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.
It looks like an American will take the RT spot. Jake Silas has been with the starting o-line, and while he isn’t dominating, he doesn’t look out of place, either. Tommie Draheim is the other American the RedBlacks are looking at for the position. I’ve seen him take some very difficult reps in o-line vs d-line drills, but it’s a long camp.
This means that it appears Nolan MacMillan will remain at guard, and 2015 first overall pick Alex Mateas remains backup. Mateas looks in great shape, but he hasn’t dominated in camp. This having been said, o-line can take longer to get it together during pre-season, so time will tell. 2016 first rounder Lauzon-Seguin is coming along nicely, but certainly isn’t pushing for a starting job yet.
On the other side of the ball, Zack Evans and Moton Hopkins are the clear leaders of the d-line. They are in great shape and have dominated in drills. I thought last season that Evans had surpassed Keith Shologan, and I don’t think the team will really miss the free agent departee.
Those who follow me on Twitter know I’d been looking for a DT to step up for the depth position inside, and I was hoping Connor Williams would do it. He has delivered. Quick and very strong, he looks like a DT/DE tweener but he has been explosive inside and will allow a very good rotation at DT. Unfortunately, Amobi Okoye still hasn’t been medically cleared to join the team, so the former NFLer must be assumed to be out of the picture for 2016 until we hear otherwise. It remains to be seen who will be a 4th DT.
DE is another story. Aston Whiteside continues to sit out drills. The team says it is easing him in, we’ll see over the next two weeks whether his activity level ramps up. It doesn’t seem to have changed in the ten days of camp so far. Filling Whiteside’s first team spot in drills has been 6′ 6″ Marlon Smith, who seems to be the best of the American pass rushers brought into camp. [UPDATE: Smith was released on 6/10]. At the other DE position, Arnaud Gascon-Nadon has been the starter. None of the Americans remaining at DE seem to be making it a tough decision to keep a Canadian at the position.
A Canadian passport may be enough to tip the balance in competition for the open WR position. Kalil Paden and Jamill Smith have proven reliable and they both have great hands. Former Texas Longhorn John Harris is showing his potential; all three seem to be having a very good camp. Canadian content requirements being what they are, it might not be enough to get that open spot. Jake Harty is playing with the first unit and seems to fit in well.
Paden, Smith and Harris will be hard to keep off the field, however. It will be interesting to see over the next two weeks how much they push 1,000-yard club members Ernest Jackson, Greg Ellingson and Chris Williams.
Overall, the offence is looking sharp. DBlock is flying around doing its thing and hasn’t missed a beat despite the offseason departures. The LBs from last season look like they’ll be the LBs this season, other than perhaps a newcomer or two to shore up special teams. This remains very firmly Henry Burris’ team – it’s a joy to watch him run the offence.
We remember Trevor Harris’ performances against the RedBlacks last season and how sobering they were for RNation. Harris is showing that same deftness in camp and he’s doing it with a nice R on his helmet instead of that ugly A.
Next stop – the first pre-season game on June 13th. Someone will step up and be noticed, someone will get noticed for the wrong reasons, and someone will scare RNation with an apparent injury. And immediately after the game, the team will have to cut its training camp roster down to 65. We’ll be back next week to review the game and see how things are shaking out with the reduced roster.
And on Monday, I’ll be thrilled to welcome everyone back to my house to watch football on my lawn. Come say hi, but please don’t spill beer on my foot.
My view from the corner of TD Place Stadium isn’t the greatest. I don’t talk to coaches and can’t see the whiteboards downstairs. But I still have a view of the RedBlacks heading into camp.
The Redblacks 2016 training camp storylines don’t begin with the opening of camp. They begin with key player departures during the offseason. Ottawa lost a star RT and DE, a very solid DT and two very good defensive backs. Colouring every story is the need for CFL teams to start seven Canadians, and when one comes off the field, another must go on. This is important context for the stories that will unfold over the next 3-4 weeks.
