic ability of Lions QB Travis Lulay who outplayed Ray in a late season loss to the Lions and in the Western Final. Drew Tate has been handed the starter's job in Calgary where John Hufnagel has made a similar commitment to youth ahead of veteran Henry Burris. Jyles has the athletic ability of that new breed of quarterback.
Tillman saves about $200,000 in salary which will likely go to lure Canadian free agent and Edmonton product Simeon Rottier to bolster the Eskimos weak link on the offensive line. With the Number 2 pick in the draft acquired in the trade another Canadian mainstay is added to the war chest. It may not be a popular deal for fans but its one that GMs in a cap world understand and might even envy. There may still be more moves to clear cap space for a run at Andy Fantuz.
But the deal only works if the Eskimos can win with Jyles. Tillman has dealt for Jyles twice and has more faith in his new QB than Winnipeg which traded him away because they had more confidence in Joey Elliott and Alex Brink. Argo GM Jim Barker thought he could win with Jyles until Ricky Ray became a better option for him. In the end, Jyles CFL career record is an unenviable 6-14. Tillman has made a gigantic leap of faith to trade him for a future CFL Hall of Famer. And to put his impressively rebuilt Eskimos in the hands of Jyles, Joseph, Eric Ward and Matt Nicholls.
The Argos have made deals for marquee quarterbacks in the past who haven't worked out. This is the biggest CFL trade since Tracy Ham headlined a 16 player Argo-Eskimo deal almost 20 years ago. Ham failed miserably in Toronto but is in the Hall of Fame. Kerry Joseph passed for over 4000 yards with the Argos but wasn't the answer.
So is Ray nearing his best before date as Tillman is gambling? He is coming off a season in which he led the CFL in pass efficiency rating (Jyles was last among starters in the same category) Tillman said the CFL has evolved to young QBs who can attack the perimeter like Lulay. Yet the most dominant CFL QB of the last decade is Anthony Calvillo who plays a similar style to Ray. These two veteran pocket passeres have combined to win 5 of the past 10 Grey Cups. Now Ray is united with Scott Milanovich who worked so successfully with AC and will be able to use the same offensive template. The Argos new signal caller may get the same second wind with Milanovich that Calvillo got with Marc Trestman.
The best argument to support Barker's bet that Ray has plenty left is a comparison of Ray's numbers at age 32 with Calvillo's stats at the same timeline. You might be surprised to learn that Ricky Ray has the edge on Calvillo at his current age.
RICKY RAY Age 32 40,529 yards 210 tds 130 int
ANTHONY CALVILLO Age 32 39,172 yards 214 tds 129 int
So even in a CFL outpost like Toronto there was a spark of CFL interest ignited Monday by the Ray trade. If Henry Burris is ever dealt to Hamilton the 3 senior QB's in the CFL will all be in the East in 2012. That might be the best thing to happen to the CFL in Southern Ontario since Doug Flutie.
At his news conference today Tillman reemphasized an old CFL axiom that the team with the best Canadians usually wins. This deal certainly improves the Eskimos stable of non imports. But there's another CFL truism which may be even more appropriate on this day; the CFL team with the best QB usually wins.