It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
The train wreck of a season that was 2019 was supposed to be rock bottom for the Ottawa Redblacks organization. Better days were promised when head coach Paul LaPolice was hired to lead the team and overhaul the offence. A young quarterback was brought in to be the face of the franchise. Mark Goudie, president of the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group went on record multiple times stating that anything less than hosting a home playoff game would be a disappointment.
Yet to R-Nation’s dismay, disappointment was abundant in a COVID shortened season that saw the Redblacks miss the playoffs, again.
So what went wrong? When did things go off the rails? Although there’s no single moment in time fans in the nation’s capital can point to, an honest reflection of the 2021 campaign shows the emergence of a common theme through many — but not all — of the issues that plagued the team; the head coach and his staff weren’t good enough.
Everything from personnel choices failing to pan out to puzzling coaching decisions that weren’t up to par.
This shouldn’t be read as an attempt to lay all blame on LaPolice, but as a head coach who had notable influence on shaping the roster, the de facto offensive coordinator and the man who assembled his coaching staff, he shoulders significant responsibility.
Unexpected retirements, opt-outs and car crash victim
That a dozen veteran players chose to hang up their cleats right before the season should not be used as an excuse for Ottawa’s woes, but there is no ignoring the fact that some key players stepped away at a time when replacements were not easily found. Some will argue the general manager should have had a better feel for which way the guys on the fence were leaning, but if we look back to May, with the return to play protocols being discussed, it’s no surprise so many were wavering. Everything seemed up in the air.
Regardless of the whys, Ottawa was hit harder than any other team by retirements and opt-outs. Even though Marcel Desjardins suddenly found himself flush with cap space, there was no one to use it on, most impact free agents were already signed to a roster.
Those that did remain — and who were of interest to the front office — were deemed unnecessary by the head coach, and the general manager abided by those wishes. Appeasing those desires later played a factor in his late-season firing.
None of this is to argue that the Redblacks would have been a playoff team with guys such as Brad Sinopoli, Alex Mateas, Alex Fontana and Jalen Saunders in the fold, but having them on the roster would’ve addressed some of the offensive issues that haunted the team.
Having an experienced centre would have stabilized the entire offensive line and freed Mark Korte to focus on a single position. Sinopoli would’ve presented match-up problems for opposing defences as he worked the middle of the field and built upon his Hall of Fame worthy career numbers. Saunders could have been the big-play deep threat the team sorely lacked all season.
Cutting Nick Arbuckle in favour of Matt Nichols
In my training camp primer, I wrote that as Nichols’ fortunes went, so too would those of the rest of the team. My exact words: “A good quarterback hides a lot of warts but a strong supporting cast can’t overcome shoddy quarterback play.”
That turned out to be a little too accurate.
Ottawa traded for Arbuckle in the 2020 off-season and signed him to a two-year deal because they believed he could develop into the face of their franchise. But as COVID dragged on and the 2020 season was cancelled, LaPolice had more time to think about who he truly wanted under centre. Ultimately he decided the veteran he knew, who he had won 38 games with and who was familiar with his system, was the answer.
Again, LaPolice’s wishes were accommodated by the front office as Desjardins cut Arbuckle and immediately signed Nichols. But, per multiple sources, there was concern from the first day of training camp that something was seriously wrong with Nichols’ arm.
Although he had passed a medical before joining the team in Ottawa, from the very first practice his throws noticeably lacked zip. At one point during camp, Nichols himself was worried there was some kind of lingering injury and the team arranged an MRI to check for tissue damage. It came back clean, structurally, there was nothing wrong with his arm.
And yet, despite his obvious inability to push the ball down the field, Nichols was allowed to struggle through four starts, severely holding the offence back in the process. He failed to throw or rush for a touchdown in any game he took a snap. 77 percent of his completions went for less than 10 yards. If not for Abdul Kanneh’s heroics in the season opener in Edmonton, Nichols would have gone 0-4 as a starter.
It’s not as if Arbuckle’s 2021 season was one for the ages, he lasted seven games in Toronto before being traded to Edmonton, where he failed to play a snap, but it’s hard to argue he would not have been any worse than Nichols in Ottawa.
While this single decision didn’t doom the the Redblacks’ 2021 season, it cast a long shadow as it immediately raised concerns over the head coach’s ability to evaluate the talent on his roster. It also sent the message that it wouldn’t necessarily be the best player starting every week.
Winnipeg tag-alongs failed to produce
It’s normal for a new coach to recruit players he is familiar with, doubly so if they played on the team he just left. Typically though, some of them wind up being positive contributors to their new teams. That wasn’t the case for anyone that LaPolice brought with him from Winnipeg.
Running back Timothy Flanders finished the season strong, turning in his two best performances of the year in Weeks 14 and 16, but all that did was pad his stats. Those were the only games he managed more than 60 yards on the ground. The reality is in eight starts Flanders failed to score a single rushing touchdown. Exactly one of his 88 carries went for more than 20 yards. For the majority of the season he was an excellent blocker who failed to do much else because he lacked explosiveness.
Canadian receiver Daniel Petermann got rave reviews in training camp for his route running, smarts and hands, yet managed just 16 catches in ten starts before being demoted to the practice roster.
