These are some restless times in #RNation, with the Redblacks on a 4-game losing streak and fans wondering if all their doubts about the 2019 version of the team are already materializing. Redblacks fan @Lordele shares his thoughts on how we may have got here and why no one should be surprised.
By Lordele Greenyer
Let’s be honest: by Day Two of CFL free agency 2019, any objective Redblacks fan pretty much knew where this team was gonna be this year. The success of this season’s team was determined when big names – Trevor Harris, Greg Ellingson, William Powell and SirVincent Rogers being the biggest – were not re-signed, and without any substantial names walking back through the doors of TD Place. At the time, General Manager Marcel Desjardins defended the strategy and spoke of prioritizing the re-signing key defensive free agents, which limited the team’s cap flexibility. Some bought it, others not so much. And while the first couple weeks of the season offered some hope, the season has not surprisingly been mostly pitiful.
So this is where we are: Two wins, four losses and not a lot of hope. But how did we get here? Or, WHY did we get here? I’ve got my suspicions…
Strap on your tinfoil hat and join me!
Theory One: Marcel Desjardins actually believes this team will be good
I honestly have a hard time believing this. MD has spent countless seasons evaluating talent and building competitive teams, most recently the championship team in 2016 and two others reaching the Grey Cup in FOUR seasons. Regardless of the strength of the East division, his teams were regularly at the top of standings. And while there have been some mistakes over the years (Eric Rogers 😢), they are far outweighed by a number of strong free agent signings-turned-CFL stars (or at least stars in the making). For Desjardins to suddenly lose his touch with player evaluation and roster composition seems unrealistic. Has to be more to it.
Theory Two: OSEG has tightened the purse strings
This one has been widely speculated on social media and among the fan base since the off-season. And since CFL salaries still aren’t being made public, it probably won’t stop any time soon. Many fans point to the cost of operating Ottawa Fury FC, and their relatively modest attendance (averaging about 4,500 spectators through 10 home games in 2019) as a factor. The 67s have also been suffering somewhat the last few years at the box office, though last season’s playoff run had to help the bottomline.
OSEG cherishes brave people with independent thought.
We believe in our GM & coaches…with good cause given their track record.
Your REDBLACKS have always spent to the CFL salary cap building a TEAM…just spread out a little different than some others. Bring on 2019 🔴⚫️!
I frankly just don’t buy it. My expectation is that Desjardins and the Redblacks have been given the OK to spend to the cap. OSEG CEO Mark Goudie said as much. The organization seems pretty sound financially and has many more outlets for revenue beyond butts in seats. I mean, they even found a sponsor for the 15 minutes the fans spend on the field after games!
Theory Three: Desjardins has his eyes set on 2020
I’m going full tinfoil here, but bear with me.
With a new collective bargaining agreement due before this season, it’s no secret a number of players made a point of signing contracts that would expire at the same time, in hopes of cashing in on an increase in available cap dollars. With the CBA ratified nearly three months after the start of free agency, however, teams and players had to guess at where the cap might land. Many clearly expected a cap increase and the league’s biggest names signed two-, three-, even four-year contracts with big signing bonuses.
Now that we know the big cap increase didn’t materialize (going up only $50,000 from 2018), teams like BC, Edmonton and Winnipeg may be hard pressed to be active in free agency in 2020, because they have a good portion of their money locked up.
In walks Desjardins. He let his big names walk and take big contracts elsewhere, didn’t really make any long-term commitment to any player, let alone bringing in a big contract. So they might be a “cap team”, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have money to spend.
No question defence has been this team’s biggest strength the last couple years. And while individual accolades are great, defensive players seem to get paid when the team wins. Conversely, it’s harder to demand big, long-term deals when the team hasn’t had a great season. Should the season play out that way, MD will be better positioned to re-sign key parts of the defence to reasonable deals.
Now, putting these two concepts together, Desjardins would have the ability and flexibility at season’s end to not only re-sign those key parts of the defence (at perhaps a more reasonable cost) to contract extensions and apply signing bonus dollars to the 2019 salary cap.
Putting a couple hundred thousand dollars to work in this way could allow the Redblacks to be major players in 2020 free agency, while also better allowing them to keep guys like Brad Sinopoli, Lewis Ward and our growing list of defensive studs.
So is it worth it to write-off 2019 for the sake of 2020 or beyond? I’m not sure, but this is my best guess at how – and why – we got here.
Editor’s note: Our friend, fellow CFL fan (Saskatchewan, but try not to hold it against him) and favourite uniform concept designer Nelson Hackewich was kind enough to share some of his thoughts and experiences at this year’s Grey Cup Festival in Edmonton. This is the second of two recaps on all the great stuff the festival had to offer. (here’s the first) Thanks Nelson! Super jealous!
Better late than never, right?
Grey Cup Saturday
Saturday started with the traditional Calgary pancake breakfast and the Grey Cup parade. A little underwhelmed watching the parade, so when the ‘Rider contingent walks by, I step off the sidewalk and join the parade!
After the parade, we all head over to the TSN booth to see the live hits of Grey Cup Saturday. While stopping inside to warm up we bumped into the legend, Pinball Clemons. And of course made the TSN coverage.
It was a short day at the Nissan Street Fest as we prepare notes and dig up dirt on both teams for the game tomorrow. Here’s what was seen, heard and researched:
The Stampeders were not to fond of the playing surface today at Commonwealth Stadium. Bo Levi Mitchell considered the turf to that of Ottawa’s in last year’s Grey Cup and Eric Rogers saying “If the game was today, we wouldn’t be able to wear cleats out there.”
When the Redblacks players were asked about the conditions of the turf, most said they were used to it, as they play on a similar surface at home.
Calgary will already make history tomorrow, playing in a team-record third Grey Cup in a row. Last teams to play in three GCs in a row? Montreal 2008-10, Hamilton 1984-86, Edmonton 1977-82, Montreal 1977-79.
The Redblacks are playing in a Grey Cup for the third time in the last four years, a first for any Ottawa club since the late ’60s (1966, ’68 & ’69).
This will be the fourth time Calgary and Ottawa have met in a Grey Cup, with Ottawa winning in 1968 and 2016, while Calgary won in 1948.
Dave Dickenson is looking for his first Grey Cup as a head coach, and trying to avoid becoming the first head coach since 1956 to lose three Grey Cups in a row.
Rick Campbell looks to get his second Grey Cup. He would become the 20th head coach to win multiple championships.
Teams head to head:
Calgary holds a 7-1-2 regular season edge over Ottawa since 2014; Ottawa has the 2016 GC win, however.
The last time these teams met in the Grey Cup, they combined for 852 passing yards – by far the most in Grey Cup history (#2, 777 yards in ’89)
Calgary outscored Ottawa 51-17 – with the gap (+34) made up of points off of Turnovers primarily (26 of Calgary’s 51 points).
