By Matt Macmillan
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!!!
— Henry Burris (@HenryBurris) August 6, 2017
I’m happily retired.. but look at all the names that led and made plays for us to get us into and win the Grey Cup. They’re not here anymore
— Henry Burris (@HenryBurris) August 6, 2017
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.
Follow me on Twitter at @mattmthekid1.
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All photos courtesy Scott Grant Photography. Follow Scott on Twitter at @CFLPhotoArchive.