Everything was seemingly lining up the Redblacks’ way.
They were fresh off a bye and their opponent was coming off a short week. Reinforcements had been added and banged up players were healthy and returning to action. The weather wasn’t great, lending itself to chaos and unpredictability, two crucial elements of an upset. And the visiting Hamilton Tiger-Cats were without their top two quarterbacks and the reigning CFL MOP receiver.
Instead, as has been the case all too often at TD Place, the visiting team emerged victorious. The Ticats didn’t dominate but their early lead was never challenged — the game never felt close. When it was all said and done, Hamilton secured a 24-7 win over Ottawa.
Here are all my thoughts on the game:
1) Dominique Davis’ night started off bad and finished worse. From the get-go he seemed to be on a different page than his receivers and even when he threw the ball accurately their way, they dropped it. R.J. Harris had a drop. Timothy Flanders had a drop. Kenny Stafford didn’t, but on a 50-50 ball, he failed to make a play. Davis completed 6-of-14 passes for 50 yards and for the second week in a row threw an absolutely soul-crushing interception that was returned for a defensive touchdown.
Jumal Rolle @Rolle_Island 🏝
— 3DownNation (@3DownNation) September 23, 2021
To make matters worse, he seemed to tweak his hamstring on the play, pulling up suddenly as he tried to chase down the defender.
Davis’ exit meant Matt Nichols returned to the field for the first time since being pulled against Montreal in Week 5. His entrance provided a flicker of life for the offence but following his initial five-play drive, the next three he led resulted in two-and-outs.
Nichols’ completed 7-of-10 passes for 68 yards and while there did appear to be a bit more zip on his throws, just like the first four games he started, he failed to even try and push the ball downfield. An injury to his left wrist on scramble meant he exited the game and thanks to a stupid rule change for the 2021 season, the Redblacks found themselves with zero healthy quarterbacks.
2) Kudos to Nate Behar for stepping in as the emergency quarterback and it’ll forever be a quirky piece of trivia that he completed a CFL pass — a three-yarder on the game’s second to last play — but it’s ridiculous that it came to that.
As recently as 2019, every single CFL team dressed three quarterbacks for every single game. But in 2021, as a result of teams looking to cut corners and limit rosters sizes, the league decided not to force teams to dress three pivots.
As my colleague JC Abbott pointed out, you technically can still have more than two quarterbacks on your game day roster, but the wording of the rule is convoluted and silly. This is a change that was not only entirely unnecessary, but one that hinders the growth of the league by limiting quarterback development.
Hopefully common sense prevails and this rule is one and done. Every single team in the league has been playing with fire this season by only having two quarterbacks available on game day. Ottawa was the first to be burned but they won’t be the last.
3) With Davis and Nichols potentially both unavailable, Ottawa might be forced to dress two rookies at quarterback for next Tuesday’s game versus Edmonton; Taryn Christion and Caleb Evans. Of course, Evans is currently on the disabled list, so that would need to change. Frankly, even if Davis and Nichols are available, they aren’t the future and there’s nothing either can do to magically improve overnight. They are what they are at this point in their careers, significantly flawed and not starter material.
Some will call for the recently signed Devlin Hodges to be immediately thrust into action, but to them I would ask: what’s the rush? Ottawa’s last in the league and winning one game against a Western opponent won’t help much in the playoff race. Hodges should be given time to get his feet wet in practice, come to grips with the playbook and learn the Canadian game without the added stress of also being expected to lead the team out of a slump.
4) At what point does Paul LaPolice shoulder some of the blame for the offensive woes plaguing the team? It’s easy to point to roster deficiencies but doing so overlooks the fact that the Redblacks actually do have some offensive weapons at their disposal. Ryan Davis is dynamic, Anthony Coombs, who went third overall in the 2014 CFL Draft, has a career average of nine yards per catch, R.J. Harris had nearly 800 yards receiving in 2019 and DeVonte Dedmon is literal game-changer.
The fact that some of the players underperforming – such as Timothy Flanders and his 3.8 yards per carry – were brought from Winnipeg to Ottawa at LaPolice’s request, also can’t be ignored.
For a coach widely regarded as an offensive genius, he certainly seems to be struggling to scheme to the strengths of his players. A master chef is at his peak when he’s cooking with his own kitchenware and ingredients but should still be able to whip up a delicious meal anywhere as long as there’s food in the fridge. The same theory applies here and it’s not unfair for R-Nation to expect more from their head coach and play-caller.
Against the Ticats, Ottawa generated 189 yards of net offence, 10 first downs and averaged a paltry 3.9 yards per play. The Redblacks had a 16 percent conversion rate on second down (3-for-19) and of their 17 offensive possessions, 14 lasted four plays or less. 10 resulted in two-and-outs and five in turnovers. Ottawa’s offence failed to score a single point and this was the fifth game in a row in which they failed to ever lead at any point in the game.
5) For the first time this season, the Redblacks started four Canadian offensive linemen. After spending most of the season at centre, Mark Korte was out at left tackle, Jakub Szott and Nolan MacMillan were at their usual guard positions with Andrew Pickett at centre and American Jamar McGloster got another start at right tackle.
Let’s start with the good. In terms of pass protection, this was probably the best any group of lineman has provided Davis and Nichols all season long. When they did drop back to pass, their errant throws were on them, not as a result of being pressured. Davis in particular was given a number of clean pockets.
The bad is that as has been the case for the entirety of 2021 so far, this group has no real push in the ground game. Good offensive lines have success because every player does their job well in relation to the man beside him. That might mean chipping a defender to help set up a block, it might mean pulling on time, it might simply be winning a leverage battle by getting a quick first step. Regardless, Ottawa’s big men aren’t doing it nearly well enough.
