When Matt Nichols went down, the game was already pretty much over but the screaming. The Toronto Argonauts had scored a CFL playoff-record 31 points in the second quarter and were ahead by three touchdowns, and the 25-year-old kid from California probably was not going to bring the Edmonton Eskimos back. Not this season, anyway.
But maybe Nichols was going to be the guy who replaced Ricky Ray, since Lord knows the Eskimos had tried all season to do so after their franchise player was shipped to Toronto in what remains a seismic deal. One game does not make or break a trade very often, and it didn’t on Sunday when the Argonauts pummeled Edmonton 42-26 in the East semi-final. Not quite.
The reverberations were everywhere, though. Afterwards, Eskimos coach Kavis Reed was asked how much harder his job was after Ray was traded. He waited a full seven seconds before answering.
“Anytime you lose a franchise player …,” Reed began, before getting to the point. ‘We knew it would be a task to replace a Ricky Ray. We had an off-season to do that. There’s no arguing that Ricky’s a franchise quarterback. There’s no arguing that. It’s not debatable. Obviously there were some issues, injuries and sometimes performance-related, that we had to go quarterback musical chairs sometimes. I’m not going to say that losing Ricky Ray wasn’t a difficult situation.”
Reed started the 39-year-old Kerry Joseph on Sunday, and that was a part of the debacle. Steven Jyles, the man who then-general manager Eric Tillman brought to Edmonton in the trade, had been ineffective and got hurt this season, and Joseph was the backup who tried to replace him, and Nichols was the kid. Between the three, the Eskimos tried to cobble together the most important position in the CFL.
Edmonton was second-last in completion percentage this season, tied for second-last in touchdown passes, second-last in passer rating, and their general manager got fired. Toronto? Ray missed four games, but had a passer rating of 99.8, third in the league.
And Sunday, the trade came crashing down everywhere. Edmonton scored first on the strength of the run game, and then, in a game defined by mistakes, got buried. A Cory Boyd fumble led to a Ray touchdown pass, Chad Owens returned a punt for a touchdown after an Edmonton two-and-out — the return was like a series of lightning flashes, followed by the thunder of the crowd — and Joseph flipped a shovel pass for an interception that set up Toronto for another Ray touchdown pass, for 21 points in 7:45.
By halftime Toronto led 31-7, and Joseph was bad enough — 4-of-12, 64 yards, one touchdown, and that interception — that Nichols was inserted into the second half with the game essentially out of sight. The kid had closed the season strong, compiling a 107.7 quarterback rating in a late 83-pass audition. With Ray gone, and the other options exhausted, he got his chance, and the Eskimos discovered they had something worth keeping.
And given his chance Sunday, Nichols got to throw six slightly nervy passes before Ronald Flemons chased him out of the pocket and grabbed him and pushed his own 6-foot-6, 274-pound body towards the ground, pinning Nichols’ leg underneath him.
Within a few seconds the Eskimos’ medical team was sprinting out on to the field, and the cart was being started at the other end of the building, and teammates were screaming “Oh my God!” on the sideline. They all took a knee, and the medical guys popped the kid’s ankle back into the socket, and Nichols told his teammates “Let’s go! Let’s win this thing!” before he was taken to a local hospital. And his teammates took a deep breath, and got back to getting crushed.
“He gets in there, he’s excited, he’s trying to get back in there, and then that happens,” Eskimos offensive lineman Kyle Koch said. “It’s one thing to get knocked out of a game, but that is so — just depressing, scary. I just hope he’s all right. You’re just kind of telling him, you’ll be all right. You can’t tell him nothing.”
Nichols is from Redding, Calif., the same town where Ray went to high school; Ray went to Shasta, and Nichols went to West Valley, and when Ray got traded Nichols moved from fourth-string to the third-string. He got his chance because of Ray, and he saw his season end as part of that chance. Him, and Edmonton.
“We don’t get a say in who makes a transaction,” Koch said. “At the end of the day, Ricky’s a good guy. He didn’t ask to be traded. At the end of the year I don’t look back and say, ‘Ricky got traded.’ I just don’t look like it that like that. Those aren’t what-ifs to me.
“Maybe it’s because I’m a little older, but you’ve just got to believe the pieces are there. You know? And I do believe. But you don’t go in what if we had Ricky? We don’t. If Ricky wins, good for him. Toronto hasn’t been there for a while, so good for him … Maybe he goes out and wins. Then you’ll have something to write about.”
This league is so small, and the weather can change with just one move. And so after the game Koch talked about how Edmonton has to wait 365 days to get a chance to do better than this, and sat there in a sad heap in the corner of the locker room. Across the stadium, Ray got to talk about playing Montreal, and a shot at a Grey Cup, and a bright and glorious future. Somewhere Nichols was trying to figure out if he could fly home with the team, and Tillman, who was fired last week, was trying to figure out if he could find another job. And the tremors continued, after all this time.