Trevor Harris did not complete either game and has passing totals of 135 and 93 yards with 3 INTs and 0 TD passes.
Bo Levi Mitchell passed for 251 and 166 yards with 3 TDs, 3 gains of 30+ yards and one INT.
Don Jackson rushed for 186 yards (Max 102) on 30 carries for one TD. William Powell had 140 yards.
Grey Cup Sunday
Game day was full of generally a pro-Ottawa crowd, with CFL fans in sight from morning breakfast across the street at the hotel to the train to the stadium.
Arriving at the stadium at about 1:30pm (three-and-a-half hours before kickoff), we took in some of the tailgate parties, then headed into the stadium to walk about.
Two hours prior to kickoff it was a balmy 2° and the field conditions looked absolutely perfect. The Redblacks took the field for warm-up to a thunderous ovation, while it seemed the Stamps were only backed by those from Calgary and some die-hard western Canadian types who dislike our current prime minister.
The Reklaws belted out “Long Live the Night” and with an iconic Snowbirds fly-over, Grey Cup 106 was under way!
The game wasn’t much to write home about until Terry Williams had a record 97-yard punt return touchdown on a now slippery Commonwealth Stadium field, sending Stamps fans into a frenzy. If you watch the highlights, the most impressive part of the return (besides his speed on ice) is the fact he almost fell on his own. No doubt an absolute game-changer.
In the end, Bo Levi Mitchell and the Stamps got the monkey off their back, outlasting the Redblacks to win the Grey Cup.
Overall, Edmonton knows how to throw a party! From the street festival, to the $300k+ 50/50 jackpot, to meeting old friends and making new ones, there was tons of great CFL and Grey Cup buzz all week long, as it should be.
Can’t wait for Grey Cup 107. See you next year, Calgary!
Editor’s note: Our friend, fellow CFL fan (Saskatchewan, but try not to hold it against him) and favourite uniform concept designer Nelson Hackewich was kind enough to share some of his thoughts and experiences at this year’s Grey Cup Festival in Edmonton. This is the first of a couple recaps on all the great stuff the festival has to offer. Thanks Nelson! Super jealous!
It was a lengthy eight-hour drive through the frosted Canadian prairie from Regina to Edmonton, which gave me a lot of time to think about who to cheer for this Sunday in the 106th Grey Cup. People will tell you, “you’re from the west how can you not cheer for the west?”, or “the cup has to stay in the east!” But, over the course of the drive, I’ve come up with a few reasons which determined that, although I primarily bleed green, for one weekend in November, I’ll cheer for the Ottawa Redblacks.
Reason #1: Rick Campbell. He’s just a darn decent dude! Back when CFL Week was in Regina, I bumped into Rick almost daily in the Tim Hortons line at Evraz place, where we talked football and his love for Saturday Night Live. Plus, he is linked to not only the Riders, but the Eskimos through his father, the great Hugh Campbell.
Reason #2: The increasingly popular CFL adage of ABC – Anyone But Calgary. I think Stampeders coach Dave Dickenson hit the nail on the head in his West Final post game comments when he told reporters that Canada doesn’t like seeing them in the Grey Cup.
Anyway, onto the festivities!
Grey Cup Thursday
Edmonton has definitely come alive as the hotbed of Canadian football. Everywhere you look it’s decorated businesses, “Grey Cup” food and drink specials and the like. The city is roaring and ready to go! Everywhere you go people are dressed in all 10 CFL team (including the Atlantic Schooners) jerseys and apparel. Bars and restaurants are full and on American thanksgiving, where the NFL generally holds the spotlight, it was almost non-existent as the conversation turned to who is going to win on Sunday. I even heard a conversation about the Las Vegas Posse and Shreveport Pirates.
A smaller crowd strolled the street fest today taking in activations from Shaw (where you could sit in a Redblacks locker stall donning Brad Sinopoli’s jersey and equipment), get some s’mores compliments of TSN, or “Take a Kick at the Can” and see if you can last 8 seconds on a giant can of Twisted Tea (Mechanical bull style). Our night was capped at the outdoor street stage where Winnipeg’s The Watchmen played all their hits! Daniel Greaves (lead vocals) came out in a retro Bombers sweater and opened by stating “I wish the Bombers were here” and closed by asking the crowd “Who are we cheering for on sunday” with a primarily pro-Ottawa response.
Team hospitality rooms open up Friday with the highly anticipated announcement of the Atlantic Canada franchise team name, the CFL fan state of the league, a dip into the Shaw conference center to check out more fan fest activities, performances by Maestro Fresh Wes and Canadian supergroup Toque, capped off by a stop in Riderville and back to the stage to catch The Strumbellas.
Grey Cup Friday
After a quick autograph signing with Saskatchewan WR Namann Roosevelt and Argos WR SJ Green, Canadian hip hop legend Maestro Fresh Wes, Dressed in a special edition Eskimos Damon Allen jersey custom made for the 2018 Grey Cup, got our day going belting out “Let your backbone slide”. Taking shots at current Canadian rap superstar Drake, saying “I’ve been doing this since he’s been on Degrassi” was classic. Wes was followed up by Canadian super group and cover band Toque, featuring Todd Kerns (Age of Electric) Brent Fitz (Slah, Myles Kenedy, Alice Cooper) and Cory Churko (Shania Twain, Live), who played nothing but hits from Loverboy, Streetheart, Chilliwack, and Queen City Kids. True Canadiana and very fitting for the Grey Cup festival.
From there a dip into the Atlantic Kitchen Party for the 10th franchise name unveiling. Seriously, is anyone shocked? There were rumblings early in the week from a few of my media contacts in the league that it would be such. If the Schooners weren’t called the Schooners, it would be crushing not only to the people that host the Atlantic Schooners Kitchen Party year after year, but all of the people that have dreamt of this moment for so long. The font they chose was an interesting “UA Falcon”, which is primarily used by Under Armour teams. Using a white font on a grey stormy background also leaves a lot to be desired. Will they be black and grey? Will they be black and gold?
The night was capped by visits to the #RNation Party, where we bumped into the lovely Redblacks Cheer team, Winnipeg RB Andrew Harris and Ottawa mascot Big Joe (and his forearms). Then a short walk down street fest to Riderville, where we saw performances by the BC Felions dance team, the Alouettes Cheer team and Rider Cheer team.
Saturday, we take in the Grey Cup parade, team walkthroughs at Commonwealth Stadium, a tour of the Oilers beautiful Rogers Arena, and cap the night with a performance by Tim Hicks. Can’t wait!
On Monday, July 30, Canadian Football League fans across the country were shocked to hear of the release of Saskatchewan running back and 2016 Most Outstanding Canadian Jerome Messam. The release of the star Canadian came as a result of voyeurism charges related to a 2016 incident that occurred while Messam was with the Calgary Stampeders, but only came to the attention of police in April 2018.
