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.
With roughly two weeks to go until CFL free agents can be signed by any club, the Redblacks situation is unsettled, to say the least. GM Marcel Desjardins and his football ops team could, of course, sign a key player or two anytime. This would chill the natural urge to panic. But given the sheer number and quality of the Redblacks’ free agents, panic seems a reasonable response for RNation.
The Free Agency period begins February 14 and will most certainly see the Grey Cup champions lose some key players and fan favourites to other CFL teams. This doesn’t even include the three players – Mitchell White, Forrest Hightower and Cleyon Laing – already lost to the NFL. This is further fuelled by the fact that only two key players – Antoine Pruneau and Taylor Reed – have been re-signed so far.
Conventional wisdom is that once February arrives, most players will simply wait to test the open market. Guys fit for shiny new Grey Cup rings will be hot commodities.
On the upside, the Redblacks front office has proven to be very smart, creative and decisive. You can’t argue with their success. This is the first time in the Redblacks short history that RNation has witnessed any player-driven roster upheaval, however. The front office has earned the benefit of the doubt, but now a little panic is natural.
Here is a position-by-position rundown of the Redblacks roster as we head into 2017 Free Agency. I’m going to limit my speculation on potential FA additions to the team, as there are simply too many moving parts to that discussion. This rundown will show where the holes will likely be, however.
We know Henry Burris won’t be back and that Trevor Harris is being offered an extension past 2017. Other than that, the QB situation is somewhat open. Brock Jensen, who can be lightly penciled in for the time being as #2 behind Harris, is already signed. Danny O’Brien is a FA, and I don’t see the Redblacks or another team aggressively pursuing him. We’ll soon see how comfortable the Redblacks are with Jensen as backup.
My formula – Try to sign a contender for the #2 spot, but it doesn’t have to be a future hall of famer. Recently-released Saskatchewan QB Mitchell Gale fits that description and should challenge Jensen. The remaining QB spot will take care of itself, though finding a guy to develop into a legit potential starter for a contending team won’t be easy.
The team that has been crushed by RB injuries has shown a remarkable ability to find very good replacements. That ability may soon be tested again. 2016 standout Mossis Madu is under contract for this season, but he is 29 years-old and coming off injury. The RB who emerged in 2015, William Powell, re-signed on Tuesday but is coming off a serious injury that saw him miss the entire 2016 season. Able depth RBs Travon Van (INT) and Kienen LaFrance (CDN) are both pending free agents. With two key players coming off injury and the status of the depth players uncertain, we have to look at RB as worrisome but not panic-inducing. We have other positions to panic over.
My formula – Powell’s signing is welcome and likely not too expensive after missing a season. He and Madu will compete hard for the number one spot. Depth will be critical: it has been a Darwinian existence for Ottawa Redblacks running backs.
This means signing LaFrance, if possible. He’s a nice Canadian option to have back there and he has upside. I’m torn on Van – I like his improvement through 2016 and he’s decent as a receiver coming out of the backfield, but I’ve never liked his upright running style and he doesn’t hit the line with a lot of certainty. Van may not be worth trying to re-sign and it is possible he’ll find starter’s money elsewhere.
There isn’t much point in waxing poetic about what Ernest Jackson, Greg Ellingson and Chris Williams mean to the Redblacks and RNation. We know who they are and what they have done to secure two consecutive Grey Cup berths and earn Ottawa its first Grey Cup in forever. All three are pending free agents. In addition, depth receiver and fan-friendly Khalil Paden as well as Jamill Smith could enter the open market. Williams is scary-fast and gives the Redblacks an unmatched deep threat, but he is coming off knee surgery and won’t likely be available till mid-season. Worth a hefty signing? That is a complicated question with a multifaceted answer based on whether he recovers and how much demand there is for Williams. Without the injury, I would say re-signing him is a slam dunk “yes”, because of the dimension his speed adds to the entire offence. Sure, he drops balls, but with Harris throwing, Williams has proven to be the CFL’s most dangerous threat.
Ellingson has been testing the NFL waters, but there doesn’t seem to be a ton of interest. And then there is Jackson, who could be in for a big payday as a money receiver who is at the absolute top of his game at the best possible time. He catches everything, is good for yards after the catch (YAC), and his commitment and effectiveness at blocking make the entire team better.
So looking at the three of them together, this remains complicated. Harris has exceptional deep-ball accuracy, making him all the more effective when he has a true deep threat to play catch with. Without Williams, Harris doesn’t have a scary-fast deep threat. But does he need one, and will Williams be that guy again? There is no certain answer. Ellingson, while a fan fave, I hate to say it, is not worth a hefty raise. There are other Greg Ellingsons out there, and some of them might even make the CFL Hotties list.
My formula – Sign Jackson. Figure out how to make it work with Williams, knowing that what he’s paid won’t be charged against the cap until he starts to play. If signing Ellingson means more than a five or ten percent raise or the inability to sign Jackson, let him go elsewhere. Juron Criner is signed and has proven his value. John Harris has spent a year on the practice roster and he has potential and pedigree. If Khalil Paden can find starter dollars elsewhere, he should take it. I would re-sign Jamill Smith. It won’t break the bank and he is reliable, if not spectacular, as a returner.
