With slightly more than a quarter of the pandemic shortened 14-game season in the books — 35 percent if you want to get technical — the Ottawa Redblacks boast a league worst 1-4 record.
Ottawa is not only last in the standings, but also in most of the statistical categories that matter.
As the team uses their second of three bye weeks to search for ways to improve, now is a good time to contemplate a few things we’ve learned about this squad so far.
99 problems and the QB position is one
Initially, the decision to jettison Nick Arbuckle for Matt Nichols could be logically defended. Arbuckle’s 4-3 record in seven career starts paled in comparison to Nichols’ 45-28 career record as a starter. Not to mention Nichols had years of experience in head coach Paul LaPolice’s offensive system, which should’ve been a massive boon in a shorter than usual training camp.
Although general manager Marcel Desjardins swapped first round picks with Calgary in the 2020 off-season to bring in Arbuckle and sign him to a long-term deal, the fact that Nichols was apparently healthy, and most importantly, the pivot his head coach truly seemed to want, meant the GM brought in the veteran.
But given how quickly that decision soured, it’s fair to question if the Redblacks truly did their homework. Was Nichols put through a physical before he was signed? Did anyone watch him throw in person? Or did that only happen the first time he hit the field at training camp?
You can’t really fault a coach for wanting to have “his guy” under centre, especially because if he fails as a head coach in his second opportunity, he likely won’t get a third shot at it. At the same time, you can’t fault a general manager for giving his coach someone he wants. But both can be at fault for not ensuring Nichols was 100 percent fully recovered from his 2019 shoulder surgery.
In four starts, Nichols looked terrible for Ottawa. He went 56-of-86 for 476 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions. He either couldn’t push the ball down the field because he physically was unable to do so — although he has insisted he’s healthy — or he wouldn’t, too set in his conservative, play-it-safe ways.
Nichols averaged 5.5 yards per completion and his highest passing total in any game was 206 yards. Nichols completed 73.6 percent of his pass attempts in the 0-9 yard range (42 passes), 63.2 percent in the 10-19 yard range (12 passes) and 20 percent in the 20-plus yard range (two passes). That lack of a deep threat completely handcuffed the offence. Playing behind a porous offensive line also did him no favours, as his lack of mobility meant he was sacked 12 times.
When Nichols was benched early in Week 4 against the Lions, Dominique Davis came in to replace him. In roughly seven quarters of action, Davis has gone 53-of-84 for 624 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions, averaging 7.3 yards per completion. His completion breakdown is 72.2 percent of attempts in the 0-9 yard range (39 passes), 50 percent in the 10-19 yard range (13 passes) and 41 percent in the 20-plus yard range (five passes).
His mobility has helped disguise some of the shortcomings of the offensive linemen protecting him, but he’s still been sacked six times. The knock on Davis has been his wont to throw inopportune picks, which was on full display in Vancouver.
With neither Nichols or Davis truly seizing the job, the Redblacks have a pair of American rookies they could turn to on their practice roster in Taryn Christion and Caleb Evans. That seems unlikely though given the addition of a high profile neg list player signed during the bye week, but more on Devlin Hodges in a bit.
Ground game MIA
As much as the quarterbacks have struggled, it’s not like the ground game has been any better. Ottawa averages a league-low 71 rushing yards per game. Some of that can be chalked up to their offensive line, and some of that is the result of poor production from main back Timothy Flanders.
In three starts Flanders has 114 yards, 38 per game. The 29-year old is averaging 3.4 yards per carry and his longest gain of the season comes in at nine yards while he has not yet found the end zone. Flanders has been somewhat of a factor in the passing game, making six receptions for 66 yards.
Still, if the Redblacks want to ever get their offence truly going, the only running back normally listed on the game day roster can’t be averaging less than four yards per carry. Perhaps the return of Brendan Gillanders sparks things.
The dam has burst
After three games, Mike Benevides defence was among the best units in the league, conceding 12, 23 and 24 points respectively. More recently, R-Nation has watched a strength become a weakness, as Montreal and B.C. scored a combined 96 points on the unit over the past two games. Those numbers mean that not only have the Redblacks scored the fewest points in the league (80), they’ve also given up the most at 155.
Opposing teams are averaging 7.9 yards per first down play against Ottawa and 408 yards of net offence per game. A large part of that is a result of the Redblacks being the worst team in the league at sacking the quarterback. Of the 160 plays where an opponent has dropped back to pass, Ottawa has only managed to take down the quarterback for a loss nine times.