The CFL wasted no time voicing its position on the matter:
Commissioner Randy Ambrosie has informed all member clubs that the league will not register a contract for Messam should any team attempt to sign him.
The release and black-balling of Messam came less than two weeks after the same treatment of Teague Sherman, defensive back with the Ottawa Redblacks. Based on complaints from three females, Sherman was charged with two counts of sexual assault related to incidents which occurred in November 2017.
Again the CFL wasted no time, stating that it would not register a contract for Sherman, adding that “the Canadian Football League has and abides by a policy on violence against women and condemns violence against women in all its forms.”
These back-to-back stances on charges related to sexual assault against women have drawn a clear line in the turf: there will be zero-tolerance in the CFL when it comes to violence against women.
While there are always those who problematize a zero-tolerance stance (and this is not the article to debate that), many in the CFL community are rejoicing in what appears to be a clear change in Canadian football culture. While Ambrosie has gained respect across the league for his hands-on approach on many fronts – expansion, instant replay, player safety, fan engagement – it is possible we have unknowingly stumbled upon another first: Randy Ambrosie as the CFL’s first feminist commissioner.
The word “feminist” has become a contentious term in recent years largely based on ill-conceived notions of what it means to be a feminist. Fed by pop culture references that paint feminism as the bastion of angry, man-hating women who want to strip men of their masculinity, prescribe women’s role in society and in the home by denouncing “traditional roles,” and turn the world into a place where pant-suited women rule and men are secondary, our collective concept of feminism has deviated significantly from the truth. So then, what does it really mean to be a feminist?
A feminist is a person, any person, who supports equality between women and men. Simple as that. In fact, the concept that any one gender is or should be superior to the other, whether men OR women, is the exact opposite of feminist principles. The essential concept of equality extends to all facets of society; political, economic, personal, social and cultural. It doesn’t mean that men and woman can and should be exactly the same; they’re not. It means men and women should have equal freedom and choice to pursue opportunities in life without facing discrimination.
When it comes to issues of violence against women, including issues of sexual assault, feminism supports the inherent rights of women as human beings to live free from violence, harassment, discrimination and unequal treatment based on gender. Feminists advocate for women’s rights as human rights, and in fact also advocate for men’s rights and recognize the harmful effects that traditional prescriptive gender roles have on men.
So is commissioner Ambrosie the first feminist CFL commissioner? Well, not really, no.
It would be unfair not to acknowledge the huge strides taken by the league under former commissioner Jeffrey Orridge with the development of an official CFL Violence Against Women (VAW) policy in 2015. Developed in partnership with the Ending Violence Association of Canada (EVA) and following consultations with multiple experts in the field, the policy applies to all personnel, not just players and coaches, and includes a provision that everyone in the CFL will receive annual mandatory training on violence against women and the issues surrounding it. According to Tracy Porteous, former Chair of EVA Canada and current Executive Director of EVA BC, “the leadership being shown by the entire CFL is to be applauded profoundly. Violence against women has long thrived in the shadows so when organizations, especially those led by men, step forward to ask, ‘what can we do to break the silence?’ it shines an important light on a subject most people don’t know what to do with. Through this policy the CFL is changing history.”
Many clubs have embraced and even gone above and beyond the call to provide the mandatory annual training, including the BC Lions, who partnered with EVA BC and the government of BC to deliver the four-year, hugely successful Be More Than a Bystander campaign; and the Toronto Argonauts, who partnered with the White Ribbon Campaign in 2015 to create Huddle Up and Make the Call, a program that raises awareness and issues a call to action in efforts to help end male violence against women. More recently, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers launched a three-year campaign in 2016, Break the Silence on Violence Against Women, consisting of a series of player-led talks and workshops on VAW in high schools across Manitoba.
While Ambrosie may not be the first feminist CFL commissioner, under his watch the CFL VAW Policy has certainly gone from a promise on paper to a resonating culture shift. The zero-tolerance handling of the Messam and Sherman charges are not the first signs of change since Ambrosie took office. In March of this year, the CFL voided Euclid Cummings’ contract with the B.C. Lions after he was charged with four criminal counts, including sexual assault charges involving two alleged victims. Ambrosie further launched an internal investigation into how Cummings was allowed to play the entire 2017 season with the Edmonton Eskimos, despite Winnipeg having previously informed the league and Edmonton of the charges. Interestingly, the CFL official statements concerning Messam and Sherman now include clear instruction that the league will not recognize contracts for these players with any team (presumably while legal proceedings are underway).
It’s possible the recent swift-acting stance taken by the CFL is a “once bitten, twice-shy” response by Ambrosie to what’s become a series of mishandled incidents and subsequent tarnishing of the CFL’s strong reputation as a pro-diversity, pro-inclusion league. Prior to the Cummings situation and after a great deal of fan uproar, the league stepped in to reverse the hiring of Art Briles by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in August of last year. Briles, a long-time friend of current Ticats head coach June Jones, was fired in May 2016 from Baylor University. While serving as the program’s football coach, an investigation discovered the school mishandled numerous sexual assault allegations against football players. One of the allegations resulted in a settlement with a former student who said she was a victim of gang rape. The suit claimed Baylor turned a blind eye to sexual assaults to build a strong football team under Briles. She said she was aware of 52 incidents of rape by more than 30 football players between 2011 and 2014. Here in Canada, we are by no means exempt from severe issues of violence against women.
In Canada, one in three women will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Of the 460,000 sexual assaults that occur in Canada each year, 3.3% are reported to police, 1.2% have charges laid, and 0.3% lead to a conviction. Of the 3.3% that are reported to police, 2-4% are deemed false reports (that’s roughly one per every 1,000 sexual assault cases). 99.7% of assailants walk free. To put that into perspective, if you were to take 5 CFL players who “allegedly” committed sexual assault, 4.985 out of those 5 would statistically not be convicted.
Faced with this challenge, the CFL, led by commissioner Ambrosie, has stepped up and taken an approach that other professional sports leagues can and should aspire to. The league has sent the message loud and clear that women’s bodies and autonomy will be respected, and that no player, coach, or financial bottomline is more important than this fundamental principle. Questions of guilt or innocence or of potential impacts on the livelihoods and reputations of individuals charged are not the issues at hand, and in fact, the CFL has shown on multiple occasions that players not convicted of a criminal offence are welcomed back, albeit cautiously. The CFL is making a change toward acknowledging a pervasive social problem in Canada, and Ambrosie is going a step further to put words and policies into action. He is doing the heavy lifting, the difficult dirty work, and certainly ruffling feathers and upsetting the status quo along the way. He may not be the first feminist commissioner, but I believe his recent actions make him a feminist commissioner, and a damn good one.