Meanwhile, the Redblacks lack of Canadian depth at receiver is a little alarming. Brad Sinopoli is one of the best in the league, but there is no one behind him who is a potential starter. This should be the Redblacks biggest priority at the upcoming CFL draft, which is deep and rich in receiver talent.
The Redblacks two starting guards are pending free agents. Normally this would be cause for alarm, and it only will be a concern if the team can’t re-sign Nolan MacMillan. J’Michael Deane doesn’t seem like a priority. He draws a ton of flags, and the Redblacks have OL depth that needs a place to play. Here is the Redblacks OL lineup if a game was being played tomorrow:
LT – SirVincent Rogers, American, one of the best in the league
LG – J’Michael Deane, pending FA
C – John Gott, East nominee for top lineman in 2016
RG – Nolan MacMillan, very good player, missed much of 2016 with injury
RT – Jake Silas, young, capable and improving American. Injured late in 2016.
Depth – Jason Lauzon-Séguin, can start at RT or at G
Depth – Matt Albright – ready to start at G
Depth – Alex Mateas – former 1st overall pick. Has not progressed as hoped
Depth – Tommie Draheim – American started last few games at RT. Buttressed by very good teamwork in backfield and by rest of OL.
My formula – I would let Deane go elsewhere and try to sign MacMillan, using a decent portion of Deane money if necessary. If this happens, I would let Lauzon-Seguin and Albright fight it out at camp for the vacant LG spot.
However, losing MacMillan would not make signing Deane a priority, in my opinion. This is because of the ability of both Albright and Lauzon-Séguin to shine at Guard. Both are more than ready. Mateas is an able depth guy who could compete for a starting G spot in camp but would likely wind up as the depth guy at G/C. At some point, Mateas’ cap hit as a first overall pick may become an issue if he isn’t able to earn a starting position. The team has other depth players signed, although losing MacMillan would heighten the priority of finding OL options in the draft and during free agency.
The big name and 2016 contributor facing free agency is fan-favourite Moton Hopkins. He is a solid American defensive tackle who can collapse the interior with his exceptional strength – he has a lot of snaps where he puts the offensive lineman opposite onto roller skates, helplessly pushed into the backfield. He isn’t one of the league’s brand name elite DTs, but Moton holds his own, is an important part of the roster and helps the team win.
Also notable is Aston Whiteside, who had a terrific few games in 2015 before a knee injury that seems to have never really healed. He came back for a time in 2016, but with little impact. I can’t imagine that Whiteside will be highly sought-after in free agency.
My Formula – Sign Hopkins. He won’t likely break the budget, and he provides strength and explosiveness (alongside Zack Evans) inside on a DL where the key rotation DT is effective but undersized. The only way I would consider not bringing Moton back is if Cleyon Laing was brought back or if 2016 draft pick Mehdi Abedesmad was proving not ready for the NFL. Neither of those is happening, so Hopkins is a priority.
Whiteside is low risk to re-sign and bring in to camp to see if that knee has finally healed. The Redblacks haven’t turned up another gem at DE, the price should be low to see if Whiteside can again shine. The team can’t rely on this, however, and the team’s long search for its next speed rush DE must continue. Mike Moore, another FA lineman, is worth bringing in at a low price. He has proven to be a decent depth player who will get a chance to compete at camp.
After some mid-season shuffling, this unit became a big part of the Redblacks success, and two-thirds of the Grey Cup starting trio is now under contract – Damaso Muñoz and Taylor “Tank” Reed, making Reed one of only two FA starters to be extended so far.
The open position is SAM LB, the slot that is a hybrid LB/pass coverage role that was filled by Antoine Pruneau for much of his first three years with the team. Pruneau moved back to free safety partway through last season and he has been re-signed already, avoiding another free agency headache. However, Jerrell Gavins, an unlikely linebacker if there ever was one, performed very well through the end of last season and he is a pending FA.
Signing Gavins won’t be a slam dunk, and it is very likely that his talents will be needed in the secondary anyway.
So where does that leave the LB corps? John Boyett has turned heads at free safety and weakside LB (WILL LB) for the Redblacks. Boyett’s skill set, aggressiveness and pedigree as a legit NFL strong safety make him an ideal candidate for SAM. However, Boyett is both a pending FA and coming off an unspecified knee injury.
My Formula – Sign Boyett. Regardless of when his knee heals, I want him on my football team. The price shouldn’t be too high. Then we really hope he returns to form. As for Gavins, the team needs him back, but as a defensive back due to offseason departures. If necessary, Pruneau can play SAM until Boyett returns. The Redblacks have a pile of FS on the depth chart, one of them could emerge as more than a special teams contributor during camp.
There is no way to sugar coat this – the Redblacks defensive backfield has already been hit hard and it could get much worse. Mitchell White was one of the best cover cornerbacks in the CFL. He has now signed in the NFL (Philadelphia).
