TORONTO - The Edmonton Eskimos' season ended as it started, under the cloud of the Ricky Ray trade.
And it's not as if there weren't plenty of other topics of conversation in the wake of a 42-26 loss to Toronto in a CFL East semifinal Sunday that was nowhere near as close as the score suggested.
Star linebacker J.C. Sherritt came out in street clothes and a walking boot, thanks to a nagging ankle injury.
Matt Nichols, the quarterback of the future, started the second half in relief of veteran Kerry Joseph only to be carted off minutes later after suffering a gruesome dislocated ankle while being sacked.
In between, the Eskimos imploded and gave up 31 points in the second quarter, a league record for the post-season.
Head coach Kavis Reed said he wasn't second-guessing himself about not bringing Nichols in until the second half, saying special teams and defensive errors did his team in, not the offence.
But Reed, his face etched with emotion, paused and chose his words carefully whenever the off-season trade that sent Ray to Toronto was brought up.
"There's no arguing that Ricky's a franchise quarterback, you can't argue that, that's not debatable," he said outside the Esks' locker-room at the Rogers Centre.
"But we had an opportunity to try to make certain that we put together a football team under a quarterback that was going to lead our football team. Obviously there were some issues, injuries, and sometimes performance-related that we had to go quarterback musical chairs sometimes. But we had an off-season to prepare for it. But I'm not going to say that losing Ricky Ray wasn't a difficult situation."
Then-GM Eric Tillman sent Ray to Toronto in December for quarterback Steven Jyles, kicker Grant Shaw and the second overall selection in the 2012 CFL Canadian College Draft.
Ray had spent his entire career in Edmonton, leading the Eskimos to two Grey Cups during his nine years on the job.
On Sunday, the Argo quarterback completed 23 of 30 passes for 239 yards and two touchdowns.
Before Sunday, the last time anyone other than Ray had started a playoff game for the Eskimos was back in 2004.
In Ray's absence this season, Reed played Jyles, Joseph and Nichols.
The Edmonton coach said by the end of the season Nichols had shown he could lead the team. Now they have to wait on his ankle.
"I just pray for Matt's health right now," Reed said. "I know mentally and emotionally that young man has all the tangibles and intangibes to be a franchise quarterback. It's just difficult to see his season end this way."
In what Reed called "a very difficult season," the 7-11 Eskimos made the playoffs despite losing five straight and finishing the regular season on a 2-8 run.
"Their resolve, their character really showed. When we went through so many things that could have broken a football team, this football team did not fall apart," Reed said with pride. "A lot of adversity, a lot of criticism, a lot of noise around us but those men were very high-character men and they withstood a lot of the things that were bombarding our doors."
The self-inflicted wounds of the second quarter were all the more painful as a result.
The 39-year-old Joseph, who won the Grey Cup with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2007 in the Rogers Centre, got the starting nod Sunday by virtue of his experience although Reed said he would insert Nichols if needed.
Joseph led the Esks to a TD on their first drive for the first time all season. And he showed amazing agility to escape an Argo rush when he hurdled a big body and somehow found his receiver at the sideline — only to see Marcus Ball hammer the ball loose with a teeth-rattling hit.
Nichols looked calm and composed when he came in after the half, putting together a drive that led to a field goal. But after his injury, Joseph found himself facing second and 25s and fleeing for his life until the Argo defence, comfortable with the scoreboard, started to bend.
Even when Joseph found the sidelines, he wasn't safe. Middle linebacker Robert McCune was penalized late in the game for hammering the quarterback while out of bounds.
There was no immediate word on how long Nichols might be sidelined. After the game, Reed wasn't even sure if his 25-year-old quarterback would be able to fly home with the team.
The injury, Reed said, "was probably par for the course for our season."
"My heart dropped when I saw him on the ground," he added.
The Nichols' injury definitely took a toll, although teammates were confident he will return.
"It's tough to see one of your teammates, a good friend, a guy that works hard, does his due diligence and then to have to go down like that," said Joseph, one of the Eskimos who went to his side as doctors worked on the fallen quarterback. "You really feel for him, you feel for his wife and his family back at home."
"He'll bounce back," he added. "He'll be back."
Echoed Sherritt: "It's Matt. So whatever happens, I guarantee you he'll come back from it like he always does."
There was some confusion over when the injury that sidelined Sherritt actually happened. He hurt his ankle originally some eight weeks ago but Reed said his linebacker was knocked out by an injury that came during the final game of the regular season, some two plays after Sherritt set the league record with his 130th tackle.
"They're all kind of related. It's just that same foot," Sherritt said of the injuries. "Just a re-aggravation."
Reed said there was no second-guessing the decision to keep Sherritt on the field after setting the record.
"The young man worked so hard to be able to accomplish something. I did not want to take that away from him. Records sometimes are important and especially when you went through a difficult year."
Whatever the injury, Reed said they did not feel Sherritt would be able to "protect himself on a football field" or "be able to perform at a level that would help this football team."
Reed acknowledged that Sherritt, whom he called the heart and soul of his defence, was sorely missed.
"Our tackling was horrible," he said.
Running back Hugh Charles returned to the lineup, even though Reed admitted he was only at 75 to 80 per cent.
The coach was asked about the franchise's immediate needs in the wake of the season-ending loss. The team has more than a dozen players eligible to become free agents, including Sherritt.
"Guys, honestly right now I want to go home, digest this season. I'm very disappointed right now," Reed said. "It's been a season that we've gone through a lot. My heart goes out for the guys in that locker-room. I'm not thinking about next year. I'm just very hurt and disappointed right now.
The Eskimos' current seven-year Grey Cup drought is their longest since 1994-2003.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version stated the Eskimos' previous longest Grey Cup drought was from since 1961-72.
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- American Football
- Matt Nichols
- Edmonton Eskimos
- Kerry Joseph