During his time in Ottawa, lazy narratives emerged about former Redblacks GM Marcel Desjardins

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com

The scapegoat has been sacrificed in hopes of appeasing the masses in the nation’s capital.

Early Monday morning — 6:21 a.m. early — the Ottawa Redblacks fired Marcel Desjardins, the only general manager in franchise history.

Given how many fans have been clamouring for Desjardins’ head, sacking him was the low hanging fruit for OSEG. It’s no coincidence that the same morning he was fired, emails concerning renewals were sent out to season ticket holders. If you can’t sell winning, sell hope, eh?

Before getting into why Desjardins was let go, it’s worth looking back on his body of work. When he was hired in January of 2013, the team didn’t have a name, logo, or stadium. He was the only employee and filled out his front office and coaching staff from a warehouse as TD Place was built.

From humble beginnings he constructed a roster that made three Grey Cup appearances in the franchise’s first five seasons. One of those trips ended Ottawa’s 40-year championship drought.

Desjardins’ time in Ottawa can be measured in extremes: the highs of Grey Cup glory and lows of 2-16, 3-15 and 2-9 seasons. Under his tenure the Redblacks went 49-71-2 in the regular season, 3-1 in the playoffs and 1-2 in Grey Cups.

Not known for being overly charismatic, the 55-year-old quietly went about his business the way he saw fit, much to the chagrin of those fans who were quick to pounce on comments from released players who criticized the GM. The thing with that is it’s the GM’s job to be unpopular — nobody likes the guy telling them they don’t deserve a raise or that they no longer have a job.

During his time in Ottawa, a lazy narrative emerged that players don’t like him and avoid the franchise in free agency because he’s in charge. Every off-season that narrative was proven false, yet it persisted. Plus, you can ultimately count on one hand the veteran players Desjardins cut that went on to star for other teams.

The turning point for many in R-Nation was the off-season following the 2018 Grey Cup loss. Numerous veterans were let go — quarterback Trevor Harris, running back William Powell, all-star receiver Greg Ellingson and offensive tackle SirVincent Rogers. The funny thing is, arguably three of those decisions were correct.

Harris struggled to maintain a consistently high level of play and fill the leadership void left by Henry Burris, while Ellingson was facing driving under the influence charges. Rogers wanted to be the highest-paid tackle in the league — Edmonton gave him that deal and since signing it he’s played three games. Moving on from Powell was clearly a mistake as it’s been a revolving door at the position ever since.

There will always be specific moves to nitpick, but Desjardins’ fatal flaw seems to be that he was too accommodating to his coaches.

In 2019, when Jamie Elizondo left the team to join the XFL weeks before training camp, Desjardins encouraged head coach Rick Campbell to hire an offensive coordinator. Campbell decided not to and use his offensive committee instead, which was permitted. As R-Nation knows, that ended in disaster.

More recently, Desjardins went out of his way to provide Paul LaPolice with players he was familiar with. The jettisoning of Nick Arbuckle in favour of Matt Nichols came at the request of his head coach. Running back Timothy Flanders, receiver Daniel Petermann and tackles Na’Ty Rodgers and Jamar McGloster were all with LaPolice in Winnipeg. All have been negative impact players in Ottawa.

After Brad Sinopoli retired, per sources, Ottawa’s front office felt uncomfortable with the youth at the position and wanted to add veterans. LaPolice informed Desjardins he didn’t want to add names like S.J. Green, Ricky Collins Jr. and Naaman Roosevelt because his offence didn’t need veteran receivers to be effective.

Even though blame for Ottawa’s 2-9 record should be shared, ultimately as general manger Desjardins should have overruled his head coach if he felt it was necessary.

So how will Desjardins time in the nation’s capital be remembered? Some will focus on the last two years, others will cling to the 2016 Grey Cup win. As with so much in life, the devil is in the details.

Some fans will hang onto the popular players released over the years or the fact that the team never managed to develop a young quarterback of the future, but the truth is that Desjardins was quite good at unearthing and retaining talent. Guys like Nolan MacMillan, Lewis Ward, Richie Leone, Avery Williams and R.J. Harris were all re-signed — twice — during the pandemic, for example.

In terms of fresh faces, the 2021 squad features DeVonte Dedmon, Ryan Davis, Randall Evans, Brandin Dandridge, Jordan Smallwood, Terry Williams, Jerod Fernandez and Praise Martin Oguike, all solid young American prospects.

It also has Canadians Jakub Szott, Treshaun Abrahams, Kene Onyeka, Adam Auclair, Justin Howell, Ketel Asse, Dan Basambombo, all recent draftees who are contributing or who could in future seasons.

The retirements that Ottawa dealt with before the season kicked off can’t be used as an excuse, but at the same time, they weren’t insignificant. Any general manager would’ve struggled to replace the talent lost when Sinopoli, Alex Mateas, Alex Fontana, Corey Tindal, Danny Mason, Ettore Lattanzio and Jean-Philippe Bolduc hung up their cleats. Further complicating matters was the car crash and subsequent retirement of Jalen Saunders, who was expected to star in Ottawa’s offence.

Additionally, as much as people can talk about a lack of talent on the roster, it wasn’t the general manager who kept starting Nichols and Flanders when neither was capable of playing at an acceptable level. Desjardins built the offence per his head coach’s specifications but he isn’t the one calling six runs a game with a rookie quarterback.

It’s not his offensive scheming that has resulted in six of the Redblacks’ 11 games having no offensive touchdowns. Desjardins provided his defensive coordinator a slew of versatile veterans but he isn’t the one on the field missing tackles thanks to sloppy technique.

Ultimately though, when you’re the top man, the buck stops with you. And realistically in order for OSEG to keep fans onboard, someone had to be the fall guy for another dismal season. With the entire coaching staff minus Bob Dyce, who remains as spectacular as ever, in the first year of their deals, that naturally left the general manager exposed.

There’s nothing wrong with R-Nation embracing this change, but the reality is Desjardins’ fingerprints are all over this franchise and he’s largely responsible for the most successful era of Ottawa football since Tony Gabriel was breaking Saskatchewan hearts in the 1970s.

Desjardins’ tenure in Ottawa was far from perfect, but to think everything ailing the Redblacks will suddenly be cured because the only GM in franchise history has been fired is folly. There are multiple issues that need fixing, and R-Nation should hope this firing isn’t an excuse to overlook them.

Perhaps installing a fresh face at the helm of football operations was inevitable, but R-Nation should still take a moment to recognize all the good Desjardins accomplished as he was ushered out the door.

Santino Filoso is originally from Ottawa and has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know).