With nine games down in the 2017 Canadian Football League season, the Ottawa Redblacks have been less than spectacular, to put it nicely, sitting third in the East with a 2-6-1 record. Hopes were high for the Grey Cup champs coming into the season, with the return of stand-out running back William Powell (who missed all of 2016), heaps of talent coming in via free agency (including LB Khalil Bass, DB A.J. Jefferson and receivers Diontae Spencer & Kenny Shaw), and of course the chance to defend the Grey Cup at home. Yet, here we are, nine games in and only a measly pair of victories.
In spite of last week’s convincing win in Hamilton, there’s no doubt fans and players alike are frustrated with the team’s half-season performance. While these struggles may have something to do with the team’s coaching or play-calling, at the end of the day, the players are paid to execute and win games. I think former QB Henry Burris said it best:
You can’t take the leadership of a team away and expect the same results. This is not the same Redblacks team from the last two years!!!
Without a doubt, Burris’ leadership and experience are a massive loss. Even at 41 last season, he was effectively reading blitzes and able to change plays at the line of scrimmage. Burris was the face of the Redblacks for the first three years, put the team on his back when necessary and the rest of the team rallied around him.
Now, don’t get me wrong: Trevor Harris is a leader, and appears to be a damn good one. But Harris is only one of several players needed to fill the holes left following the Grey Cup victory. So far, it appears Ottawa just lost too many veterans in the off-season to be able to play like they did in 2015 and the first and last thirds of 2016. With half a season still to play, they need guys to step up, fast.
So, who will step up?
Right now, The Buds® look to be filling the void. At #1 and #3 in CFL receiving yards and huge fan favourites, Greg Ellingson and Brad Sinopoli lead by example. Still to be seen whether they develop into more vocal leaders. Could be a big factor in a Redblacks turnaround this year and beyond.
The loss of Moton Hopkins cannot be understated. Yes, he is still with the team as an assistant coach, but impact on the field and in the locker room matters. A fan favourite and team captain, Hopkins was there to get his team fired up. That attitude/swagger/confidence is not the easiest to replace, but a couple guys that look like naturals to step in are Zack Evans and Arnaud Gascon-Nadon. Both are veterans with championships under their belts.
No single group was hit harder this offseason than the secondary. #DBlock lost a lot of talent and valuable leadership in Abdul Kanneh (HAM), Forrest Hightower (NFL, now with EDM) and Mitchell White (NFL). All were all-star-calibre players who could get people fired up – both teammates and fans. With all three gone, someone in the secondary needs to step up and continue their legacy. I believe Sherrod Baltimore could be that guy. Since getting in the lineup, Baltimore hasn’t stopped playing hard, with both passion and heart! As veterans, Jerrell Gavins and Jonathan Rose are also being asked to do more in leading an inexperienced group. If these first three years have shown us anything it’s that when #DBlock plays well, the Redblacks play well.
The Redblacks are at the halfway point in the regular season, with nine games left. Not saying they’ll win them all, but taking a quick peek at the schedule you can see some favourable opponents, with Ottawa facing Hamilton, Saskatchewan and Montreal twice each. If the Redblacks can win at least five of their remaining nine games, that may well be enough to make the playoffs and get a chance to defend the title at home. This can only be achieved from within, however, and the Redblacks need to find ways to turn those last-second losses into victories. That will take more complete team efforts like last week in Hamilton, supported by confidence and execution from a young leadership group. Only then can we start to get serious about a third straight Grey Cup appearance.
When I heard the 2017 CFL schedule was coming out on Tuesday, I vowed not to be yet another fan griping about a schedule that is less than perfect. There is no perfect schedule (except maybe the one on your PVR). Yes, there will be mid-week games that make road trips difficult. Yes, there will be tight clusters of games with frankly not enough rest for the players. Yes, there are aspects of the schedule that will not appeal to every Redblacks fan. For better or worse, these things are more or less par for the course.
That being said, there is one concern for me that warrants more attention and outrage than it appears to be receiving and that is the Redblacks having to wait until week 18 for their first bye week. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve heard complaints. Mostly from the fan’s perspective of potentially having only one game in 37 days should the Redblacks clinch the East, motivated in part by having no football to watch, and by the concern that long breaks are momentum busters. However, my issue is less about the lack of football around the end of the season, and more about the risks that 17 straight weeks of football pose to the health and safety of the players.
Putting aside the concussion debate, football is a grueling, physically demanding, full contact (on every play) sport. We already know some unlucky players will have season-ending (even career-ending) injuries each year, and very few players will make it through an entire season without a significant injury (requiring surgery, therapy, etc). Yes, they sign on to put their bodies and health at risk and they know and accept that any given play could be their last. But no athlete is a robot, no matter how much they’re paid. Bye weeks are essential for the physical and mental health recovery they provide, and denying the players that dearly needed rest while requiring more and more physical output is a recipe for serious injury.
I recognize there are some weeks with long stretches between games, and that is fair enough. But would you consider working from home the equivalent to having a day off? Of course you wouldn’t, because even if you’re home wearing your PJs instead of your pumps (or suit and tie, as the case may be), you’re still doing your job. You’re not watching Netflix or running errands or spending quality time with your family and children (And let’s remember for most players their families are not with them in Ottawa). Likewise, having a couple extra days between practice does not a bye week make.
As many have noted, the Redblacks are not the first CFL club to have to deal with such a schedule quirk. Calgary went 15 weeks between byes last season, for example. So it may be an unfortunate standard practise of a nine-team league. And not being a player myself, maybe I grossly overestimate the importance of bye weeks for the health and recovery of these athletes. However, if this is a valid concern I’d encourage CFL players and the CFL Players Association to do what it can to address player safety in future collective bargaining agreements, if not this current one. The league and TSN aren’t going to do it for you.
Or we can just ignore it and go back to worrying about who has the most inconvenient mid-week games.
I really don’t have anything to offer that hasn’t already been said about the Redblacks Grey Cup win. So instead of rehashing/celebrating what happened, I’m going to look ahead a bit. The Redblacks have a pile of pending free agents as do most other teams in the CFL. There are quarterback and management questions in other cities, and a team or two will be using the next few weeks to begin their march on Ottawa and the 2017 Grey Cup. I won’t get too deep into Redblacks 2017 roster projects – there are too many moving parts at this point. But here’s a look at the current situation as well as my view of some other situations in other cities.
The CFL’s Big List of Free Agents now out, we can certainly look at the team’s offseason challenges.
This means there is much work to be done, but it’s the best kind of work – keeping a champion together and making it better. Not everyone will get to stay, however.
Sadly, Chris Williams is likely in the “won’t be back” category. He’ll be rehabbing his knee well into next summer and may be back just before his 30th birthday. That isn’t a great combo, especially considering that his last contract was likely in the $200k+ neighbourhood. Williams has his detractors, but his world-class speed kept defenders on their heels and opened up the field for his teammates. Losing him for 2017 will be doubly unfortunate because Trevor Harris has the arm to take full advantage of Williams’ talents.
