The pre-season in the Canadian Football League officially kicked off (pun intended) this week as the Toronto Argonauts visited Hamilton for a date with their hated rivals, the Tiger-Cats. While this is a transitional year for both clubs, it’s the Argos who have the lofty expectations and, having gone a combined 22-50 in their last four seasons, the notion of the double-blue winning anything significant this season is a daunting task in itself. But, there’s no time like the present to turn things around.
2012 is a special year for both the CFL and the city of Toronto. This November, Rogers Centre will play host to the league’s 100th edition of the Grey Cup and the Argos will do just about anything to avoid having the big event made into a mere neutral-site game. The boatmen want to be in the big dance playing in front of their home fans on their own turf with an opportunity to win their first Grey Cup since 2004.
Since winning it all in 2004, the Argos finished 1st in their division twice in the next three years, making it past the divisional semi-final just once. Since then, the Argos have failed to make the playoffs once.
One major downfall the Argos have had over the course of the last four seasons was their depth at the quarterback position. This season, it looks as though Toronto has addressed that need by acquiring two-time Grey Cup champion Ricky Ray from the Edmonton Eskimos. The nine-year veteran has reached the 5,000-yards passing plateau three times and current has a career-passing total of just over 40,000 to along with 210 touchdowns. To go along with his two Cup victories, Ray was named the big game’s MVP in 2005, was the Eskimos’ most outstanding player five times, and a CFL All-Star in 2006. On paper, the Argos have everything they want in the 32-year-old pivot. But it took a while to get here.
After hosting the Grey Cup in 2007, the 2008 version of the Argos proved to be unstoppable on paper. With an already-proven starter in Michael Bishop, the boatmen went out and traded for quarterback Kerry Joseph, fresh off winning Canadian Football’s most coveted prize just months earlier. Whoever thought the tandem of Bishop and Joseph would be too much of a good thing was right on the money. The coaching staff decided to start the season with both quarterbacks and it proved disastrous. Despite trading Bishop to Saskatchewan that August, the damage was done. The Argos finished 2008 with a woeful 14-4 record, a mark that cost first-year coach Rich Stubler his job ten games into the season.
In 2009, Kerry Joseph was back but more ineffective as he and backup Cody Pickett shared the quarterbacking duties as the Argos finished 3-15 and last in their division. The next season, Toronto went a different direction and gave NFL cast-off Cleo Lemon a shot. The first thing I thought when I heard the name “Cleo Lemon” was the quarterback who helped the lead the 2007 Miami Dolphins to a not-so-memorable 1-15 record. Nevertheless, Lemon was given a shot in T-dot.
Lemon played in 17 games for the Argos in 2010, passing for 3,433 yards, a 61.7% completion rating and while he threw for 15 touchdowns, he was intercepted four more times. While the Argos finished with an improved 9-9 record, they still missed the playoffs. Then, last season, Lemon last just eight games, throwing for just over 1,600 yards for seven touchdowns and four interceptions. That made way for the tandem of Dalton Bell and Steven Jyles, who didn’t fare any better as the Argos finished the season 6-12, good enough for last in their division.
Since the end of the end of the 2007 season, the Toronto Argonauts are now with their fifth head-coach in Scott Milanovich. While he spent the last three seasons as the assistant head coach of the Montreal Alouettes, it’s anyone’s guess as to how Milanovich will do in his first head-coaching gig. He does have an MVP at quarterback in Ricky Ray and, unlike Kerry Joseph four years earlier, Ray will be creating any sort of quarterback controversy donning the double-blue. Instead, he will run the ship (again, pun intended) like he did in Edmonton — by leading by example, firing up his players and motivating them to be the best they can be.
With his impressive resume in check, Ricky Ray will look to make 2012 count for the Argonauts. Not only do they aim at hosting this November’s Grey Cup but would love nothing more than to turn the fortune of their franchise around for the long-term. At 32, Ray may not exactly be a spring chicken by CFL standards but he is still in the prime of his career and how he fares on the field will greatly impact the Argos not only this season but for years to come.
Considering how this team has fared lately, it’s only logical to take the progress of the Argonauts one step at a time. With a proven winner in Ricky Ray, however, the boatmen already appear to be in good hands.