Forrest Hightower, one of the heroes of the Redblacks 2016 playoff run – also signed in the NFL (New Orleans). Abdul Kanneh, the king of the Grey Cup-saving shoestring tackle, is a pending free agent. Gavins, who has played most of his Redblacks career in the secondary and who will likely be needed there in 2017, is also a pending free agent.
Pruneau and Jonathan Rose are all that’s left, and the depth in the secondary isn’t what it used to be. Tristan Jackson is a DB whose value to the team is as a return specialist. Hopefully he can be re-signed and return to the form we saw before a late season injury. In the team’s short history, Jackson has been the team’s best and most threatening return guy. He should not be viewed as part of the answer in the secondary, however.
My formula – The Redblacks front office has apparently viewed the defensive backfield as a position where league minimum is the norm. Can that really continue? I say find a way to pay Kanneh and Gavins.
The team has seemingly had a DB tree in the back yard, with new outstanding players becoming ripe to start on a regular basis. But that’s not reality. The pipeline isn’t going to keep spitting out elite players forever. The team has exceptionally good coaching back there, and the team has proven to be very good at finding guys – but there are a finite number of players who can play the secondary under Canadian motion and contact rules.
Kanneh and Gavins are proven legit starters on a contending team, there is too much downside to let them walk over $10k in salary. Sign them.
That’s all for now. I’ll be fretting on my pedestal in the southside stands, watching carefully as this plays out.
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.
It has been pure joy to read the many articles, blog entries, Facebook posts and Tweets capturing Ottawa’s first Grey Cup victory in 40 years. Nearly two weeks have passed and it still feels a bit dream-like. For a city and fanbase not used to having nice things, it has definitely been an adjustment period.
Not often does a championship carry so much weight for a city and have such deep an impact on the families that support the team, with fans spanning two, three, even four generations. It is equal parts elation, relief and vindication for a city that too often gets a bad rap.
Thanks to all of you in #RNation for sharing your experiences, celebrations and memories. It’s been a real pleasure.
With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to try and capture my Grey Cup experience in photos rather than words (well, maybe just a few words). Hope you enjoy.
(Photos mostly courtesy my bro)
Grey Cup & poutine. #Canadianity
Sigh of relief. And now, gametime. Time to put the phones away…
…until late in the 4th quarter.
An onside kick away from sealing it and… oh crap.
Put the phones away again!!!
After an emotional night, the after-party was subdued but delicious!
After midnight on the walk back downtown to catch a cab. All’s quiet, but a final reminder of what this team just accomplished.
Best day ever.
Two days later, celebrating with the rest of Ottawa:
The guys discuss the CFL’s East and West Finals – two very different contests – and preview the 104th Grey Cup match-up between the Ottawa Redblacks and the Calgary Stampeders. Footloose shares some Grey Cup memories, looking back at the CFL’s first Grey Cup festival in 1948. This week’s guest interview is News Talk 770 and Calgary Stampeders radio host Dave Rowe. Dave and Footloose have a fun chat about what we can look forward to on Grey Cup Sunday.
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.
A lot has been said in mainstream and social media about the Duron Carter incident over the last week. Some of it reasonable, far too much of it not. I’m not interested in re-hashing each element of the incident or perform a Zapruder film-like dissection of the various TSN broadcast angles. In my estimation, it is all pretty meaningless and does little else than deflect from the only issue of any import or relevance: An opposing player aggressively approached the Ottawa Redblacks sideline and recklessly knocked over head coach Rick Campbell.
The rest: details.
Was Jermaine Robinson’s hit on Carter after the TD catch dangerous and worthy of a fine? Yes. Should Jerrell Gavins have been fined for punching the back of Carter’s head after he knocked Campbell down? Probably. Was Campbell on the field of play? Of course. Was Carter concussed? Maybe. But all of that is nothing but window-dressing. Missing the forest for the trees. Footnotes to the real story.
A player went after an opposing coach.
It’s pretty simple: Coaches have to be protected from acts like this. Leagues protect their officials – like the NHL did in the Dennis Wideman case – because they are vulnerable to the much larger, stronger, amped-up athletes they’re paid to look after. Football coaches are very similar in this respect.
(Side note: How anyone in their right mind could believe the 5’10”, not-very-athletic Campbell would initiate contact with a 6’5″ fully-equipped and partially-enraged football player is mind-boggling.)
The end result from the CFL was a single-game suspension for Carter and fines for other members of the Redblacks, including Campbell, which didn’t sit very well him. It’s a real shame the CFL didn’t take the opportunity and send a message to Carter with a suspension in the 2-to-4 game range, especially now that the player has apparently decided to appeal. Imagining a scenario where everyone directly involved in the Carter incident EXCEPT CARTER gets reprimanded by the league is pretty sickening. The league should have seen that coming, too. We’ll see how it plays out.
Everyone will have their point of view, and I get that (we can’t all be right ;)). Here are a couple places (from outside of Ottawa) that I believe describe the incident appropriately.
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.