With Nick Arbuckle starting at quarterback in Week 12, some in R-Nation are feeling a bit of optimism that the offence could improve when Ottawa visits Edmonton.
However, the Redblacks’ offensive woes have nothing to do with who is playing QB and everything to do with the plays being called. Ottawa’s not 1-8 because of poor quarterback play, but rather because Paul LaPolice’s offensive attack has deep-rooted, systemic problems.
How else could you possibly explain the statistics? At the halfway point of the 2022 CFL season, the Redblacks are in last place in terms of points per game, scoring 18.6.
Ottawa’s also last in touchdowns with 14 through nine games. If you’re scouring for positives, last season Ottawa mustered 13 touchdowns in 14 touchdowns games, so they’re officially better this year.
Yet the Redblacks have only converted 12-of-30 red zone trips into majors. They’re second-last in first downs gained with 177. For comparison’s sake, B.C. leads the way with 222. Ottawa has the third most two-and-outs with 51. They’ve thrown for a league-low six passing touchdowns.
Perhaps most damningly, in 11 third-and-short situations — plays that should be automatic conversions in the CFL, where the defence lines up a yard off the ball — they’ve come up short four times. Ottawa is converting third-and-shorts at a 63 percent rate. The rest of the CFL is converting at an 84 percent rate.
Some people are willing to give LaPolice a pass because of the injury sustained by veteran pivot Jeremiah Masoli when Garrett Marino decided being racist wasn’t enough and dove at his knee, but that’s a cheap excuse.
Sophomore quarterback Caleb Evans has flashed potential and shown moments of legitimate growth. Although, he’s also had just as many moments when his youth and inexperience have shone through.
In theory, an offensive coordinator establishes clear expectations and structure so that a young quarterback knows exactly what’s expected of them and can go out and play confidently — such a framework seems to be lacking in Ottawa.
There have been times — such as in Ottawa’s home game versus Calgary — where it seemed like Evans was hesitant to take off and run, which is a huge part of his game. Against the Elks, the pendulum swung entirely in the opposite direction, with Evans repeatedly running when he should have looked to throw a pass. What has he been coached to do? Because in the span of two games, it looks like he was given completely different directives.
Overall, the play-calling has also done him no favours, with Ottawa at times abandoning the run game and eschewing the balanced attack that makes play-action possible.
Since coming in as a starter to replace Masoli, Evans has been under centre for 66 drives. Merely nine have ended in touchdowns (13.9 percent). But before you get too low on him, it’s not like the offence was humming with Masoli under centre either. Of the 55 drives led by the veteran, only five ended in touchdowns (9.8 percent). None of Arbuckle’s late-game drives with Ottawa have resulted in touchdowns.
Furthermore, the Redblacks’ offence simply doesn’t stretch the field. One would assume a receiving group that boasts players like Jaelon Acklin, Darvin Adams, Ryan Davis, Terry Williams and Shaq Johnson would have no issues creating explosive plays. And yet the route concepts that Ottawa routinely runs allow opposing defences to squat around the first down marker and smother the passing game.
Of the 142 passes attempted by Evans, 18 can be considered deep balls — 20-plus yards. Seven of those attempts have resulted in completions. But again, even with Masoli around, Ottawa’s offence wasn’t explosive. Of the 126 passes the 34-year-old attempted, 25 were deep balls and 10 resulted in completions.
What these numbers demonstrate is that there’s a systemic issue with the offence, not a personnel one.
Beyond all the numbers, the main issue plaguing the Redblacks is that it seems a year after not having enough weapons at his disposal, LaPolice doesn’t know how to maximize the upgraded talent now available to him.
Too often Acklin is only seeing regular targets in the fourth quarter of games that are already out of reach. Although Acklin ranks among the CFL’s most productive receivers, it is worth asking if his stats wouldn’t be even gaudier if he was playing in the slot position — where he lined up last season with the Ticats — and not out wide.
Davis, one of Ottawa’s most dynamic and shifty receivers in 2021, can’t find open space. He’s averaging 6.2 yards per reception and his 14 catches have resulted in 87 yards. Of those, 18 have come after the catch. Johnson is averaging 15.3 yards per reception — and has played every game — yet only has 28 targets on the year. Meanwhile, Adams continues to be force-fed the ball, even though his frequent drops come at the most inopportune times.
Worst of all, LaPolice’s offence seems to be regressing.
There was some hope following a Week 7 loss to the visiting Alouettes that the offence was trending upwards. Evans led the Redblacks to a season-high 33 points, scoring three times. He passed for almost 300 yards and rushed for another 52 on the ground. The following week in Toronto, Evans completed 82 percent of his passes for 286 yards and two more touchdowns. But since then, the offence has nose-dived, managing 15 points — and one touchdown — over their last two games.
Could it be that LaPolice is wearing too many hats? That the responsibilities of micro-managing a team while being the head coach doesn’t leave him enough time to properly game plan as the offensive coordinator? Could it be that after getting used to directing Winnipeg’s offence to a Grey Cup ring from the booth, he’s not seeing the field as well from the sidelines?
The reality is general manager Shawn Burke completely overhauled his offence. There’s an improved offensive line, better pass catchers and backs. The defence has bounced between good to great. Special teams have been spectacular and will probably be even better going forwards. It’s undeniable that the offence is holding Ottawa back.
There are no simple solutions but LaPolice must find a way to accentuate the talent on his roster. Until that happens, the Redblacks will continue to struggle to generate first downs and find the end zone — and the losses will continue to pile up, regardless of who plays quarterback.