Ricky Ray trade puts Eskimos GM Tillman under microscope | Football | CBC Sports

CFLRicky Ray trade puts Eskimos GM Tillman under microscope

Posted: Tuesday, July 17, 2012 | 01:32 AM

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Edmonton Eskimos quarterback Steven Jyles looks to make a pass against the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Sunday, July 08, 2012. (The Canadian Press/Liam Richards) Edmonton Eskimos quarterback Steven Jyles looks to make a pass against the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Sunday, July 08, 2012. (The Canadian Press/Liam Richards)

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Edmonton Eskimos general manager Eric Tillman has taken a lot of criticism this year for trading away Ricky Ray and replacing the future CFL Hall of Famer with Steven Jyles.

During my playing days, I always said that football was a lot of fun when you were healthy and winning.

However, there were times when you were banged up and struggling which made the team atmosphere heavy and tense and, despite working hard, everything seemed like it went wrong. In these moments, the criticism mounted and it literally took everything in you to stay positive and remain confident in your abilities, while you persevered to fight another battle the next week.

Through 10 years of football, there is one thing that makes all of the criticism and negativity go away: winning.

Edmonton Eskimos general manager Eric Tillman has been the target of a lot of criticism this year for sending quarterback Ricky Ray to the Toronto Argonauts and replacing the future Hall of Famer with Steven Jyles.

I had the opportunity to work with Tillman as an analyst for CBC and I came to appreciate that he has strong opinions about how a winning team is built. We had plenty of opportunities to agree to disagree during our time together, but I will always respect him for having a strong opinion.

Leading up to the season, the CFL put together teleconference calls with each team in order for the media to hear from the clubs and get caught up to speed with changes. I was able to attend the Eskimos conference where Tillman had the first opportunity to defend his decision to trade his starting QB to Toronto.

Tillman suggested that the organization was facing a very difficult monetary business decision as several young players would be moving into contract negotiations in the next two years, and with a heavy contract attached to his QB, he felt it would have been very difficult to secure contracts moving forward.

Good trade on paper

In theory I can accept his argument, however, I would suggest that the timing for him to make the trade was not right. Sure, it is easy for all of us to be armchair managers and make comments in hind sight. One coach I was very familiar with during my playing days was Wally Buono.

If there was ever a coach that understood the importance of developing young quarterbacks, it was Buono. I had the privilege to play with QBs like Doug Flutie, Jeff Garcia, Dave Dickenson and Henry Burris. Besides Flutie, no one had heard of these stars prior to Buono bringing them into the CFL.

But every one of these quarterbacks were given time to develop and, when the time came for a transition at the QB position, there was always a player in the waiting who understood the offence and was well prepared to step in and seize his opportunity.

As a current example, I would say the transition from Henry Burris to Drew Tate in Calgary would fall in line with a well-executed succession plan.

Edmonton was a young team last season and held together by the leadership of Ray. There will come times when a GM will need to make the often unpopular decision to go younger at key positions. Many positions can transition quickly, unfortunately, a quarterback takes additional time to evolve into the role.

Even Ricky Ray had his struggles early on in Toronto this pre-season adapting to a new system with new players around him. Ray has obviously moved up the learning curve faster than Jyles, but he also has a lot more CFL game experience than the Eskimos QB.

The move to trade Ray away might have made sense on the budget sheet, but not on the team depth chart, in my opinion.

I do believe Jyles is an intelligent guy who has a solid calm demeanor indicative of a strong leader. He has the tools to be a good QB in the CFL, the problem is he has not been given an opportunity yet in his career to grow into an offence.

Unfortunately, training camp and two pre-season games is not enough time for a younger QB to get confident behind centre. With that kind of inexperience, you had to expect that the Eskimos were going to have early growing pains -- even Tillman would have expected this.

The thing about football is that it's a 'What have you done for me this week' industry. It is very difficult to get bumbs in the seats with a team that's in transition. Those who attend games will become dedicated fans when there is a winning product on the field.

Too soon

Eskimos head coach Kavis Reed knew that it was going to be a tough slug the first third of the season. I am sure he was hoping that with some strong defense and special team performance, they would be able to be batting .500 heading into Labour Day.

Then, Eric Tillman decides to blow his lid in Week 2 after the 17-1 loss to Saskatchewan.

One thing that I came to know about Eric is that the 'carrot top' stereotype applies to him when an opportunity to let his emotions fly comes around.

Immediately after the game, Tillman made himself available to the media to express himself.

Unfortunately, Tillman's willingness to mingle with the media has gotten himself into some deep doo-doo. Eric has a tendency to want to place his spin on every story that moves through the media and but, if you are not careful, that game of cat and mouse can backfire.

Well, it backfired.

Although his comment represented only fraction of a lengthy interview, Tillman responded to the question of whether he would make the Ricky Ray trade again given another chance by saying, "Probably not".


Talk about a PR nightmare, Mr. Tillman. You just lit a fire under the belly of the media lion that is always prowling for a juicy story. It was one of those seemingly innocent moments that probably hit him like a ton of bricks in the morning when he read story after story and heard comment after comment.

I loved Reed's response when asked what his thoughts were regarding Tillman's comment.

"The only comment that I have for that is Ricky Ray is not with us anymore," Reed said. 

Translation: What the @$%# are you thinking Eric!

At this point and with the damage already done, Tillman would have been better off smiling for the rest of the week while pleading the fifth until his team hopefully won a game to make the story go away.

But no, Tillman decides to set up a retraction interview where he was given the opportunity to explain his comments and skate around an apology while throwing as many media under the bus as possible.

Why would a GM take the time to admit that his comments were 'dumb' and that he should have qualified his comments by saying that it was on a 'personal level' that he regrets making the decision to trade for Jyles?

That makes it so much better.

The more you choose to attempt to explain your comments, the more fuel you are adding to the media fire. Bottom line is people don't care about the reasons, they care about seeing a winning product on the field.

My advice to Tillman, for what it may be worth, is to stop trying to do a sell job on decisions. There is something said about a leader who has confidence in a system to build success and lives and dies by his decisions.

As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding. Confidently make your decisions and live with the results, good or bad. Week 3 is way too early to start getting crazy. It is way too long of a season to blow your lit this early.

As you saw this past week, the Eskimos are good enough on defence and surprising enough on special teams to win games. With two simple screen passes to Hugh Charles and an additional 136 yards passing by Jyles on offence, the Eskimos were able to actually win a game.

In hindsight, I can only imagine that Tillman wished that he would have stayed silent for a week.

Actions will always speak louder than words. Tillman needs to embrace the idea that having an opinion to willingly discuss can easily backfire and make a difficult CFL season, more difficult than it needs to be.

This past week's score 42-10 was flattering to an Eskimo team that still has plenty of work to do this season. Winnipeg had success last season with the same formula and at 2-1 things are really not that bad.

Who knows, if Edmonton gets an offensive line that gels, it may be able to make a run this season. Stranger things have happened.

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