The list of must-sign players is fairly long. Ernest Jackson, Mitchell White, Abdul Kanneh and Nolan MacMillan would be hard to replace. Tank Reed is the LB the Redblacks need – his presence boosted Damaso Muñoz. And #RNation needs to be concerned about John Boyett’s return – we never really heard much about his knee injury and now he’s looking at free agency. There are rumblings that Abdul Kanneh will be looking south, and now we hear that the team has released Cleyon Laing so he can look south as well. If I could, I would bring them both back. Laing proved his worth, collapsing pockets from the inside and making lots of room. As I hoped, he even played some DE and it proved an experiment worth continuing.
I somehow doubt we’ll see Aston Whiteside back. He never really recovered from his knee injury. Its hard to see from here whether the Redblacks rushed him back or whether the knee didn’t respond to treatment or whether he actually got reinjured. The Redblacks so-far fruitless search for its next speed rushing DE continues. But…given the way the Redblacks DLine performed in the Grey Cup, I’m inclined to think the team should stop trying to slot in an unproven speed DE and go with muscle. I saw some devastating power rushes from Laing and Connor Williams from the DE position, showing that Clydesdales can get the same result as a racehorse.
Meanwhile, fan favourite Antoine Pruneau is also a pending free agent. Without knowing enough about Montreal’s FS situation, must think that he’s a guy they’d love to sign. Pruneau gave an interview following the Grey Cup parade that made me think he is thinking about options other than returning to Ottawa. I have no quote that signals this, its was just a feeling. Jeff Richards (rumoured to have several opportunities in the NFL) may be a more consistent FS, but it is hard to deny that even without his passport, Pruneau is a big contributor and the Redblacks would be well-served to try to get him back.
Lots of potential for moving parts on the offensive line. J’Michael Deane and Nolan MacMillan are each pending free agents. MacMillan is a very good veteran presence. Deane had a lot of penalty issues this season. Jason Lauzon-Séguin is a legit starter at G and showed he can play OT. Backup Matthew Albright absolutely seems ready to start at G. Jake Silas has proven to be a solid RT, SirV is locked in for another 2 seasons as one of the league’s premier LTs. Tommie Draheim got better into the playoffs and the Grey Cup but is not a strong starter. The long-range plan was for John Gott to switch to G and have Alex Mateas take his place at centre. I don’t see that happening, possibly ever.
The makeup of the 2017 OL hinges on whether MacMillan can be signed and whether management wants to keep Deane. I have my thoughts on how this should play out, but will save them for another column. I will say that Deane is possibly expendable which is unfortunate for a guy who may want to stay (he owns a house here).
It’s hard to say whether we’ll see FA RB William Powell back – if he’s willing to sign for not a ton of money upfront, then he’d certainly be worth bringing into camp and let him compete with Mossis Madu. Travon Van, who was a good insurance policy in 2016, likely isn’t a priority to re-sign.
Just a couple of special teams observations at this point. First, I spent a lot of Twitter characters questioning the removal of Kevin Malcolm from long snapper duties – he’s exceptionally good at delivering hard clean spirals to the punter. The team replaced him mid-season with Tanner Doll, who was immediately visible in ways that long snappers aren’t supposed to be. He improved as he went along, but most importantly, he showed why the team made the switch in the first place. Doll is a special teams coverage demon, not easy to do coming out of the snap.
Elsewhere across the CFL
Have to question what Chris Jones thinks he’s doing in Saskatchewan with the Darian Durant negotiations. Durant is a fan favourite, a very solid performer and there really isn’t a better QB on the market. Maybe Chris Jones is the genius he was supposed to be and he’s trying to save the team some needed cap space, or maybe he has a strong-armed rabbit to pull out of the proverbial hat. Or maybe he’s unnecessarily playing hardball with a QB who isn’t his guy. We’ll see.
Then there’s Toronto. Word is that co-owner Larry Tanenbaum wants to appoint a football management layer between ownership and the team GM. It makes sense, and it’s an approach he sees working (I guess) with the Maple Leafs. Who will it be? A lot of the CFL’s grownups are either locked into great jobs or on the verge of taking on fewer responsibilities rather than more. I saw a suggestion that Eric Tillman could be the guy, and that makes sense. I’m not convinced of Tillman’s football genius, but I’m convinced that he’s the type of person who will be hired for that job.
In Winnipeg, a team that seems on the cusp of greatness just let its fans breathe a sigh of relief by re-signing Coach Michael O’Shea. Now, the team may be doing some serious soul-searching on whether they have a QB whose trajectory matches the rest of the team. If Saskatchewan loses Durant, he could be enough to propel Winnipeg to true contention in 2017.
The potential for stability on the Alouettes in 2017 should scare the rest of the East and help re-ignite fan interest in Montreal. Hamilton and Ottawa had it pretty easy in 2016 sharing a division with two teams in a bad downward spiral. A Montreal comeback will make the East much more of a horserace, although whether it would be enough to avoid a western crossover in 2017 remains to be seen. Look for Montreal’s new GM and the coaching staff to assemble and ready an offence that can take advantage of its young QBs. Either Rakeem Cato or Vernon Adams could emerge out of training camp as a legit dynamic playmaking QB and make the Als offence a nice complement to the team’s already good defence.
That’s it for now, I’ve tried to avoid talking about teams or situations where I don’t have information or a decent opinion, though I guess that’s really up to you to judge. I’ll check in again as teams sign more of their pending free agents. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter at @CrankyClair.
All the best, and Merry Christmas.
Cranky Frank Clair
Most photos courtesy of Scott Grant Photography. Follow on Twitter at @CFLPhotoArchive.
Last night I was given some homemade guacamole. It looked great, I thanked the person profusely and then I tried it. There was nothing actually wrong with it, but it wasn’t guacamole. Some ingredients were missing, and there weren’t enough of others. With some tinkering, I later made it better, but it still wasn’t good guacamole.
Thanks for your patience. There was a point to that. Because so it goes with the 2016 Ottawa Redblacks. They basically look like the team we saw nearly win the Grey Cup last November, but something’s not right. During camp and through July, it looked like the team was in great shape. The offseason changes didn’t seem to hurt, everyone was rightly lauding the wisdom of adding Trevor Harris, and an early slew of injuries weren’t slowing down the team. And hey, we beat Edmonton! The Redblacks were looking like the team we thought they were, and then August arrived. A big homestand! A chance to lock up the East by Labour Day!
And that’s when everything crashed.
It’s now clear that the ingredients aren’t quite right on this team. But like fixing the guacamole that wasn’t quite right, the answer might be elusive and still not get us where we want. As fans, we look for answers. Many fingers have been pointed at offensive coordinator Jaime Elizondo for lacklustre playcalling. Others have singled out the offensive line where only the LT and C positions have been stable this season and penalties have been frequent. The secondary has certainly come under fire for discipline and a lack of playmaking, while coach Rick Campbell has been stressing how much the team has been hurt by penalties. Kicking and punting have been inconsistent.
