As one of the two key people who engineered the trade that sent quarterback Ricky Ray from Edmonton to Toronto last December, Argonauts general manager Jim Barker is feeling good about his team and his future.
Amid rumours that his position with the organization may be in doubt after this year, — which Argo executive chairman/chief executive officer Chris Rudge vehemently denied last week in a Toronto newspaper article — Barker is focused only on his team’s game against the Eskimos this Sunday in the East Division semifinal at Rogers Centre in Toronto.
This is Barker’s first full year as Argos GM, after being both GM and head coach last season and the year before that as head coach. The deal with Edmonton has taken Toronto further than last year when it failed to make the playoffs and struggled with two quarterbacks. Steven Jyles was acquired from Winnipeg in March 2011 for a first-round pick, but the Argos then dealt Jyles, backup punter/kicker Grant Shaw and the first-round pick (second overall) in the 2012 Canadian Football League draft to acquire Ray.
It was considered a controversial deal in Edmonton and last Saturday — a day after the regular season ended — Eskimos’ CEO/President Len Rhodes fired GM Eric Tillman, who had come under heavy criticism for making the deal. The timing seemed odd but it underlined how tenuous a job can be in professional sports, be it a member of management, coaching or, in some cases, a player.
"Any time any general manager gets fired it’s not something I get excited about," Barker said in an exclusive interview with sportsnet.ca. "It seemed like when I was a head coach (in 1999 with Toronto when Tillman was the GM, in 2003 with Calgary and the last two years with the Argos), general managers never got fired. Now that I’m a GM, it’s always general managers getting fired. You never want to see someone get fired in this business because you know ultimately that’s what happens to all of us. I felt bad for him as a friend. I think he did what he felt in his heart was best for that organization. I don’t think he did the deal with any maliciousness.
"I think he did it believing that was in the best interest of the Edmonton Eskimos. We all have our ways of building a team. If Ricky Ray would have come in and played badly, potentially it may have been me that was fired. Who knows? The bottom line is when you make a trade, you do it because you feel it will help your team and you feel it helps their team. Obviously it gave us exactly what we needed. The quarterback position is the hardest position to find the right guy. It’s hard to develop a guy because he’s going to go through rough spots and as soon as he does, all the questions start. It’s just very difficult to develop a young quarterback."
The trade immediately caused some people to suggest it was a conspiracy that went as high as the Canadian Football League head office to ensure Toronto would have a strong team this year because it is hosting the 2012 Grey Cup, which will be the 100th edition of the game. Tillman’s firing has also led to rumours that he may be following Ray to Toronto sometime after the season.
Even in the Canadian Football League in which anything can happen, this seems even a little too bizarre. Barker chose not to comment on that idea or the whole conspiracy suggestion.
"I think I did what the situation dictated I had to do," Barker said. "It took three years to get Ricky. Ultimately that’s what you have to do. It’s never an easy job. I don’t really feel vindicated. I feel blessed that (owner David Braley) stayed behind me in terms of what I was doing. I had a vision for where I wanted to be with this whole organization and we’re very close to being there now. But with Ricky Ray, he’s 32 years old, he’s in a system that fits him perfectly and we’ve got a bright, young head coach (Scott Milanovich) that knows how to use him. It’s nothing but positive to go from here.
"If you had asked me three years ago if this is where you could be in three years in the Grey Cup year in Toronto, I would say ‘if I’m there and that’s not what they want, they should fire me.’ That’s the owner’s prerogative to do that, but I haven’t thought one day about not being here and that I wasn’t going to be a part of this going forward. Never.
"Chris Rudge has never made me feel that way. Mr. Braley has never made me feel that way. Honestly it has never even crossed my mind that they would have any issues with me.
"Right now I feel like I have my best friends here on the coaching staff and we’ve got players that we like and believe in. It’s just everything as I hoped it would be."
Barker said when he hired Milanovich, — who had been the Montreal Alouettes offensive co-ordinator — as his successor they addressed a need to upgrade the quarterback position. They considered Ray and Calgary’s Henry Burris as options.
"We put in calls on both and as things developed we felt Ricky was a better fit if we could get him," Barker said.
Barker said the deal was done a mere six days after he and Tillman first discussed it.
"Ricky is a franchise turner," he said. "When you can get that guy and he fits what your head coach wants to a T, you feel like all the work you have done in two years comes to fruition. It’s like everything can take off in the right direction now.
"One of the missions that I had was developing a succession plan at quarterback. You can’t do that without an established guy. Now we could do exactly what we’ve done, which is bring in an experienced backup, Jarious Jackson, because this is such an important year and let the two other young kids (Zach Collaros and Trevor Harris) learn. Now there’s some kind of development that can happen. That can’t happen without having a Ricky Ray
"The other thing about Ricky Ray is he fits what Scott wants to do. He is the right quarterback for that system."