Redblacks hit rock bottom, plummet straight through (& ten other thoughts on losing to the Elks)

Caleb Evans-Ottawa RedBlacks-19aug2022-Photo: Scott Grant

Ottawa knows ugly.

In fact, R-Nation is something of an expert in bad football, having sat through some truly atrocious teams in the ‘80s, ’90s and early 2000s. This 2022 team wouldn’t be out of place next to any of those squads.

Not only did the Redblacks fall to the visiting Edmonton Elks by a score of 30-12 on Friday afternoon, you never would have guessed that they had a bye to prepare and were playing in as much of a “must-win game” as you can have at this point of the season.

Against the Elks, Paul LaPolice’s team hit rock bottom and plummeted straight through. Who knows where the descent into embarrassment ends now.

The Redblacks were flat, uninspired, and frankly looked blasé at times, perhaps mirroring the 19,382 fans in the stands — a season low, by the way.

Here are all my thoughts on the game:

1) If quarterbacks were evaluated on their ability to move the ball with their legs, Caleb Evans would receive a stellar grade for his performance. The second year pro finished the game with nine carries for 82 yards and a touchdown. Not only was he shifty in space, but he’s also strong enough to drop his shoulder and run through defenders — although that’s not exactly something you want to see your quarterback regularly doing.

But for all the good he did with his legs, Evans over-relied on them. More than once, he bought himself time after being flushed and escaping pressure and with the defence creeping up, there should have been open receivers for him to locate and hit for significant gains. Instead, he kept tucking and running.

Completing 10-of-16 passes for 111 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions doesn’t seem like that inefficient of an outing until you remember that 50 of those yards came on one pass.

It’s worth remembering that even though it’s his sophomore season, Evans still doesn’t have a full year of playing experience under his belt. That said, R-Nation didn’t sign up for a development season, so if he’s going to continue to start, Evans needs to be better.

2) If Evans does get benched, in theory that means Nick Arbuckle should see some playing time.

I say in theory, because it’s been quite apparent that head coach and offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice doesn’t have much interest in putting him under centre.

How else would you explain Arbuckle not starting against his former team — you don’t think he would have been incredibly motivated to thumb his nose at Chris Jones? Not to mention the absurdity of only inserting him into the game with the Redblacks down 18 points and less than six minutes remaining on the clock.

3) Speaking of LaPolice, another game brought with it another round of head-scratching decisions.

First, there was the turning down of a penalty in the first quarter that would have pushed the Elks out of field goal range. Instead of second-and-16 with a quarterback that had completed exactly one pass up to that point, LaPolice chose to let Edmonton attempt a 52 yard field goal, which they made.

Then, there was the baffling decision to spend his challenge fishing for a defensive pass interference call on a route that was run short of first down sticks. At best, the Redblacks would have gained nine yards in field position. In reality, there was nothing flagrant or glaring about the pass break-up; it was a good defensive play and the challenge never really had a chance of succeeding.

Later on, he decided not to allow Lewis Ward to attempt a 52-yard field goal in the waning seconds of the first half. At the time, Edmonton had just scored touchdown. Sure, Ward had already missed two kicks, but not because he came up short. And it’s not as if Duron Carter — who was waiting in the end zone — is a noted speedy kick returner anymore. Why not show a little faith in your kicker and try to claw back a bit of momentum heading into the half?

Finally, what possible reason was there to call a timeout with 13 seconds left in the game, down by three scores with the ball on Edmonton’s 20-yard line? No matter what, Ottawa would have been allowed to run another play. Why prolong the pain?

I haven’t even gotten into the offensive performance yet. I understand that players don’t actually practice during the bye — it’s their time off to heal up after all — but coaches on a 1-7 team should absolutely be using that extra week to scheme.

Yet, as we’ve seen repeatedly during LaPolice’s tenure as Ottawa’s head coach and offensive coordinator, coming out of the bye, his attack was uninspired. We’re halfway through the season and it still feels like LaPolice is misusing the assets he has available to him.

The Redblacks’ receiving corps boasts speed, size and an ability to win jump balls. Where are the shots down the field? Why are so many routes seemingly cut off at the sticks? The lack of explosive, big plays is stunning. Against Edmonton, the Redblacks took exactly one deep shot, which was completed for a 50-yard gain.

Even that positivity was tempered by the fact that, like so many other times this season, a suspect play call led to negative yardage following a big gain. This time, it was a fake receiver sweep with a toss to the running back.

The Redblacks’ attack mustered 16 first downs and averaged 5.3 yards per play. They were 0-for-2 in the red zone and eight of their twelve possessions gained less than 30 yards. They were also shut out in the second half.

There are no magical solutions to Ottawa’s offensive woes. Jeremiah Masoli isn’t going to suddenly be healthy and there’s no brilliant offensive coordinator sitting at home, waiting for a call to come in and help. But something has to give. Scoring 15 points over their last two games is unacceptable.