There’s no denying that Benevides group has been decimated by injuries; Abdul Kanneh, Sherrod Baltimore, Frankie Griffin, Dan Basambombo and Stansly Maponga Sr. are all on the six-game injured list, while Nigel Romick and Reshaan Davis are on the one-game IL.
Furthermore, Clement Lebreux, Kene Onyeka, Charles Stefan and Cleyon Laing have all missed starts with injuries. However, Ottawa’s situation is not unique. Teams all around the league have been dealt rough hands, the difference is other squads have managed to overcome it with depth, strong scheming or leaning on their fundamentals.
Against B.C. in particular, it was Ottawa’s fundamentals that failed them; poor tackling and blown coverages were on display nearly every single Lions possession.
Reinforcements are inbound
Given the mentioned issues, it’s no surprise that Desjardins has used the bye week to parachute in a number of fresh faces. That these additions are mainly on the offensive side of the ball make sense too; they’ve got the pieces on defence, they just need to get healthy.
One thing that’s been interesting to observe this season is how some in R-Nation believe that Ottawa wasn’t bringing in competition for underperforming players because management had a directive from ownership to tighten the purse strings.
Given that OSEG has never had a history of cheaping out on their on field product, this belief may seem strange until you remember that R-Nation overlaps with Sens Army. Senators fans are used to seeing their team owner whiff on and lose players purely for financial reasons, and I think at times those trust issues with regards to Eugene Melnyk’s ownership transfer from one franchise to another since the fans are largely the same.
What that ignores though, is that bringing in new players in 2021 is complicated by player vaccination status and the quarantine period they must undergo before they can actually join the team and begin practicing. There literally was no good time before this Week 7 bye for Ottawa to make a slew of additions.
With receivers Kenny Stafford, Terrance Williams, Terry Williams, Damon Sheehy-Giuseppe, running back De’Lance Turner, Hodges and long snapper Maxime-Latour coming in now, when practice starts up again, they’ll be eligible to actually take part.
Seeing who earns a job, and also who gets cut, will be interesting. There’s no way the team carries five quarterbacks for long and of the 12 receivers currently spread between the active roster and practice squad, who winds up being the odd men out? The decisions will be made quickly out of necessity.
Duck, duck, goose?
‘Duck’ Hodges is an intriguing signing by Desjardins. After four years of being on the team’s neg list, Ottawa finally had him put pen to paper, inking him to a three-year contract. At just 25 years old, Hodges still has his plenty of football ahead of him yet already boasts significant pro experience. Not to mention his skill set seems ideal for the Canadian game. The question becomes how quickly it takes him to learn the basics and if he can adapt to the subtleties of three down football.
Hodges started at Samford University, where he was named the Southern Conference Player of the Year three times in a four-year span. In 2018 he set an NCAA FCS record with 14,584 passing yards and was earned the Walter Payton Award, given to most outstanding offensive player in FCS football.
After going unselected in the 2019 NFL Draft, Hodges was signed to the Pittsburgh Steelers roster. Over the course of training camp he did enough to earn a practice roster spot, and was later elevated to the main roster. When Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph went down with injuries, Hodges stepped in. His six starts resulted in a 3-3 record as he completed 62 percent of his passes for 1,063 yards, five touchdowns and eight interceptions.
As the video demonstrates, the Alabama native has an accurate arm and a knack for using his legs to extend plays. He’s also proven hard to faze. Not many could seamlessly step into the role of starting pivot on a playoff calibre NFL roster and do enough under such pressure to keep the team’s post-season drive alive.
After spending the 2020 season on the Steelers practice roster, Hodges was released and signed with the LA Rams. He was a member of the Rams throughout the off-season and training camp, but wound up being released among the final roster cuts.
The fact that Hodges has committed to the Redblacks for a lengthy period of time is significant. It means he’s put his NFL aspirations on hold and is legitimately interested in giving it a real go in the CFL. From the Redblacks perspective, it’s not every day you lock up a player with Hodges experience from your neg list on a three-year deal. If he pans out, they’ve got him on a bargain. If he fizzles, there will be relatively few cap implications in releasing him. It’s a low risk, high reward signing.
With the 2021 season slowly sliding off the rails and Hodges signed through 2023, Ottawa can afford to be patient. For now, they can give him time to learn the nuances of the three down game. If things go really sideways, they can put him under centre for a few games and at least let him get his growing pains out of the way sooner rather than later. Either way, it’s a shot of hope that the front office can sell fans and perhaps keep them engaged when they might otherwise check out.
None of this is to say Hodges is a lock to become the face of the franchise or even capable of handling backup duties — he’s yet to take a single snap on a Canadian field — but there’s no doubt their quarterback room is better off with him in it.