The big question mark on the offensive line is whether the Redblacks can use a Canadian at RT. This would help their ratio elsewhere on the field. So watch for solid offensive guard Nolan MacMillan to get a look at right tackle, which will open up the spot for last year’s #1 draft pick Alex Mateas to start at G. Tackles have to be highly mobile to handle the fast and agile CFL defensive ends. MacMillan may not be able to make the transition. If he stays at G, then the RedBlacks will have both Mateas and perhaps their first rounder Lauzon-Séguin on the bench ready to fill in when an injury hits. As for RT, if not MacMillan then look for it to be one of two Americans. The candidates are former BC Lions OT Tommie Draheim or the 6-7 Jake Silas who was on the Redblacks practice roster last season after a weekend-long sniff at an NFL rookie camp. The rest of the o-line is set and there will be few depth jobs available.
The defensive line has a lot of question marks, and how they’re answered could determine whether the Redblacks earn a home playoff game in 2016.
D-line gets complicated if the team can only start three Canadians on the o-line. Star defensive end Justin Capicciotti and his Canadian status may be irreplaceable. GM Marcel Desjardins seems to like former Ticat Arnaud Gascon-Nadon to replace Capy, but that’s a big leap. Connor Williams could step up but hasn’t shown a lot even when not injured. So that spot could go to an American. Options include the hyper-focused LaDarius Owens from Auburn, small school standout Emmanuel Graves, 6-6 Kendall Williams, or newly-signed small school standout Jake Ceresna who has solid testing numbers but played against weak competition. The players will sort this out themselves by stepping up (or not) during camp and pre-season.
Aston Whiteside was brilliant at the other DE position last year until his knee injury and the Redblacks were forced to sign the now-departed Shawn Lemon. Whiteside is reportedly ready to play, but until he faces full contact we won’t know if his knee will get him around the corner as effectively as it did last season. #RNation is crossing its fingers on Whiteside’s return. Even with Whiteside’s return, he could be shut down by opponents if he is the only threat. Much of the 2015 success was because they could apply pressure all along the line of scrimmage.
Just when DT seemed stable, at press time, former NFLer Amobi Okoye is still not signed while the club awaits medical clearance. Okoye had a promising NFL career before a serious medical issue forced him out. He’s apparently recovered and is looking strong. Hopefully, medical sign-off is a technicality that will be cleared up soon. If not, DT becomes a huge question mark. Zack Evans and Moton Hokpins can’t play every snap. DT needs players rotating in and out to be effective. Okoye, Evans and Hopkins would be a formidable trio that would likely be augmented by a Canadian to avoid ratio issues elsewhere when Evans rests.
One solution to the probable lack of a Canadian DE could be starting Jake Harty at WR. Harty seems faster and more versatile than Scott MacDonnell. Again, this is something that will get sorted over the next few weeks.
The import spots at receiver seemed set until Texas WR John Harris arrived. He put up very impressive numbers his senior year with the Longhorns against primetime competition. Lack of NFL interest could be because he saw very few balls prior to senior year. He’ll provide stiff competition at camp for the incumbent American WRs. Expect Chris Williams to be able to concentrate solely on receiver duties from day one this season. Ellingson and Sinopoli were unknown quantities to the opposition at the beginning of 2015. Expect them to get more attention now, opening up the field elsewhere.
The d-line justly gets a lot of credit for its 2015 success; “D-Block” deserves credit for many of their league-leading sacks. There are two big departures in Jovon Johnson and Brandyn Thompson. Fortunately, D-Block is deep. The incredibly-named Forrest Hightower was emerging as a solid player last season once he got some playing time, while Abdul Kanneh and Jerrell Gavins firmly established themselves last season as very reliable and dangerous. Brandon Sermons was fairly steady last season. We can also expect an unknown to emerge at camp. It’s the CFL way with DBs.