The lack of push in short yardage is evident not only in the fact that the Redblacks averaged 3.6 yards per carry, but more simply by the two times the team turned the ball over on downs because they couldn’t get a yard on third-and-one. Seven of the last 11 times Ottawa has gone for it on third-and-one, they’ve been stuffed. Given that the defence is literally forced to line up a yard off the ball, that should be a gimme.
Offensive line coach Bob Wylie still has his work cut out for him.
6) After having 96 points dropped on his defence over their last two games, full credit to Mike Benevides for getting his unit right. Despite continually being put in bad positions by their offence, Ottawa’s defence played hard, swarming football.
Led by Avery Williams’ game-high 11 tackles, the Redblacks limited the Ticats to 13 first downs and 17 points. Part of Ottawa’s success at limiting Hamilton’s attack came as a result of their decision to switch their front from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Interesting to note that the extra linebacker who came in to replace a defensive lineman was often, but not always, 2020 first round CFL Draft pick Adam Auclair.
Hamilton converted 35 percent of their second down opportunities (9-for-26) and of their 17 offensive possessions, only one went for more than 27 yards. Most nights that kind of defensive effort contributes to winning football, but not on a night when the offence fails to register a point.
7) You can really tell a lot about someone when they continue to stand out for giving their all in situations that lend themselves to checking out. Randall Evans and Micah Awe aren’t perfect football players, but they play hard for the full 60 minutes and it would behoove R-Nation to recognize their efforts. The duo finished with eight and six tackles respectively.
8) Bob Dyce had his special teams units jacked up and ready to play. No doubt the return of a couple of key Canadian veterans in Nigel Romick and Brendan Gillanders helped. In fact, Gillanders threw a critical block on Dedmon’s 63-yard punt return touchdown that set the initial edge. Global player Tyron Vrede also threw an important block in the middle of the return.
— 3DownNation (@3DownNation) September 23, 2021
Dedmon is easily Ottawa’s most exciting player and legitimately developing into one of the game’s most dangerous returners. In addition to his punt touchdown, Dedmon also averaged 28 yards per kick-off and missed field goal return. As long as he can stay healthy, the sky’s the limit.
9) For an organization that gets so much right, what the hell was OSEG thinking in “honouring” — and I use that term VERY loosely — Brad Sinopoli the way they did on a Wednesday night?
Sure, the saw blade is cool. But really?
One of the greatest to lace up his cleats, Brad Sinopoli former @REDBLACKS was honoured tonight in the Nation's capital!
— CFL (@CFL) September 23, 2021
Even if the Redblacks weren’t putting a terrible product on the field — they are — a mid-week game was never going to be a full house. Besides, a ceremony that was more of a Christmas gift handoff is a joke of a way to say thanks to a local legend and fan favourite.
There’s a real case to be made that Sinopoli’s number belongs on the walls of TD Place alongside names like Russ Jackson, Moe Racine, Bobby Simpson, Henry Burris, Tony Gabriel, and others. Not only is No. 88 headed to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, he retired as Ottawa’s all-time leader in receptions with 455 and is fourth in terms of career receiving yards with 5,127. He also holds the record for most receptions in a single season with 116. And in case OSEG forgot, he was a key member of the 2016 Grey Cup-winning squad, went over 1,000 receiving yards in four of his five seasons wearing the red and black and was named an East Division all-star in 2015, 2017 and 2018.
Paying tribute to Sinopoli in a season when the pandemic ensured a full house was impossible was misconceived at best and a disservice at worst. Shame on OSEG for screwing up something that should’ve been a layup.
10) Spare a thought for the 5,392 die-hard members of R-Nation who sat through a downpour to take in yet another dreadful offensive performance and ensuing defeat. Speaking of those people, the worst crowd turnout in franchise history can likely be chalked up to inclement weather but there has to be real concern from the front office that fans are checking out.
Not all losses are created equal and if people are treated to shootouts and exciting plays, they’ll keep coming back for more. Instead, the last two seasons have featured a toothless offence.
People don’t mind parting with their money if they feel like they’re getting some value or entertainment in return. That’s why people continue to bet on things even when they lose — it’s fun. Watching the Redblacks play at home has not been decidedly not fun. Period. The scoring plus exciting and big play drought is so severe that fans are celebrating first downs like they’re touchdowns. It would be pathetic if it wasn’t so sad.
By falling to the Ticats, the Redblacks have now lost 11 — yes, you read that number right — games in a row at home. If you’re having trouble remembering the last time Ottawa won a game at TD Place you’re forgiven, it came all the way back on June 20, 2019; 826 days and four pandemic waves ago.
At this point there’s not really much to be said. I’ve written (half) jokingly about TD Place being cursed, but I also thought if that was actually the case, the new turf and coin should’ve fixed it. Perhaps an exorcism is in order.
11) For the seventh time in a row, the Redblacks have lost coming off their bye week. It’s inexplicable that something precisely intended to create a competitive advantage clearly provides the team in the nation’s capital zero benefit.
With the loss, the Redblacks miss out on a golden opportunity to gain some ground on a divisional foe. With Montreal, Calgary and Edmonton all currently sitting at just two wins a piece, it’s not like Ottawa is completely isolated in the basement of the standings, but depending how this weekend’s game’s play out, they might sit four points back of each of them minus the Elks, who are on a bye.
Speaking of Edmonton, they’re the next challenge for LaPolice’s squad. It’s another odd mid-week game — this one coming on a Tuesday night — and once again the setting will be TD Place. For the sake of not only those going to the game, but everyone tuning in, here’s hoping Ottawa can figure out a way to be competitive. Failing that, at least entertaining, surely that’s not too much to ask for?