But here’s the thing – you can’t really pin the problems on any one element. Everything in football is connected. Poor offensive line play leads to shaky QB play leads to more conservative play selection. An offence that goes 2-and-out too often never gets into a rhythm, never gets a chance to find what might work, and the defence is forced onto the field for far too long. Meanwhile, whether it’s an offensive lineman or a cornerback, getting beat one-on-one tends to lead to penalties which can lead to cautious play which will then lead to getting beat. Poor special teams play leads to risky decisions on 3rd down and doesn’t give the defence the cushion of field position.
Those are the general issues.
Unfortunately, I’m pretty much never given access to the video equipment downstairs, so it’s hard for me to break down the problems as much as I’d like, but there are some questions that are standing out for me:
1. Possible lack of leadership?
Two veteran players left and it seems possible now that no one really stepped in to replace their leadership. Jovon Johnson and Keith Shologan are grownups whose presence in the locker room and on the field may be missed more than we realize. No matter how much Henry Burris remains Henry Burris, he cannot be the leader he was last year while injured or playing backup. It’s the way of the jungle.
2. Where are the playmakers on D?
Playing football is about making something happen, not just filling a spot on the field. While Zack Evans has had a great year at DT and others have contributed here and there, no person on defence has been imposing their will on the offence, affecting gameplans and execution in a meaningful way. Injuries in the secondary have been a factor, and the mouchoir blizzards are more than likely playing with the heads of DBs across the league.
3. Injuries taking a bigger-than-anticipated toll?
And other than the Trevor Harris injury that thrust Brock Jensen onto the field, no single injury has caused panic because there was always someone ready to step up and be “good enough”. The thing is, once there is a “good enough” player at several different spots at the same time, you aren’t dominating and making plays, you’re just treading water. The effect is cumulative and it cascades across the field.
4. Continuity on offence an issue?
For a variety of reasons, the offensive line has needed several shuffles due to injury or individual play. Our running backs keep getting hurt; none have stood out as a ball carrier or receiver who could be a difference maker. QB play has been up and down, and will have to be stabilized by Trevor Harris if the team is going to make a stretch run. He is a very good QB, but he will need better support in the stretch drive.
5. 1,000-yard club feeling the heat?
Except for Ernest Jackson who has been Mr. Reliable, Ottawa’s receivers haven’t delivered like they did in 2015. There have been some notable dropped balls, there have been a lot of throws that looked catchable but weren’t nearly optimal in terms of being catchable or allowing those precious YACs (yards after catch) to happen. No doubt defenses are playing the Redblacks receiving corps tighter than last year, but the fact remains Ottawa needs their big guns to make big plays at big times.
All of this is really context; it’s hard to point at any one area because, as I said, every problem on every side of the ball is interconnected. So I don’t really have specific fixes for this recipe other than the requirement that everyone play better. Easier said than done.
Now, here’s where I get to name some names, both good and bad. I’ll start with my favourite player on the team so far this year and go from there:
Ernest Jackson – The single brightest spot on offence through this season, he’s fought hard for every reception and has been the most reliable target on an offence full of flashy targets. Currently has a 5 game TD scoring streak, Jackson deserves to see that continue.
Chris Milo – We love it when you kick 55-yarders to save the day, but do you have to take the day off the rest of the time?
D-Block – I suspect the officials have gotten inside your heads. Go back to what you do. At various times Mitchell White and Johnathan Rose have shown how closely a guy can be covered without risking a flag. Go do that.
Antoine Pruneau – You won our hearts with your enthusiasm and your reliability to make a tackle. Your enthusiasm is still there, but it may need to be tempered. Go back to basics, you being on the field helps this team, and not just because of your passport.
John Boyett – Starting LB because David Hinds had turned into a guy not really making things happen. Boyett makes things happen. Please keep doing that. Hopefully we can keep him for a full season next year; I’d love to see him get back to the NFL where he really belongs at strong safety.
SirVincent Rogers – Glad he’s bounced back; those were some shaky games in July. He won’t win the CFL best offensive lineman award this year, but at least he’s back to being proficiently invisible.
Tristan Jackson – I love watching him as a return guy. It feels like he could break one open several times a game. And I hope he feels free to concentrate on that because I don’t want to see T-Jack covering receivers unless every other player on the roster under 220 lbs is on crutches.
Khalil Paden – Class act who waited patiently and has been rewarded. Brings an additional deep threat to the receiving corps which has been necessary. Needs to stay consistent to last.
Arnaud Gascon-Nadon – Before he got hurt, he was showing us why Marcel Desjardins felt ok letting Justin Capicciotti go. Gotta get him back and in form. Can’t rush him back, though. See Whiteside, Aston.
Anonymous rotating cast of American DEs – Too many to name. Many flashes in the pan, the team seems to have given up on finding the prototypical 240-250lb CFL speedster. Hopefully one of them will stick. I’m not feeling a lot of hope about Aston Whiteside at this point.
Jaime Elizondo – I haven’t shared in the finger pointing, but one thing that’s bothering me is play inside the opposition 40-yard line (I refuse to use TSN’s “score zone” or whatever dumbed-down term they are using). If the team has packages for moving forward and getting touchdowns as the field shortens, they aren’t working. Too many TDs have turned into FGs or worse, and I think this is one area, at least, where play selection is a factor.
Greg Ellingson – The hero whose catch propelled Ottawa to the Grey Cup gets a bit of benefit of the doubt, but my patience is starting to wear thin. Ellingson ranks 4th in all stats among the Redblacks quartet of bigtime receivers. He has the least number of catches, yards, TDs and he is targeted least often as well. Balls that were catches last year are incompletions this season. Ottawa likely won’t be able to keep all of its receivers this coming offseason, and if I had my pick…
John Gott – Consistency is key. A few too many penalties and a few too many not-great shotgun snaps aren’t helping his case to repeat as an all-star.
And I’ll end this rundown on a positive note…
Zack Evans – Explosiveness, power and great technique have given him better stats than DTs are supposed to have. Needs to keep being rotated out on occasion, there have been stretches mid-game where he obviously needs a break. Fortunately, Ettore Lattanzio seems on track to break some sort of record for most sacks/tackles per minute on the field. He’s simply too small at 250 lbs to get starters’ time inside, but he’s a great rotation guy and one of the pleasant surprises on the team.
So where does all this leave us?
Again, there doesn’t seem to be a single point of failure on this team, although I will again stress that the effect of injuries is cumulative and RNation (including myself) overlooked the effect during those good times back in July.
