Although this year’s Ottawa Redblacks matched their 2016 record (going 8-9-1), the two seasons couldn’t be more different.
Whether it was the feeling of transition, going from future Hall of Famer Henry Burris to Trevor Harris at QB, the breaking up of the Fab Four receiving corps, or the slew of rookie defenders in starting roles, there was undoubtably a feeling of “prove it” around this year’s squad. And that’s without mentioning the looming spectre of this year’s Grey Cup being held at TD Place.
As they head into the playoffs, Rick Campbell’s group will continue to blaze their own trail, writing a new chapter in franchise history. For the first time, the Redblacks will play in (and host) the East Semi-Final. With Ottawa preparing for Saskatchewan next Sunday, now is as good a time as any to reflect on the journey that brought them to the playoffs.
Without further ado, here’s a look at ten things we can takeaway from the Redblacks’ regular season:
1) Trevor Harris is a weapon (and needs to be re-signed)
When healthy, Harris has proven time and time again that he deserves to be named among the league’s best passers. In 15 games started, Harris led the Redblacks to a 7-7-1 record while completing 69.6% of his passes for a career high 4679 yards and 30 TDs. Harris averaged 8.2 yards per pass and had nine 300+ yard games. The scariest part for opposing teams? There’s still room for him to improve. Harris was sacked 28 times (often as a result of holding onto the ball too long), fumbled eight times (failing to recover the ball five times) and tossed 11 interceptions. Although he’s not in the MOP conversation, given his numbers, he should be. Regardless of what happens in the playoffs, GM Marcel Desjardins needs to ensure Harris inks an extension to remain in the nation’s capital.
2) Brad Sinopoli will be missed
After breaking a bone in his shoulder vs the BC Lions, Canadian receiver Brad Sinopoli has been ruled out for the remainder of the year. Even if the team has national depth at the position (Jake Harty, Austen Hartley and Scott MacDonell), replacing Sinopoli’s massive production is no small chore. In 16 games Sinopoli was targeted 128 times, making 91 catches for 1009 yards and 3 TDs. Even more daunting is the fact that 41 of his receptions came on 2nd down. Look for Juron Criner and Jake Harty to receive increased targets in Sinopoli’s absence.
3) The offensive line is surprisingly deep
Over the course of their first 12 games, the Redblacks gave up a CFL worst 30 sacks, but in their last six games conceded just three. The most startling aspect of said turnaround in protection is that it came with a trio of offensive line mainstays on the sidelines. Jon Gott, SirVincent Rogers and Nolan MacMillan all missed time and in their absence Alex Mateas moved to centre, Evan Johnson made his rookie debut and Jake Silas stepped into the spotlight that comes with protecting the QB’s blind side. Matt Albright also returned from a pre-season knee injury and played well at right guard for a handful of games.
While losing three players who have all been named All-Stars in recent years would be a crippling blow to most teams, thanks to the incredible work done by positional coach Bryan Chiu, the Redblacks not only survived, but thrived. In addition to keeping their QB upright, the offensive line has opened massive holes for their running backs, averaging 128 yards per game on the ground. At this point, Ottawa’s offensive line is playing with house money. The current group of players is more than getting the job done, and if/when SirVincent and MacMillan return, they have the luxury of inserting experienced All-Stars into their lineup.
4) There’s room to improve offensively
Overall, offensive coordinator Jamie Elizondo has done a good job orchestrating a potent attack. Through 18 games his offence averages 377 yards, 23 first downs and 27.5 points per game. Not league leading numbers but nothing to sniff your nose at either.
The big issue which Elizondo must address before the playoffs start is that despite averaging 6.3 yards per play on 1st down, his offence sports an ugly 49.3% 2nd down conversion rate. Keeping drives alive would be beneficial to the Redblacks, if for no other reason than that they make the most of their red zone trips, scoring touchdowns 64.7% of the time they enter inside their opponents’ 20 yard line.
Another area which could use an upgrade is two point conversion attempts. The Redblacks went for two 25 times in the regular season, successfully converting 15 of those attempts. When Ottawa goes for two, a draw run up the gut out of the shotgun formation seems to be Elizondo’s go-to play. A bit of creativity (play-action, a rollout, etc.) might lead to a higher conversion rate.
