Will Eskimos' Ray deal bring them hope or despair?

At the start of this offseason, there were plenty of questions of how the Edmonton Eskimos would look in 2011, and perhaps the biggest centred around the man wearing number 15. With a new general manager in Eric Tillman and a coaching change from Richie Hall to Kavis Reed, it certainly seemed possible that free-agent quarterback Ricky Ray (pictured at right under pressure from the Tiger-Cats' Garrett McIntyre in a Oct. 3 game) could be on his way out of town, either of his own volition or out of management's desire to move in a different direction. Instead, the Eskimos have opted for stability at the pivot spot, signing Ray to a three-year contract that runs through the 2013 season.

There are certainly signs that this could work out well for the Eskimos. Changing coaches and coordinators is difficult in the first place, and changing quarterbacks can be even more difficult. Edmonton does have another promising quarterback with some game experience already on their roster in Jared Zabransky, so they could perhaps have made the switch to him without too much trouble if they'd wanted to. Beyond their roster, though, there aren't exactly a ton of proven CFL quarterbacks out there.

The only two quarterbacks listed on the league's official free agent list are Anthony Calvillo (recovering from surgery, but almost certain to either go back to Montreal or retire) and Jarious Jackson (who is 33, two years older than Ray, and seems likely to return to B.C. as a backup to Travis Lulay). There are undoubtedly quarterbacks who could be pried out of teams for the right price; it's possible Winnipeg might give up Buck Pierce, and there are other intriguing options around the league like Calgary's Drew Tate, Saskatchewan's Ryan Dinwiddie or Montreal's Adrian McPherson. All would likely come at considerable cost in a trade, though, and they wouldn't be a sure thing; all carry a mix of potential and risk. Considering the importance of the quarterback position in the CFL, that might not be an easy sell in a town looking to at least get back to the playoffs next season.

Moreover, there's a good possibility Ray's a long ways from done yet. Yes, he's been around the CFL for almost a decade (he started with the Eskimos in 2002, played there through the 2003 season and then returned to Edmonton after a stint with the New York Jets), but he's still only 31. Plenty of quarterbacks can have success as they get older in this league; consider that the divisional nominees for the Most Outstanding Player award last season were 38-year-old Anthony Calvillo and 35-year-old Henry Burris. Both turned in tremendous performances this past season, and Ray won't have reached Burris' current age by the end of this contract.

It's the particular statistical evidence that is concerning for Ray, however. If you look at his numbers, there's a significant drop from 2008 to 2009 and again from 2009 to 2010. That's not just his raw passing yardage, either, which decreased from 5,661 to 4,916 to 3,565 over that three-year span. A good part of the reason for that is thanks to the games he missed with injuries this past season, reflected in the 149 fewer passes he attempted in 2010 than in 2009. More worrying are his declining rate statistics; his completion percentage fell from 69.8 in 2008 to 67.3 in 2009 to 64.4 in 2010 and his yards per completion dropped from 13.4 in 2008 to 12.4 in 2010. His touchdown numbers also dropped from 26 to 22 to 11, while his interceptions went from 17 to 11 to 16. He also posted a career-low quarterback rating of 82.3.

Edmonton's myriad problems this season definitely can't all be blamed on Ray, and they did play well down the stretch despite coming up just short of the playoffs. Ray wasn't bad in that final game, completing 21 of 33 passes for 246 yards and a touchdown without an interception; he also added 37 yards and a touchdown on five carries (and his running game became a powerful weapon in his arsenal this year, with him picking up 302 yards and three touchdowns on the ground and averaging 8.2 yards per carry, the first time he'd ever gone over 6 YPC on the ground), but he did fumble twice as well. It wasn't vintage Ray by any means, but it was a significant improvement over many of his 2010 performances.

The real question for Edmonton is which Ray they're going to get. If the Eskimos can improve the parts around him and he returns to his lofty 2007-2008 form, this could be a terrific deal for them. If he turns in a more average performance, as he did in 2006 or 2009, this probably still works out pretty well for Edmonton; a completion percentage of around 66 per cent and around 5,000 total yards would put Ray in the top four quarterbacking performances of this past season. If he repeats his 2010 campaign this coming season, though, with low completion percentages and plenty of interceptions and fumbles, this three-year contract might start to look like not such a great idea.

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