Jets QB Ricky Ray hopes to follow the path of other CFL QB's that found NFL glory. (Jets Insider.com Photo)
For QB Ricky Ray to say he is from Happy Camp, he would be telling the truth and lying at the same time. He is from Happy Camp, California actually. But his three weeks with Head Coach Herm Edwards and the Jets in Hempstead have been anything but happy.
When backup QB Brooks Bollinger injured his knee against the New Orleans Saints during the first preseason game, it forced Ray into the number two quarterback spot. Ray is not your typical backup quarterback. He is 24 years old but has played in three professional football leagues: the CFL, NFL and AFL2. Ray is hoping this will be his last stop and he can find a place with the Jets as a backup quarterback.
Ray had a solid career at I-AA Sacramento State, the same school as Jets rookie OT Marco Cavka. Ray was a two-year starter from 1999-2000, leading his team to a 13-9 record. He still holds the school record with a 61.9 career completion percentage and ranks third in passing touchdowns and fourth in career passing yards and completions.
The San Francisco 49ers, desperate for backup QB’s signed Ray on October 1, 2001 as a free agent. That day, the Jets lost to the 49ers, 19-17. Ray’s tenure though was short lived as he was cut five days later.
In 2002, with no NFL opportunities imminent, Ray decided to head north and sign with the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League. Several top notch QB’s in history such as Warren Moon and Jeff Garcia jump started their NFL careers by starting in Canada and Ray hoped to do the same. Ray’s talent turned out to be a huge Canadian hit and the ambitious youngster had two excellent years in the great white north, topped off by leading the Eskimos to the 2003 Grey Cup Championship. While doing so, Ray completed 348 of 515 passes for 4,640 yards and 35 touchdowns.
His huge success in Canada drew the attention of many NFL teams. He ended up getting tryouts with the Giants, Arizona, Miami, and the Jets with the Gang Green finally winning his services and signing Ray to a free agent contract on February 27, 2004. With the anticipated departure of Vinny Testaverde the Jets were eager to find a solid backup for Chad Pennington and they thought Ray could be a good fit.
Head Coach Herman Edwards is all about competition in camps and letting the players earn their spot.
“That is why we brought him here and that is what we promised him: that he was going to compete for the number two job and he is,” the Coach said. “There is nothing solidified in stone and he is competing for it. That is one of the things we said he was going to be able to do.”
Since signing with the Jets, Ray has progressed slowly, taking time to learn the complicated west coast offense the Jets use. Ray though feels he is making progress.
“The more comfortable I get and get a lot of reps, I have a chance,” said Ray. Hopefully I can make the best of the opportunity and really get comfortable with these guys.”
With Vinny Testeverde now long gone and in Dallas, QB Chad Pennington is now the veteran QB on the roster despite being in the NFL only five years. Ray has sought out his advice.
“That’s part of his job is to help out the young guys and show us how to do things right and answer questions for us. I am going to take advantage of it. He is a great player and I have learned a lot from him,” Ray said.
Pennington has been observing the new QB since he arrived and is impressed with Ray.
“You're looking at a guy who has some experience and who knows how to lead a team,” said Pennington. That's the most important thing when you're quarterback. It's not really about stats or anything like that. It's about how do you lead your team. I think he knows how to do it,” the starting QB said. “He has his own style-the California-laid back style. That's his gig, and I think it has worked in the past and it will work again.”
There has been strong talk of the Jets bringing in a veteran QB but Ray hopes he can squash that talk by having a solid preseason. With a shortage of solid veteran QB’s available, it seems the backup job will fall onto Bollinger or Ray’s shoulders. Both will have to be ready in case something happens to Pennington. Ray feels he needs to earn the team’s confidence.
“It comes with playing,” said the QB. You have to get out there in game situations and prove to them that you can move the ball up and down the field and get the job done. That is something you have to earn. You have to get out there and show them that you can be a good player and a confident player.”
The common answer from players who are making the adjustment to the NFL is how fast it is. Ray said playing in the AFL2 has helped.
“I did play arena football, so I should be used to a quick paced game, that’s playing on a basketball court. You just have to make good decisions, know where your guys are at and anticipate them,” Ray said.
When the Jets face the Colts in preseason on Saturday, Ray will get a significant amount of the snaps at QB. It will be a big test for him after a shaky performance against New Orleans and a good evaluation of where he is at.
Pennington predicts that Ray will be successful.
“With preseason games you have a good chance for success. One, because teams don't really game plan and two, because you are running plays that you are familiar with and you've been doing this stuff for a while now. So I think he’ll feel comfortable. The biggest thing is that if something breaks down because you have young guys in there with you, you just can't get too worried about it, you just have to keep running the team,” Pennington said.
Offensive Coordinator Paul Hackett has seen a lot of quarterbacks in his time. He knows going against the Colts will be a big opportunity for Ray and will be a good evaluation of where Ray is at.
“I think he is realizing this is a golden opportunity that you rarely get your first year in the League,” said Hackett. “Not only to have a chance to practice but also to have a chance to play in a national television game on a Saturday night. Practice is one thing but now he gets a chance to perform against a very fine football team. We will see how he can go.”
Ray hopes to make the transition to the NFL like some former CFL QB’s did. Moon, Garcia and Doug Flutie are a few of the names that come to mind when you think of players who were successful QB’s in the CFL and NFL.
“It’s just a quicker game. There are better athletes on the field. All around, you have the best athletes in the world playing this game so it’s definitely going to be a lot more difficult. But it’s like anything else: you’ve got to rep it and rep it and get more comfortable and make sure you know what you’re doing,” Ray said about the difference between the CFL and NFL.
If he does not succeed with the Jets, Ray said he would consider going back to the CFL. “If it doesn’t work out down here, then that definitely would be a possibility. I enjoyed the two years I played there and I wouldn’t hesitate to go back,” Ray said.
If Ray makes the Jets final roster and becomes successful in the NFL, it will be a happy ending for all.