Coach Campbell likes to talk about both the team and individual players always having either an “up” arrow or a “down” arrow. Too many players have had the down arrow beside their name this season, and the team itself is not headed in the right direction. There is hope, however. This isn’t a Saskatchewan or Montreal situation where the problems are widespread or where personnel simply aren’t good enough. A home playoff date isn’t out of the question, and then anything can happen.
I don’t want to be fatalistic, but the Calgary game next week has all the makings of a loss that will knock the Redblacks firmly into second or even third place. The Argos game at home on September 23rd is when the season starts for real, and that will be the real measuring stick of whether Ottawa will be able to turn this season around.
And besides all that, it will be good to have the guests back at my stadium – its been too long. I’ll be in the southwest corner on my perch, hoping for better guacamole.
Things started Thursday night in Winnipeg on Milt Stegall Night.
After a lightning delay of more than two hours, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers stormed out of the gate and took a 34-0 halftime lead on the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and would win 37-11.
Stegall, the second all-time leading receiver in CFL history behind Geroy Simon, was honored with his family at halftime. Stegall, a Cincinnati native, played at Miami (OH) and then was a Cincinnati Bengal for three seasons before going to Green Bay and then to Winnipeg. During his career, he was a favorite of ESPN personality Chris Berman.
CJ Roberts scored on a pick six early in the game, and then Matt Nichols fired TD passes to Thomas Mayo and Clarence Denmark. Andrew Harris scored a touchdown on the ground.
Hamilton scored a TD in the third quarter when Jeremiah Masoli connected with Terrence Toliver for a 44-yard gain to set up a one-yard TD run by Jeff Mathews.
BC wins in Montreal
Friday night, the BC Lions went into Montreal and outscored the Alouettes 15-0 in the fourth quarter to win 38-18.
Jonathan Jennings completed 27 of 32 passes and tossed a TD to Manny Arceneuax. Jeremiah Johnson scored a touchdown on the ground, and Loucheiz Purifoy made the play of the game by scooping up a loose ball and scoring on a fumble recovery. Richie Leone added four field goals.
BC sacked Montreal QB Kevin Glenn six times. Glenn threw a TD pass to BJ Cunningham and ran for one score.
Bo knows winning
Bo Levi Mitchell of the Calgary Stampeders is the all-time leader CFL in winning percentage among quarterbacks, and he played like it Friday.
Mitchell threw for 312 yards and fired a TD to Anthony Parker in the 35-15 win over Saskatchewan. Jerome Messam and Andrew Buckley ran for TDs. Rene Paredes kicked four field goals.
Rob Bagg scored on a 48-yard pass from Darian Durant for the Riders.
Controversy in Ottawa
All eyes were on Henry Burris as he bounced back with a 23-20 win over the defending Grey Cup champion Edmonton Eskimos in a penalty-filled contest in Ottawa Saturday night.
Burris threw TD passes to ErnestJackson and former New Orleans Saint Chris Williams. After a Jermaine Robinson interception and long return in the dying minutes of the game, Chris Milo kicked a 17-yard field goal to give Ottawa a 23-20 lead. The Redblacks’ defence then came up big by forcing three Mike Reilly incompletions for the win.
Edmonton scored the most unusual TD of the year when a Burris pass appeared to hit the ground but it actually bounced off Williams’ foot and went high into the air. JC Sherritt interception the ball on the run and raced down the sideline to dive into the end zone. Reilly hit Chris Getzlaf, the brother of NHL star Ryan Getzlaf, for the two-point convert.
At halftime, Burris was interviewed by TSN’s Matthew Scianitti, and he unleashed a rant about the criticism and doubts he has faced from fans and, in particular, the TSN panel.
“Henry and I are friends and we have talked about it and shared a laugh,” said Milt Stegall, one of the panelists, in an interview that can be heard on our podcast.
This week’s games
Thursday – Montreal at Edmonton
Neither team has consistently been able to put a full 60 minutes of football together this year, but both teams have explosive passing games. Look for a high-scoring barnburner.
Friday – Winnipeg at Toronto
Toronto is quietly one of the best teams in the league, and back-up Logan Kilgore shone in his first CFL start after replacing an injured Ricky Ray. Winnipeg is also trending upward, and this is a new team after Matt Nichols replaced Drew Willy as the starting QB.
Saturday – Calgary at Saskatchewan
The Riders are a much better team playing in front of the best fans in the CFL at home. They beat Ottawa at home, but can they beat Bo Levi Mitchell and the Stampeders?
Saturday – Hamilton at BC
Zach Collaro smakes his return to the Tiger-Cats’ line up as they face the red hot BC Lions in Vancouver. Hamilton needs a win to keep pace with Toronto and Ottawa in the standings, but BC has been a juggernaut behind coach Wally Buono and quarterback Jonathan Jennings.
The CFL’s East division race has become a tight one following a 4-game stretch that has seen the Redblacks pick up just one win, and now sit with a record of 3-2-1. This makes it time for reflection and a quick review of our personnel, but first, let’s get right to the point regarding the Toronto game (a 23-20 loss this past Sunday evening). The Redblacks defence was good enough for Ottawa to win. The offence was not. Some have been quick to jump on the playcalling. Others have praised Toronto’s defence. I think Argos defensive coordinator Rich Stubler deserves a lot of credit – he seems to have found the secret sauce for containing Ottawa’s receiving corps. Ottawa’s talent should have still been enough, but it wasn’t.
And I’ll say this with no reservations – Henry Burris wasn’t good enough either. My impression is that he was a guy trying to prove the doubters wrong. Whether Burris was forcing balls into coverage, overthrowing or putting too much zip when a bit of touch was required, he had a bad night. Burris definitely wasn’t making good decisions, and its possible that his mechanics were off due to his finger. We’ll see.
The good news is that Hank is a leader and wore his performance in post-game interviews. I also recall that in 2014, “Bad Hank” didn’t usually appear two games in a row. I think his decision-making will be much better vs. Edmonton. The question is how much of his performance was due to this injury and whether that will be resolved before Saturday.
Ok, now let’s take a quick tour through the field to see how things are going and where they are headed.
This remains Henry’s team, and like I said, history says that Bad Hank isn’t likely to appear two games in a row. Trevor Harris won’t be available till after the bye week at the earliest. Burris played about as well as Brock Jensen a week ago. The difference being, that was Hank at his worst. I believe that level of play is Brock Jensen’s normal. This team needs wins, it is already hovering barely over the danger zone for hosting a home playoff game. Burris has to step up and find a way to beat an Edmonton defence that is in disarray and then stomp Saskatchewan.
We can worry about Harris and the starting job when the time comes.
