A game might not mean anything in the standings, but there’s no such thing as a meaningless contest. For each individual who took the field wearing red and black, the season finale was one last audition to state their case.
While one strong individual game might not be enough to overcome a season of underwhelming performances, what is put on film will determine if and where they get another job, either in Ottawa or elsewhere.
Some players looked good but many did not, which is why the Ottawa Redblacks fell to the visiting Toronto Argonauts by a score of 27-22 on Saturday night, closing the book on their 2023 season with yet another loss.
Here are all my thoughts on the game.
1) In his fourteenth consecutive start — good for third all-time in franchise history trailing only Trevor Harris (20) and Henry Burris (37) — Dustin Crum went from wire to wire, playing the entire game. Coming into the contest, some had speculated that perhaps the Redblacks would want to get a look at Tyrrell Pigrome, but instead, Bob Dyce and his staff continued to roll with their nominee for Most Outstanding Rookie.
Even though Crum’s performance against the Argos was a mixed bag, giving him all the reps was the right decision. As a young quarterback, he needs as many snaps as he can get. If you look at any current veteran quarterback in the league, it took them years to settle into their starting role and become accustomed and comfortable with the Canadian game. Although it may have been a lost season for Ottawa in terms of missing the playoffs, fast-tracking Crum’s development by having him under centre for 14 games should pay off in a big way heading into next season.
The Redblacks’ rookie pivot completed 63 percent of his passes for 273 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions against Toronto. He overthrew some open receivers and made a couple of poor decisions on the interceptions, but he had moments of excellence, such as his deep bomb to Justin Hardy in the second quarter, and later hitting Hardy in stride for a 30-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
— Ottawa REDBLACKS (@REDBLACKS) October 29, 2023
Crum also did a good job using his legs to avoid pressure, scrambling eight times for 73 yards.
There’s no guarantee Crum heads into the offseason pencilled in as QB1 for next year’s training camp, but regardless of who general manager Shawn Burke brings in to compete or bolster the position, the Redblacks should feel confident in knowing that Crum has come a long way in a short period of time.
2) If anyone was expecting offensive coordinator Khari Jones to drastically overhaul his offence during the team’s final bye week, they were sorely disappointed. What fans saw against the Argos was the same stuff they’ve been forced to endure all season. Vanilla play-calling that failed to stretch the field and an offence that only really got into a groove when the game was already out of reach.
Although the Redblacks finished with 382 yards of offence, 140 of them came in the fourth quarter when they trailed by multiple scores. Yet again, Ottawa’s offence failed to capitalize on the gifts given to it by the defence. Three first-half turnovers resulted in exactly zero points. Of the Redblacks’ 16 possessions, 12 of them gained less than 25 yards.
Most damningly, Ottawa took exactly one deep shot all game long, a 41-yard completion to Hardy in the second quarter. Aside from that, there were zero attempts to push the ball deep down the field. Even Hardy’s 30-yard touchdown came on a short slant that he turned into something more.
Frequently the Redblacks ran play-action, but instead of using it to take shots down the field, they used it to throw five-yard outs or quick slants. Both interceptions came as a result of trying to force those slants. It was just all too predictable.
— CFL (@CFL) October 28, 2023
Obviously, five turnovers — two interceptions, two fumbles and a turnover on downs — make it hard to get into a rhythm as a play-caller but over the course of 18 games, Jones showed no ability to scheme his players open or generate explosive plays.
Given the Redblacks’ chronic lack of success on offence, it would be tough to justify his return in 2024.
3) Congrats to running back Devonte Williams on reaching 1,000 rushing yards on the season. The second-year pro became the first Ottawa back to achieve the feat since William Powell in 2018.
Williams had 13 carries for 51 yards but only cracked the milestone on his final carry of the night. He also added three catches for 25 yards.
2023 was a breakout season for the 26-year-old, as he averaged 5.6 yards per carry and proved to be a reliable check-down option in the passing game, averaging 8.9 yards per reception.
For him to take the next step in his development, he’ll need to improve his pass-blocking skills. Too often against the Argos, he struggled with blitz pickup. Once he gets a better handle on that, he’ll go from being a good back to a great one.
4) Speaking of individual achievements, it was nice to see Justin Hardy’s hard work rewarded with him cracking the 1,000-yard receiving mark.
Throughout the 2023 campaign, the 31-year-old was Ottawa’s most dependable pass-catcher, week in and week out. Against Toronto, Hardy turned 10 targets into six receptions for 119 yards and a touchdown, but he also lost a fumble.
As for the rest of the receivers, Bralon Addison made four catches for 32 yards, Jaelon Acklin had four for 46 yards, and Shaq Evans finished the night with two catches and two drops.
Tevaun Smith had one reception for six yards, Daniel Oladejo — the 17th overall pick in the 2023 draft — made his first reception of the season, a 14-yard catch in the fourth quarter, and former Carleton Raven Keaton Bruggeling’s lone reception featured him catching a pass on the line of scrimmage and weaving 16 yards through the defence for a touchdown.