Offensive tackles Na’Ty Rodgers and Jamar McGloster were either injured or liabilities when on the field, they suited up for four and five games respectively.
Given his track record for judging talent so far during his tenure in Ottawa, it should concern R-Nation that LaPolice is apparently eyeing Chris Streveler as next season’s QB1. Hopefully whoever steps into the GM role on a full-time basis will have something to say about that.
The offensive guru comes up well short
A large part of the reason LaPolice was hired as head coach and given play-calling duties was due to his reputation as an offensive guru. Before coming to Ottawa he was well regarded for his creativity and ability to maximize the skillsets of his offensive players by scheming favourable matchups.
Yet somehow his offence in his first season at the Redblacks’ helm was historically awful. Over the course of 14 games and 204 possessions, Ottawa scored just 13 touchdowns. That puts them in rarified air with just two other CFL teams who averaged less than one offensive touchdown per game; the 1979 Saskatchewan Roughriders 15 in 16 and the 1954 B.C Lions 11 in 16.
LaPolice’s offence was dead last in points scored, 16 per game, touchdowns scored 13, net offence 261.8 yards per game, second down conversion rate 37.7 percent, yards gained per play 5, first downs generated 226 and time of possession 26:54. His offence also allowed the most sacks 53, had the most two and outs 95, scored the fewest points off turnovers 24 and was the worst when it counted the most, scoring on 39.3 percent of trips to the red zone — the league average was 50.9 percent.
It’s difficult to believe but in most categories, Ottawa’s 2021 offence was worse than 2019’s run-by-committee/Joe Paopao directed offence.
Some will say it’s not fair to lay all the offensive struggles at the play-callers’ feet, but it was LaPolice’s decision to start Nichols when he clearly should not have been on the field. It was his decision to continue starting Flanders at running back until injuries forced his hand.
He was the one who repeatedly got away from the run game — even in terrible weather — when Evans was being baptized by fire. He was the one who kept calling long developing pass plays and reverses even though the team was starting a new group of offensive lineman every single game.
He was the one who chose to hand short yardage duties over to Delvin “Duck” Hodges when he clearly wasn’t ready. He later started Duck before the team’s final bye week, which could have provided him further valuable prep time, yet sat him in the season finale.
Obviously, the players need to execute — they’re the ones out on the field after all — but it’s hard to overstate just how badly LaPolice failed to recognize and adjust to the deficiencies on his roster.
Lastly, in 2022, LaPolice must be more aggressive. Too often throughout the season he demonstrated an unwillingness to be aggressive even when games were nearly out of reach. Part of the reason the team’s walk-off win in their last game of season was shocking is because the decision to go for two — and the win — was not consistent with how LaPolice had acted all year.
Coaching staff distractions
Whether it was receivers coach Alex Suber leaving the team to work from home for being unvaccinated or running backs coach Charles Eger being let go for insensitive comments towards the team’s francophone players, LaPolice’s coaching staff too often found itself in the news for non-football reasons.
Now it’s not impossible to teach via Zoom, teachers around the world have been doing it from long stretches during the pandemic, and perhaps the problems between Francophone players and Eger only flared up late in the season, but both situations were far from ideal and could not have been great for player morale at those positional groups.
A rotating cast on the offensive line
As a result of retirements, injuries and poor play, Ottawa pulled off the stunning feat of starting a different group of offensive lineman every single week. 14 combinations through 14 games was a backbreaker at a position so dependant on building familiarity and continuity.
Mark Korte did a valiant job transitioning from left tackle to centre during training camp and then playing wherever injuries forced him to shuffle. Losing veteran Nolan MacMillan was a blow an already thin group could ill afford.
Ten different offensive linemen made their CFL debuts for the Redblacks this season. Some, like Jakub Szott and Ketel Asse showed signs of growth. Others will struggle to find work in the league again.
On top of so many young players cutting their teeth, too often it seemed like the game-planning and play-calling ignored the youth of the group. There are ways to mask issues with a weak position group. For the offensive line it involves leaning on the run game and not having the quarterback frequently pass on seven step drops. Ottawa’s coaching staff rarely did the former and often did the latter — it just didn’t make sense.
Ultimately, good football teams have good offensive lines, that’s why it was no surprise Ottawa was not a good team in 2021.
Like the retirements, these cannot be a crutch to excuse losses, but it would be folly to overlook how much talent spent long portions of the season on the sidelines.
Justin Howell, Nigel Romick, Brendan Gillanders, Abdul Kanneh, Jordan Smallwood, Sherrod Baltimore, Dan Basambombo, Stansly Maponga Sr., Frankie Griffin, Louis-Philippe Bourassa, Frank Beltre, Na’Ty Rodgers, Tyler Catalina, Ese Mrabure, Dominique Davis, Matt Nichols, Ervin Philips, Brad Muhammad, Nolan MacMillan, Taryn Christion, Justin Davis, Jamar McGloster, Antoine Pruneau, Anthony Gosselin and Chris Ferguson all spent multiple weeks on the six-game injured list.
Replacing that production fell mainly on the shoulders of first year players. The experience gained through their growing pains will pay off should they make the roster in 2022.