The Paul LaPolice era in Ottawa will be remembered for what should have been

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

In theory, it all should have gone so much differently.

When general manager Marcel Desjardins made it official on December 7, 2019, that Paul LaPolice was joining the Ottawa Redblacks as both head coach and offensive coordinator, fans in the nation’s capital were thrilled.

R-Nation was right to be excited. LaPolice, fresh off winning a Grey Cup with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, was about as far as one could possibly get from the Joe PaoPao-led offence by committee employed by Rick Campbell in his final season at the helm of the Redblacks.

It wasn’t just fans pleased with the hire either. Some pundits around the country believed that in his second stint as a head coach, LaPolice would be wiser and better prepared for the challenges that come with managing a team. Plus, his offensive prowess had just resulted in the Bombers averaging 29 points per playoff game on their way to carving their names in history.

At the time, LaPolice was widely acknowledged to be the biggest and best name on the market and the Redblacks snagged him. But with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, R-Nation had to wait to see what LaPolice’s attack would look like. That’s when things started to go awry.

Before training camp even started in 2021, Brad Sinopoli, Alex Mateas and Alex Fontana, among others, retired. Jalen Saunders should have been an important weapon for the offence, but his season was over before it began thanks to a freak car accident.

Then, despite trading for and extending Nick Arbuckle in January 2020, when the CFL finally returned to the field in 2021, at LaPolice’s insistence, Desjardins released Arbuckle and replaced him with Matt Nichols.

Although Nichols had passed a medical before joining the team in Ottawa, from his very first practice his throws noticeably lacked zip. Things were so off that at one point during camp, the team arranged an MRI to check for tissue damage. It came back clean, yet the velocity was still missing.

Even with Nichols’ obvious inability to push the ball down the field, LaPolice allowed him to struggle through four starts, severely hampering the offence in the process. If not for Abdul Kanneh’s epic pick-six in the season opener in Edmonton, Nichols would have gone 0-4 as a starter.

But Nichols wasn’t the only player favoured by LaPolice who continued to play when he probably shouldn’t have. During free agency, Desjardins worked with LaPolice to recruit several players from Winnipeg to Ottawa — not one of them panned out.

Running back Timothy Flanders excelled as a blocker, yet failed to score a single rushing touchdown or display any kind of game-breaking potential. Still, he continued to get starts until injuries forced LaPolice to take him out of the lineup.

Canadian receiver Daniel Petermann got rave reviews in training camp, yet finished the season on the practice roster. Offensive tackles Na’Ty Rodgers and Jamar McGloster were constant liabilities when on the field.

Problems weren’t limited to the roster either, as coaching controversies hounded the team throughout the season. Receivers coach Alex Suber was forced to coach from home via Zoom due to being unvaccinated. Running backs coach Charles Eger was let go for his comments to the team’s Francophone players.

By the end of the 2021 season, the general manager who hired him was fired and Ottawa had made history thanks to their inept offence. 13 touchdowns through 14 games meant they joined the 1979 Saskatchewan Roughriders and 1954 B.C Lions as one of three teams in CFL history that averaged less than one offensive touchdown per game.

Even with how the 2021 season played out, things still should have been better in 2022. Shawn Burke was hired as the second GM in franchise history and the former Ticat executive put his stamp on the team.

While some believed 2021’s failures were the result of a lack of talent assembled by Desjardins, Burke completely overhauled the roster. 48 hours into free agency, the Redblacks had 17 new players, including veteran quarterback Jeremiah Masoli. It’s important to note that it’s not as if LaPolice had no say in who the Redblacks added. Quite the opposite in fact, as Burke frequently consulted with his coach before making moves.

By the end of training camp, Ottawa had eleven new starters on offence and five on defence. And yet the team still started 0-6. The frustrating part for fans was the Redblacks weren’t losing because they hadn’t gelled, but rather because of coaching errors.

LaPolice’s clock management and inability to use his timeouts effectively cost the Redblacks one, or maybe two, victories against the Blue Bombers. Almost as bad as the mistakes themselves was LaPolice’s refusal to accept responsibility for the errors following the games. Instead, he said the players collectively failed to know the situation and could have also called a timeout. It was not the only time during the season that LaPolice failed to shoulder the burden of responsibility, frequently blaming player execution in post-game scrums.

Losing Masoli to a cheap shot in Regina certainly didn’t help things, but it’s also not as if Ottawa’s offence was humming with the veteran under centre either. What became apparent as the season wore on was it didn’t matter who Ottawa had throwing the ball, the issue was the system, not the quarterbacks. Through 14 games, the Redblacks’ offence never got into a rhythm, rarely stretching the field and failing to establish an identity.

The reason R-Nation had so much optimism when LaPolice was hired was due to his reputation as an offensive guru. But if in 2021 he was a chef struggling to cook because he had no ingredients, in 2022 the shelves were stocked and the dishes were still bland.

LaPolice’s offence rarely showcased creativity and lacked an ability to maximize the skillsets of offensive weapons. Jaelon Acklin is a 1,000-yard receiver yet it feels like he’s left so much meat on the bone, mainly because he is often only involved in the game when they are already well out of reach. Like the former Bombers on Ottawa’s roster in 2021, Darvin Adams probably shouldn’t have continued to start despite his weekly drops. If anything, LaPolice was loyal to his guys to a fault.

DeVonte Dedmon’s nine offensive touches since returning to the team five games ago is damning.  As LaPolice frequently stated, defences are on high alert with Dedmon on the field, but surely giving one of the league’s fastest and most dangerous players — on an offence struggling to generate big plays — more than two touches per game isn’t asking too much.

From the offensive woes that were never solved to the questionable in-game decisions; be it challenges or a lack of aggressiveness or game-day roster decisions, perhaps what did LaPolice in was that he was simply wearing too many hats. It’s undeniable that in the past he was a proven commodity as an offensive coordinator, but being both head coach and coordinator meant he wasn’t able to do either job to his full potential.

Although LaPolice’s firing will be met with glee by many in R-Nation, the fact is it’s a sad day in team history. LaPolice should have been able to make things work. He was given the players he wanted — twice — and plenty of slack to turn things around. Yet for whatever reason, in two years at the helm of the franchise, he delivered exactly one home win and posted a 6-22 record.

In a results-oriented business, change was inevitable. OSEG’s inaction — if they truly were interested in salvaging the 2022 season, LaPolice would have been let go weeks ago — not only ensured the Redblacks would miss the playoffs for a third consecutive season but also soured and tainted LaPolice’s relationship with the fan base. For all his faults, the coach never deserved the online vitriol that crossed the line from legitimate criticisms to personal attacks.

Ultimately when R-Nation looks back at his time in Ottawa, there will always be what-ifs and should-haves. At the end of the day, LaPolice’s tenure started on a rocky note and never improved. He may go on to be a successful offensive coordinator elsewhere, only reinforcing the speculation of what could have been during his time as the second coach in Redblacks’ franchise history.

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).