Many in R-Nation are pointing to LaPolice’s coaching record (20-47) and demanding his firing. The reality is that if general manager Shawn Burke chose not to make a change at the start of last week’s bye — which came on the heels of another embarrassing home loss — why would he now?

4) Starting in place of the injured William Powell — who is now on the six-game injured list — running back Devonte Williams had a fairly underwhelming game. Multiple times on the first few drives there seemed to be confusion between he and Evans, with Williams lining up on the wrong side of his quarterback to take handoffs. The American rookie averaged 2.9 yards per carry and finished the the game with 20 yards. He also made four catches for 15 yards.

Gee-Gees product Jackson Bennett was given a handful of touches but his two carries went for -3 yards. He was more productive in the passing game though, snagging two passes for 26 yards. With Powell out for the foreseeable future, Ottawa needs someone to step up and show why they deserve to be the lead back in his place.

5) It was far from a banner night for Ottawa’s receivers, but that’s kind of what happens when a) the routes being run aren’t stretching the field and b) your quarterbacks aren’t seeing the field well.

In his 100th game, Darvin Adams had a highlight-reel catch. He also had two drops, including one on third-and-23 in the fourth quarter which hit him in stride, in the hands, and would have kept the drive alive.

Jaelon Acklin made five catches for 50 yards and Canadian Shaq Johnson made three for 26. Nate Behar and Ryan Davis each hauled in one pass, for 18 and 11 yards respectively.

More worrying than the low stat totals was the bickering amongst some of the receivers on the bench and some pretty disinterested body language on the field late in the game.

6) Want to know what happens to a defence when it spends almost 22 and a half minutes of the game’s final 30 minutes on the field? Look no further than what Edmonton did to Mike Benevides’ unit.

Following a fairly stout opening half performance, Ottawa’s defence simply ran out of steam. In the first half, Edmonton had six possessions. Four gained less than 10 yards and their lone touchdown drive was aided by a trio of penalties. Even then, the Elks only crossed the goal line on a third-and-one plunge.

In the second half, the Elks first three possessions chewed up nearly 16 minutes of clock, gained 214 yards and resulted in three touchdowns.

Randall Evans had a team high eight tackles. Lorenzo Mauldin made three tackles and notched his eighth sack of the season. In his first start of the season, Shaheed Salmon’s made five tackles from the middle linebacker position.

Lorenzo Mauldin-Ottawa RedBlacks-19aug2022-Photo: Scott Grant

7) Every once in a while, Lewis Ward reminds the CFL that he is indeed human. The 29-year-old connected on a 13-yard attempt but missed from 40 and 47 yards on Friday. As always, punter Richie Leone was fantastic, averaging a 39.6-yard field position flip per punt. Defensive lineman Kene Onyeka led the way with two special teams tackles.

8) If there was one positive takeaway from the game for R-Nation, it’s that Ottawa’s return game is in good hands.

Yet again, Terry Williams looked a threat to make a house call with every kick he fielded. Williams averaged 15.3 yards per punt return and 25.2 yards per kickoff return.

Unfortunately for him, he is unlikely to be handling duties for much longer as the team brought back the electrifying DeVonte Dedmon on Saturday after a brief NFL stint. For a team struggling to score, he’ll be worth more than a few points.

9) Alarms should be blaring in OSEG’s offices, because apathy is setting in.

The warning signs are everywhere. For weeks, R-Nation’s social media presence has been increasingly negative and cynical. On this game day, scrolling through Facebook and Twitter, there just weren’t many posts about the game. People were doing other things and tuning out.

For the first time in 2022, less than 20,000 came out to a game. That’s not surprising when you remember Ottawa has gone 1-19 in their last 20 home games. Compounding the losses is that the entertainment factor is often lacking. Sports are supposed to be fun but when the Redblacks play at home, they often play ugly, boring football and they drag their opponents down to their level.

Sure, Edmonton scored 30 points, but they nickel and dimed their way to that total. The game featured no interceptions, no fumbles, no special teams scores and aside from the 50-yard bomb to Adams, the next longest play of the game was merely 27 yards.

R-Nation is full of die-hards who are suckers for punishment. They’ll continue to flock to the stadium — grumbling as they do — but OSEG is running the real risk of casual fans checking out, right as hockey season starts up and at a time when the Ottawa Senators look more competitive than they’ve been in years.

If nothing is done to provide fans hope, there might be some truly poor crowds this fall.

10) With the loss, the Redblacks sit at 1-8 exactly halfway through their season. And yet, despite the putrid showing over the first half of the season, thanks to the dismal state of the East Division, they only sit two wins out of a playoff spot. Nine games remain, which means there are 18 points up for grabs. More importantly, seven games are against Eastern opponents. Mathematically, anything is possible, even if it certainly doesn’t feel that way.

With questions swirling around who should be under centre, how to fix the offensive attack and now more injures — Sherrod Baltimore and Justin Howell both exited this game — it’ll be interesting to see how LaPolice juggles his roster heading into Edmonton next Saturday.

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).