Considering how deep into the big pile of RB resumes GM Marcel Desjardins has had to dig, the running game has been pretty good. I’ve liked Nic Grigsby’s play. Travon Van has a lot of fans and is set to return fairly soon, but I’d like to see the team stick with Grigsby. I much prefer his game. He’s built lower to the ground, hits the hole with far more determination and purpose, and can create a play where there doesn’t seem to be an opening. I was starting to come around on Van before he got injured, but I think Grigsby is better. Van is good enough as a depth back and I like him as a receiver. Van’s trajectory was good before the injury; if he can return to that form, he’ll improve the offence.
It’s disconcerting that Stubler seemed able to throw a blanket over them so consistently in Week 6. You have to believe DCs around the league are figuring out the formula, as Toronto’s personnel aren’t so overpowering that their success against Ottawa can be attributed to talent alone. QB performance aside, against Toronto, our offensive performance in the 2nd half came down to the fact that Ottawa’s receivers could not get open.
There has been a lot of criticism of offensive coordinator Jaime Elizondo’s playcalling as of late, but I suspect the runs, hitch passes and screens were all that was available. This was compounded by Burris’ limitations. The offence could not stretch out the field, the coverage was good and so the offence was simplified down to runs and short gimmick passes.
Make no mistake though, Ottawa’s receivers are still the class of the league. I’m going to single out Ernest Jackson first. Whenever this team has asked him to deliver, he has done it. Short to mid-range passes when the team really needs a first down seem to be his specialty, and his commitment to blocking makes him a role model for every receiver in the league. Greg Ellingson has had a couple of softer games, but no need to sound the alarm bells yet. Brad Sinopoli continues to defy all logic in how a gangly Canadian SB can outrun and outfight so many defenders to both get receptions and big yards after he makes the catch.
Jake Harty started strong and earned the starting spot, but has not been sharp the past while and had an outright poor game vs. the Argos. If the ratio continues to allow it, it is time to bring Khalil Paden back onto the field.
I have no doubt that Chris Williams will be crushing the souls of opposing defenders and their fans again soon. He was scary-fast on the sole deep pass attempt he saw vs. the Argos.
This group managed to give 6-7 seconds of great protection on some snaps vs. a Toronto blitz, and be a complete train wreck on other plays. J’Michael Deane needs to stop getting holding penalties or the coaching staff will have an easy decision to sit him once Nolan MacMillan returns (which should be fairly soon). I think SirVincent Rogers has recovered after a couple of outright bad games, so that’s a comfort. Jake Silas is settling into LT very well, and John Gott remains John Gott. Meanwhile, both Mateas and Lauzon-Seguin have been coming along nicely. I was concerned about Mateas after his first couple of starts but he is improving and is part of the reason why Deane really needs to step up his play. Hopefully the treatment Mateas was receiving on the sideline towards the end of the game Sunday isn’t due to anything serious.
Just when the d-line seemed settled, Arnaud Gascon-Nadon had to go and get injured. He wasn’t exactly making us forget Justin Capicciotti, but he was proving an able replacement and coming into his own. Zack Evans has proven the team was right in letting Keith Shologan go. Connor Williams has been starting due to Moton Hopkins injury, but Williams has played well and it may be hard to sit him once Hopkins returns. They will be see lots of snaps and make a lot of plays regardless of where they sit on the depth chart.
Filling in due to Moton’s injury, UofO grad Ettore Lattanzio has been a very pleasant surprise in the DT rotation. He defies the odds as an undersized Canadian, but he has made some plays and has not been a liability when he’s been rotated in. Aston Whiteside is returning to form after a few weak starts and has shown world-class ability to disrupt throwing lanes and knock down pass attempts.
This was the one position largely unchanged since last season until Malik Jackson was released this week. This may be a salary cap move necessitated by bringing players off the six-game injury list early (Burris, for starters) or it may be because there are other options. David Hinds has been the starter at weakside LB, and keeping an American CFL vet in a back-up role has been a luxury. Burton De Koning in limited action has shown worthy of being bumped up and getting some snaps. Damaso Muñoz remains one of the underrated players in the league, though I’d like to see him make a few more plays from MLB. Antoine Pruneau has been a force, and his maturity is showing. He has expressed interest in pursuing something in the NFL next year. That is a stretch – his coverage skills aren’t great and there are 500 players like him coming out of US colleges and showing up at combines. Hopefully Ottawa will be able to keep him. It seems that when players fall short in an NFL dream they end up changing CFL teams rather than returning and re-signing. Time will tell.
Something no one saw coming is the number of injuries and changes in DBlock. Jerrell Gavins, Forrest Hightower and Abdul Kanneh have all had to come out. Brandon Sermons, who started for the RedBlacks in the Grey Cup, first lost the starting job in training camp to Jonathan Rose, and now he’s off the team entirely. Meanwhile, Desjardins managed to sign former Montreal CB Mitchell White, who was released by the Als due to salary cap issues. This move by Desjardins could rank up there with his acquisition of Harris in the offseason. White arrived during an injury crunch and will provide the grown-up leadership the exuberant DBlock has lacked since Jovon Johnson left. He’s also an outstanding cover guy – his interception vs. the Argos is only part of the story of how well he played in his RedBlacks debut.
The injuries are troubling, however, and here’s hoping that Rose returns to the form that earned him the starting job out of camp. Meanwhile, Tristan Jackson is a good returner and I hope he devotes his energies there. I’ll leave it at that. Jermaine Robinson was forced to play corner vs. Toronto due to injuries, and he showed why he’s used in a “hammer” role rather than as a cover FS. So much for thoughts of him moving to DB. However, John Boyett came in – something I’ve wanted to see for several weeks now – and was exactly as advertised. He’s fast, reads well and arrives at the ball with attitude and purpose. We can expect JRob to soon have NFL options, so Boyett is a good player to have around.
In general, I haven’t been impressed with this group when it plays zone, though their man coverage remains exceptional.
I won’t go too deeply into it but let’s say that we needed Chris Milo to return to form. He hadn’t shown anything since hitting a 55-yard FG vs. Calgary to send that game into overtime. Milo performed as required vs. Toronto which is good news for a team that has had trouble scoring touchdowns lately. Chris Williams took over returning duties vs. the Argos and was no more enthusiastic or effective than he was last season. I have a hard time blaming him, the team needs someone dedicated to the job and that’s been hard to find with Jamill Smith injured.
I’m long overdue to recognize long-snapper Kevin Malcolm. He’s exceptionally good and I don’t think he’s ever gotten the team in trouble, and that’s high praise for an underappreciated and difficult position.
Ottawa’s next game, against Edmonton, isn’t quite must-win for the standings, but it could come to define the Redblacks season. A loss will mean a four game winless streak and a lot of question marks about what this group is really made of. A win against Edmonton instantly reverses the slide. It will also be the foundation for a short winning streak heading into their bye week and then the second half of the season. The fact that another Edmonton loss will throw that team into utter disarray is just a bonus.
As always, see you in the southwest corner at TD Place. Follow me on Twitter at @CrankyClair.