Opinion: Paul LaPolice unfairly scapegoated for Redblacks’ woes

Photo: David Mahussier/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

Firing Paul LaPolice was the least surprising move the Ottawa Redblacks have made all season.

The CFL team occupying our nation’s capital has been as bad as it gets since the pandemic (6-22) and has shown zero signs of improvement in either of their back-to-back losses to Toronto and B.C. the last two weeks.

In fact, head coach LaPo’s career 22-50 win-loss record, including his two-and-a-half years at the helm of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers a decade ago, doesn’t inspire much confidence in the idea that he’s more than just an offensive coordinator.

But, for just a moment, please allow me to set aside that pitiful record and take a closer look at the facts.

For starters, the Ottawa Redblacks were a disaster long before Paul LaPolice’s name was ever mentioned in the same sentence as the Rideau Canal.

The 2019 season — while LaPo was busy coordinating the Bombers to a Grey Cup championship and kick-starting the CFL’s modern-day dynasty with not one (Matt Nichols), not two (Chris Streveler) but three (Zach Collaros) different quarterbacks — was a year of ruin in Ottawa.

The Redblacks, led by then-head coach Rick Campbell, were unleashing a 3-15 stink-bomb, including an 11-game losing skid, en route to their worst record since their inaugural campaign some five years earlier.

Then-Ottawa general manager Marcel Desjardins had made the controversial choice to let his starting quarterback Trevor Harris leave in free agency before the season and never found a suitable replacement.

The team also retaliated against Jaime Elizondo for daring to leave his post as Ottawa’s offensive coordinator to try his hand with Marc Trestman and the XFL’s Tampa Bay Vipers.

A press release was promptly issued with the title of “Elizondo quits on Redblacks.” Management was ticked off and given it was all happening a mere six weeks before training camp, I’m not sure anyone could blame them.

Who exactly issued the press release later became the subject of passing the buck but an overriding theme emerged: The Ottawa Redblacks, only a few months removed from a third Grey Cup appearance in four years, were an outfit in full-blown dysfunction.

Campbell quit as the head coach the next offseason and appeared to point the finger at Desjardins as the reason for the team’s awful season and his own exit. Then, sometime after Keith Urban wowed McMahon Stadium with his 2019 Grey Cup halftime show,  the GM lured Paul LaPolice to Ottawa as the man to save the Redblacks and his job.

It was all a sound idea except for one problem: the Redblacks still didn’t have a quarterback.

First, they tried Matt Nichols, who never did regain the form he had in Winnipeg. They followed it up with an equally underwhelming encore from Pittsburgh Steelers castoff Devlin “Duck” Hodges. Caleb Evans came along late in the season and showed flashes that made him look like he might be the answer but that too would prove to be wishful thinking.

Then Desjardins got the boot as GM and was replaced with Shawn Burke, who didn’t get the chance to hire his own head coach. In just about all pro football circumstances, that’s a dead man walking scenario for the existing bench boss.

Hope that things would get better with prized free agent signing Jeremiah Masoli quickly vanished on a summer night in Regina when then-Saskatchewan Roughrider cheap-shot artist Garrett Marino ended the quarterback’s season with a low hit.

The best the team could do for a new solution at quarterback was to bring back Nick Arbuckle, whom the Redblacks had been so underwhelmed with they had cut him loose before he ever played a down for Ottawa despite having sacrificed two draft picks for his rights before the pandemic.

Now, after both the Argos and Elks had given Arbuckle every chance to be their guy, he’s the best solution Ottawa management can come up with?

It’s been a remarkably similar comedy of rotten luck and managerial errors to what LaPo the head coach endured in his first go-round a decade earlier when he was paired with then-Winnipeg general manager Joe Mack.

The young Bomb squad — some would call them Swaggerville — would go 4-14 in their first year together but 10 of those losses were within a touchdown. That gave Winnipeg fans hope during the 2010 season that they had a youthful, entertaining team that was just learning how to win.

The next season in 2011, despite a lack of on-paper talent and concussions plaguing their quarterback Buck Pierce, the Blue Bombers overachieved by winning 10 games and even made it to the Grey Cup in Vancouver, where they would lose to the host B.C. Lions and the west coast crowd.

Two years in, Paul LaPolice was a hot head coaching commodity.

Nine months later, he was fired at midseason by a general manager who was hearing rumblings about his own job security.

A week later, the Blue Bombers would make their debut under LaPolice’s replacement, Tim Burke, in their Labour Day Classic visit to Regina and get wasted 52-0 by the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Joe Mack was called names by the Winnipeg media for refusing to answer questions following the loss and the turmoil in the Manitoba capital would only get ratcheted up from there.

The team would improve very modestly from head coach LaPo’s 2-6 start by going 4-6 under Tim Burke the rest of the way, only to bottom out a year later with a 3-15 damper on the opening season at beautiful new Investors Group Field. Mack and Burke would both be gone by the time it was all over.

Therein lies the big question with Paul LaPolice and his 22-50 record as a CFL head coach through two hirings and firings. Is he simply a case of a brilliant offensive coordinator not cut out to be a head coach? Or is he a good head coach who’s been the victim of upper management dysfunction in both stops he’s had?

Many fans will argue it’s the former. While my jury is still out, I’m wondering if it’s the latter.

Don’t get me wrong. Paul LaPolice is absolutely culpable for the Ottawa Redblacks’ dire straights. He is the one who failed to delegate offensive coordinator responsibilities to someone else in the organization to enable him to focus on overseeing the entire operation.

It was also LaPolice who wanted Matt Nichols despite the signs his old Winnipeg QB was over-the-hill. And it was LaPolice who, billed as an offensive genius, couldn’t muster up much of anything better than a pathetic, unwatchable league-worst 18.1 points per game over his nearly two full seasons running the Redblacks.

If they were going to fire him after the season, which it looks like they were, then the Ottawa football brass did the right thing to put their head coach out of his misery. And Bob Dyce is a solid replacement.

But when you consider the managerial turmoil and injuries at quarterback that he’s had to deal with, Paul LaPolice has been dealt a pretty crappy hand throughout his brief CFL head coaching career.

The door has been slammed shut on his time in Ottawa, maybe even justifiably so, but I’m not writing off another head coaching stop for LaPolice in the Canadian Football League just yet. Not by a long shot.

Brendan McGuire has covered the CFL since 2006 in radio and print. Based in Regina, he has a front-row view of Rider Nation.