5) The secondary is young (and it shows)
Three of the five starters in Ottawa’s secondary are rookies. And while not necessarily a bad thing, Sherrod Baltimore, Corey Tindal and Winston Rose have all undergone various degrees of growing pains. With those pains have come some forgettable performances, which are reflected by some unpleasant stats.
As a group, the secondary has given up 29 passing touchdowns and allowed opposing QBs to complete 66.4% of their passes. Teams playing against the Redblacks average 316 yards through the air per game. As for interceptions, what interceptions? Of the 685 passes attempted by opposing QBs, the Redblacks only snagged a meagre 11 interceptions. That averages out to an Ottawa interception every 62.2 passes. Worst of all, it’s not like secondary was hung out to dry, as the Redblacks rank third in the league with 110 QB pressures. Woof.
6) Close games ain’t no thang
In the regular season, the Redblacks set a CFL record by playing in 14 single score games (meaning they won or lost by less than seven points). Given that so many of their games were basically a coin flip, it’s not a stretch to say the Redblacks could easily have been a double digit win team or, conversely, out of the playoffs altogether. Ottawa’s 2017 squad is a group used to having games come down to the wire; they scored 140 points in the 4th quarter but also give up 142. Even if Ottawa came out on the wrong side of most close games (going 1-7-1 in games decided by 4 points of less), ultimately the experience of playing in such intense games could pay dividends in the playoffs.
7) The injury bug bit early (and often)
It’s no exaggeration to say Ottawa’s roster was decimated by injuries. A quick scan of the list below reveals starting quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, offensive/defensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs all out for significant periods of time. Altogether, the Redblacks lost 23 players for at least two games, 18 for at least four and 13 players for six or more games.
Drew Tate = 2 games missed
Mossis Madu = 2 games missed
Brad Sinopoli = 2 games missed*
Jerrell Gavins = 3 games missed*
Trevor Harris = 3 games missed
Jon Gott = 4 games missed
Jake Ceresna = 4 games missed
Tanner Doll = 4 games missed*
SirVincent Rogers = 4 games missed*
Josh Stangby = 5 games missed*
Quincy McDuffie = 6 games missed*
William Powell = 6 games missed
Anthony Gosselin = 6 games missed
Nolan MacMillan = 7 games missed*
Ron Omara = 7 games missed
Jonathan Newsome = 7 games missed
Matt Albright = 7 games missed
Nick Taylor = 10 games missed
Juron Criner = 12 games missed
Jake Silas = 12 games missed
Kenny Shaw = 15 games missed*
Connor Williams = 17 games missed*
Tommie Draheim = 18 games missed*
8) Peaking at the right time
While there’s no denying Ottawa had an awful start to the season (going 1-6-1), since then the team has played extremely well, going 7-3 over their last ten games. If momentum counts for anything, the Redblacks are heading into the playoffs with their best foot forward, riding a three game winning streak.
9) The off-season was a dud*
The asterisk is of course, caused entirely by the signing of Diontae Spencer, which nearly redeems every other failed big name off-season signing made by Desjardins. Although nobody could have predicted his injury woes, Kenny Shaw made no impact whatsoever in the nation’s capital. Ditto for A.J. Jefferson, a veteran who was hyped as capable of mentoring (and anchoring) a young secondary but released after just two games. LB Khalil Bass, a marquee addition who played out of position in Ottawa, underwhelmed, grew discontent and was jettisoned after eleven unproductive games. Even some of Desjardins’ mid-season additions haven’t panned out. Much was expected of Quincy McDuffie but he’s been hurt or outperformed by Spencer when healthy. At least 2017 1st round draft pick Evan Johnson has looked good since being thrust into a starting role on the offensive line.
10) Special teams are finally special
Whether it’s Spencer looking like the first real return threat in Ottawa since Jason Armstead blazed up and down the field in the Renegade area, Keelan Johnson leading the league with 29 special teams tackles (one short of the Ottawa record) or Rick Campbell’s willingness to call trick plays (which are then successfully executed), the Redblacks’ special teams units have been outstanding. From here on out it’ll take complete team efforts to earn wins, and for R-Nation, it’s a breath of fresh air to know that their cover/return units are part of the solution, and not the problem.