Overall, Ottawa’s receiving corps was one of the team’s most disappointing positional groups and wholesale changes should be on tap. This was a group that struggled to create separation, failed to generate explosive plays, and frankly had too many drops. Don’t be surprised to see a significant overhaul.
5) With right tackle Zack Pelehos injured and Dontae Bull somewhat banged up, American rookie Drake Centers was given his first career start at right tackle. The six-foot-three, 291-pound 23-year-old had his moments, both good and bad.
As a group, the Redblacks’ offensive line was fortunate to only give up three sacks. That total would’ve been much higher if not for Crum’s mobility. Furthermore, the group failed to impose their will in the ground game, mustering just 3.9 yards per carry.
A healthy Drew Desjarlais will go a long way toward improving the line next season, but upgrades — or at a bare minimum solid competition — at tackle are needed.
The Party Starter makin plays 😎 pic.twitter.com/pAG0pumP8U
— Toronto Argonauts (@TorontoArgos) October 29, 2023
6) Barron Miles’s defence did some things well against Toronto. They generated three turnovers, notched two sacks — which is impressive since Toronto had only allowed 17 all season — and limited the Argos to just 47 yards on the ground.
Unfortunately, the offence didn’t use the turnovers, Cameron Dukes wasn’t pressured on his other 32 dropbacks and Toronto didn’t need to run the ball since their rookie quarterback carved up Ottawa’s secondary to the tune of 317 yards. That total should have been much higher because at least three times Argo receivers burned Ottawa’s defensive backs only to have the intended pass overthrown.
— CFL (@CFL) October 28, 2023
Dukes was frequently playing pitch and catch and it’s worse when you remember the Argos were using mostly backups against the Redblacks’ starters.
Big Play Haydel 🌊 pic.twitter.com/xCHVAfyhVM
— Toronto Argonauts (@TorontoArgos) October 29, 2023
With all that said, there were a couple of notable performances. Defensive back Damon Webb made eight tackles and had a knockdown. Linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox finally looked like the guy Ottawa hoped for when he was signed, notching seven tackles and two sacks. Alonzo Addae thrived at the halfback spot instead of his usual position at safety, making two tackles and two interceptions. Rookie Alijah McGhee had five tackles and forced a fumble, which he recovered.
7) Once again, Richie Leone was a busy man, punting seven times for 308 yards. Leone averaged 44 yards per punt, but the resulting net gain was just 35 yards a kick thanks to a coverage unit that missed multiple tackles, allowing Argos returner Javon Leake to average nearly 16 yards per punt return. Canadians Adam Auclair and Kene Onyeka led the way with two special teams tackles each.
As for Ottawa’s return game, Tobias Harris had maybe his best game of the season, averaging over 18 yards per punt return and looking like a threat to take it all the way every time the ball was in his hands. Unfortunately, he also fumbled a kickoff while trying to fight for extra yards.
With DeVonte Dedmon presumably back healthy next season, he should reclaim his duties as the team’s primary returner. But Harris has shown he has explosive ability and that will make things interesting in training camp.
8) Kudos to the 18,742 members of R-Nation who were on hand for the team’s final game of the season. Lansdowne has been a house of horrors for the Redblacks basically since their inception in 2014 but in an odd twist, by going 3-6 at TD Place in 2023, this was their most successful home campaign since 2018’s seven wins — six in the regular season and the East Final).
Speaking of that East Final, that also happens to be the last time Ottawa beat an Eastern team at home. It boggles the mind but does explain why the team has failed to qualify for the postseason each of the past four consecutive seasons.
If someone had told you before the season that Ottawa would beat four Western teams, you would have probably assumed they’d make the playoffs. Who could’ve imagined the Redblacks would go 0-10 versus the East this season?
9) With the loss, the Redblacks finish the year with a 4-14 record, same as they had in 2022. It’s hard to believe that at one point, head coach Bob Dyce had his squad at 3-3 and brimming with optimism. Injuries to key players had a significant role in how the season unfolded, but it also feels like the Redblacks did themselves no favours with poor coaching decisions that cost them wins and by continuing to dress players who underperformed, week after week.
10) Although the season has come to an end, there will be plenty of news coming out from the nation’s capital in the weeks and months ahead. Redblacks president Adrian Sciarra recently stated that general manager Shawn Burke will return in 2024, so it will fall on Burke to determine the future of his coaching staff and roster. Expect those decisions to come sooner rather than later. Additionally, there will also be significant news on the Lansdowne 2.0 redevelopment, which will be voted on by Ottawa’s city council in November.
The games might be over, but I’ll be here all off-season long keeping you up to date on everything Redblacks related. With another season come and gone, I’d like to say thanks for always reading, and I look forward to continuing to break down everything Ottawa-CFL related for you.