MISSISSAUGA, Ont. – The Toronto Argonauts have their offensive leader back.
Veteran quarterback Ricky Ray returns under centre Friday when the Argos host the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. It will be Ray’s first game since suffering a knee injury early in Toronto’s 31-10 loss to Montreal on Sept. 23.
“You try and stay involved the best you can but, really, there’s no use for you,” Ray said following Thursday’s walkthrough. “I tried to help out as much as I could and be a coach a little bit but it’s definitely nice to get into the mix of things and have a chance to be out there on the field.”
Ray’s return is timely for Toronto (7-8), which was 1-2 under backup Jarious Jackson and has dropped four of five games overall. Still, the Argos can cement second in the East Division with a third straight win this season over Winnipeg and a Calgary Stampeders victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Saturday.
Ray will wear a knee brace for the remainder of the season, which would normally hamper a quarterback’s mobility. But the six-foot-three, 210-pound Ray is more of a dropback passer who usually uses his feet to buy time to pass rather than run.
“I’m happy to have him back,” said Argos head coach Scott Milanovich. “Obviously there’s going to be an adjustment for him because he hasn’t got a lot of reps the last four weeks.
“Are we concerned about his health? Absolutely but it’s football and football is a physical sport and once he gets out there he has to play. They’re going to try and hit him and that’s the way it goes. We have to let him play football like he always has.”
Interim Winnipeg head coach Tim Burke said Ray’s return allows Toronto to return to its usual offensive philosophy.
“They’re a West Coast Offence and Ricky is more suited to that than Jarious,” Burke said. “With Jarious they tried to run more play action with deeper routes that he felt comfortable with whereas Scott’s offence is the West Coast Offence and he’s going to feel more comfortable with Ricky in there.
“I’d think (Ray wearing brace) probably will limit his mobility some but Ricky gets a bad rap for being just a dropback guy. He has scrambled against my defences through the years and made my life hell. He is more deceiving than people think.”
Ray’s biggest challenges Friday will be quickly adapting to the speed of the game and getting back into sync with his receivers.
“Obviously not being in there and not throwing to guys in a game situation hopefully that will come back right away,” said Ray. “It’s in my mind a little bit but what can you do about it?
“Just go out there and play. I think I’ve played enough games this year to have a good feel for the guys around me and hopefully it won’t be an issue.”
Winnipeg will also have its offensive leader back. Veteran quarterback Buck Pierce makes his first start since suffering a mild concussion following a controversial hit by Toronto’s Brandon Isaac in the Argos’ 29-10 win over the Bombers on Sept. 29.
“Buck is a magnetic guy, always has been as long as I remember him being in the league,” Milanovich said. “He just has great leadership skills, he finds a way to make a play when it doesn’t look like he can make a play and the guy, like many in the league, is a winner and finds ways to get it done.
“I fully expect them to have that same shot in the arm we’re feeling.”
Running back Chad Kackert also returns for Toronto after missing two games with a rib injury sustained last month against Winnipeg. And veteran defensive tackle Adriano Belli, 35, who came out of retirement to rejoin the Argos on Wednesday, will also see spot duty.
“If I can show some of the young bucks how to run to the ball and hustle the way I always hustle then I’ll be more than happy,” said Belli. “I love causing trouble and that’s what they pay D-linemen to do: Cause trouble.”
Friday’s game could be a testy one as Isaac’s shot created a lot of bad blood between the two clubs. The CFL fined Isaac for the hit as well as Bombers offensive linemen Justin Sorensen and Steve Morley for retaliatory attempts on Isaac afterwards and Winnipeg defensive back Jovon Johnson for his post-game comments about the incident.
Both Milanovich and Burke have told their teams to stick to football Friday night, something Bombers defensive back Jonathan Hefney says shouldn’t be a problem.
“We go out every time trying to hit hard and make plays and make things happen,” he said. “We’re not out here trying to hurt people.”
Amazingly, Winnipeg (4-14) remains in playoff contention albeit barely. The Bombers trail Hamilton (5-10) and Edmonton (7-8) in the battle for the third and final East Division berth with three weeks remaining in the regular season.
“Until they tell me the season is over I’m going to keep going and my teammates have the same mindset,” Hefney said. “They say we’re not done so we’re not going to quit, we’re not going to roll over.”
Winnipeg’s defence will come after Ray, not a stretch considering the unit has 35 sacks, second-most in the CFL. But Milanovich will be looking for definite signs that indicate Ray is back on his game.
“I’ll tell where his comfort level is by his mannerisms in the pocket and how quickly he’s getting from the first receiver to the second to the third,” Milanovich said. “When you’re doing that you’re not concerned with what’s going on in front of you and that’s how you have to play the position.
“The injury was a setback because we had to put different people in and now Ricky has to get acclimated again so it may be unfair for me to expect him to come out and pick up exactly where he left off. I’m hoping we do but if we don’t we’ll have to fight through it.”