Redblacks recipe a little off in first half of 2016

By Cranky Frank Clair

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.

Photo: Scott Grant Photography

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.

Ernest Jackson & Greg Ellingson celebrate a TD (Photo: Scott Grant Photography)

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.

John Boyett (Photo: Scott Grant Photography)

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 (Photo: Scott Grant Photography)

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.

Ettore Lattanzio with the tackle (Photo: Scott Grant Photography)

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.

You can follow me on Twitter at @CrankyClair

Thanks for reading!

@DefendTheR

(Header photo courtesy Scott Grant Photography)

Advertisements

Redblacks 2016 training camp battles

By Cranky Frank Clair

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.

Offensive line

Photo Ottawa Citizen

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. 

Defensive Line


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. 

Receiver

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. 

Defensive Backs


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.

Linebacker

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.

Follow Cranky Frank Clair on Twitter – @crankyclair

Thanks for reading!

@DefendTheR

Photos from OttawaRedblacks.com, unless noted.

#RNation

20140215-151213.jpg

In spite of what people think about ‘Redblacks’ as the name for our new CFL team (I’m personally not a huge fan, although it has definitely grown on me), the marketing folks at Ottawa Sports & Entertainment Group have done a nice job in creating a meaningful moniker for the fan base – R Nation (check out #RNation discussion right now on Twitter)

At first glance, it seems too simple, even lazy. (“Yeah, yeah, Redblacks starts with an ‘R’ and you added ‘Nation’. Great…”) But here’s why I think it might just be a little bit of genius:

A link to the past
There is nothing more emblematic of the proud football history in Ottawa than the white ‘R’ that has adorned the helmets of those great Rough Rider teams of the 1960s & 70s, teams that created some of the greatest sporting memories in this city’s history. Not to mention hats & other gear worn by legendary coaches like Frank Clair (below) and Jack Gotta.

20140215-142010.jpg

Yes, we’re not the Rough Riders (two words) anymore. And there are a lot of good reasons, frankly, to let that name die. The last couple decades of that franchise’s existence are better forgotten (perhaps it’s no coincidence that the ‘R’ logo was missing in those last few agonizing years of the Rough Riders existence, not to mention the entire 4 years the Renegades were around). But we’re still Ottawa football and the ‘R’ logo is held in very high regard by those who remember the heydays. This is tradition worth maintaining and honouring.

The ‘R’ is also a great way to create a linkage between the players and the fans of the Rough Riders, Renegades and now the Redblacks.

The Nation’s Capital
Besides team history, R Nation is a clever double-entendre, i.e. “Our Nation”. A great slogan for the team in the capital of Canada’s only true professional sports league. Fits very nicely with the CFL’s “This is our league” slogan, too. And isn’t it a pretty neat thing to be able to say “Welcome to R Nation” to CFL rookies from the US? Oozing with pride & nationalism.

In just a few short weeks, the #RNation name has really been embraced by the budding Redblacks fan base. I must admit it is also part of the inspiration for the name of this humble blog. Again, credit to OSEG and the Redblacks for recognizing these linkages to the past and how important it is to incorporate this rich history into the identity of the new team. They get it.

The R Nation nickname has also been met with some surprising bitterness/anger from Saskatchewan fans who believe it to be too similar to their #ridernation fan base nickname. A little misguided, however, as this is not about them. The Rider name is their’s. But the ‘R’ belongs to Ottawa.