This is pure speculation, but I wonder if a move to FS might be considered for current SAM linebacker Antoine Pruneau. Last season’s FS Jermaine Robinson could ably slide over to a vacant DB position. Marcel Desjardins is bringing a lot of LBs into camp. Pruneau’s passport and his effectiveness means he’ll be on the field somewhere, but IF he has picked up any speed over the offseason and if any of the LBs in camp turn enough heads, Pruneau could end up at FS. A glaring hole in the defensive backfield requiring Robinson’s services could also force the move. Pruneau plays a vital pass and run coverage role as SAM LB, and a very fast, smart and reliable player would have to emerge to replace him.
It’s hard to determine before camp whether that player exists.
The team has brought in a lot of LBs who look impressive on video playing for small colleges. One of them could emerge to push David Hinds or Damaso Muñoz. Both are solid, particularly Muñoz who has been one of the league’s underrated players since he arrived. LB prospects will have to push Hinds or one of them will have to show ability to play SAM. Special teams performance is the best path for aspiring LBs to make the roster, even better if they are Canadian.
QB, RB and Special Teams
Nothing to see here, folks. Burris is the number 1 QB. Harris won’t start until next season as long as Hank stays healthy and winning in 2016. RB is largely set, although history shows the need to have a steady supply. Expect a back or two to emerge during camp. Lavoie is a beast at FB. Kicker and punter are set for the first time in RedBlacks history. Finally.
It all starts Sunday. I’ll be watching from the southwest corner, if you need me.
With the Capital Gaming Expo taking place in Ottawa this weekend, our friend and board game guru Stephen Conway was fortunate to get a private tour of TD Place earlier today. Conway, host of the popular board game podcast The Spiel and a special guest of this weekend’s Expo, is a lifelong Colts fan and a recent addition to #RNation South. Here are Stephen’s impressions of the stadium and some great photos.
Greetings from snowy Ottawa. Getting ready for 3 fun days at the Capital Gaming Expo!
Started with a special treat this morning: a private tour of TD Place, home to the Ottawa Redblacks of the CFL.
It’s a fantastic facility in the Glebe neighborhood in the heart of the city. Not a bad seat in the house. We got to see the team locker room (including the ageless QB Hank Burris’ locker) and player’s lounge, the luxury suites, the press box, and walk around the field. A real treat for any fan of football. Now I just have to come back this summer for a game!
TD Place is also home to the Ottawa Fury FC soccer team (who would have been practicing on-field if not for the snow) and there’s also a hockey rink built under one side of the stands, home to the Ottawa 67’s.
Next door to the stadium is the Aberdeen Pavillion (you can see it in the distance through the windows in the pic of the bar), one of the oldest standing indoor hockey rinks in the world. The Ottawa Senators played there in 1904, including games for the Stanley Cup.
I have to thank my pal Fabio Del Rio for turning me into a Redblacks fan. So glad he could come on the tour as well.
Thanks to the CGE staff for organizing the outing and to the Redblacks for the tour!
Thanks for sharing with us, Stephen. See you at TD Place this summer!
With all the free agent signings last week, it really looks like the RedBlacks will see a drastic improvement in Year 2.
Another area I feel the team can improve is their look on the field. As I have indicated earlier on Defend the R, I haven’t been the biggest fan of their current look.
Realizing that their jerseys can’t change after a mere season (the uniform manufacturer, Reebok, apparently likes to keep the same set for a minimum of 2-3 years before changes are made), I offer the suggestion that they improve the helmet design and add more red; something that is in the hands of the Ottawa equipment managers rather than Reebok.
Here’s my proposal:
Ideally, with training camp right around the corner, I would love to spread the word and see if this can’t reach the @RedBlacks directly.
With them having their locker room sale for all of last year’s game-worn gear, they will be preparing to order 2015’s inventory soon.
Maybe we can catch them at the right time! What say you, Ottawa? Yay or Nay?