When the usually predictable Marc Trestman held his first press conference as the new head coach of the Toronto Argonauts last February, he did just a single shocking thing: named Ricky Ray his starting quarterback.
At the time, Ray was 37-years-old and coming off back-to-back seasons in which he’d played in just nine games due to injuries, particularly a troublesome throwing shoulder that robbed him of almost all of his velocity and much of his legendary touch. The Argos had Drew Willy in-house and most were predicting a training camp battle, at the very least.
Then Trestman made his stunning proclamation, more or less sight unseen, having not watched CFL football since leaving for the NFL after the 2012 season .
“When I elevated him to be a starter, I didn’t elevate him on the previous four years because I didn’t see him play. I elevated him on the player that I knew when I was in the league,” Trestman said this week. “It was a leap of faith.”
On Thursday, Ray was named the East Division’s Most Outstanding Player while Trestman earned coach-of-the-year honours. Ray played in 17 games and threw for 5,546 yards, boasting a 70.9 per cent completion average as Toronto went 9-9 and from worst to first in just a single year.
Staying healthy was obviously a huge factor but Ray says Trestman’s declarative statement back in February – he was as surprised as anyone – had a significant impact on him.
“Going into last off-season, I really didn’t know what my situation was and to have Marc, who had never coached me before, give me that vote of confidence was big for my confidence as well,” he said. “He’s done a great job of coaching me up and making me feel confident as a player and hopefully I’ve been able to repay that a little bit.”
Beyond the psychological impacts, Ray says he’s benefitted from the vaunted Trestman offensive system, which stresses timing routes, high-percentage passes and protecting the quarterback. After winning two Grey Cups with Montreal quarterback Anthony Calvillo in 2009 and 2010 – another veteran, taciturn pivot – Trestman’s approach has been copied far and wide across the league.
“I’m an execution guy, I need a lot of help around me. I’m not a guy that can carry a team by sheer skill and arm strength and athletic ability,” Ray said. “I need guys helping me out.”
The other divisional nominees include linebackers Alex Singleton of Calgary and Kyries Hebert of Montreal (defensive player), Winnipeg running back Andrew Harris and Ottawa receiver Brad Sinpoli (Canadian), Winnipeg offensive tackle Stanley Bryant and Toronto centre Sean McEwen (lineman), Calgary’s Roy Finch and Ottawa’s Diontae Spencer (special teams), Calgary receiver Marken Michel and Toronto running back James Wilder (rookie) as well as Calgary’s Dave Dickenson up against Trestman for coach of the year.
Ray will compete for league MOP honours with Edmonton quarterback Mike Reilly and were he to take home the hardware at the gala event on Nov. 23 in Ottawa, it would Ray’s first such win. He’s won three championships, been named the Grey Cup’s Most Outstanding Player – not to mention numerous all-star nods – but he’s never been named the CFL’s top player.
“There’s just always been great players in this league and I just haven’t played well enough to win that award,” he said, before breaking out into a grin. “Boo hoo right? I just haven’t done it.”
Ray won’t comment on his future – he’s set to be a free agent in February – other than to say his shoulder feels as good as it has in years. And if Trestman showed faith in Ray back in February, the quarterback is hoping to reward him fully in November.
“It would be great to win it but celebrating a Grey Cup with your team, coach says that’s how you become immortal as an athlete,” Ray said. “When you win an individual award, that’s all for yourself. I’d rather be immortal.”