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Dave Naylor

TSN Football Insider

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During the first six years of their existence, the Ottawa Redblacks gave their fans a lot to like.

They won a Grey Cup, successfully hosted another, and were bridesmaids in two more.

With consistently competitive teams and a newly reconstructed stadium, the Redblacks managed to shed the baggage of previous CFL eras in Ottawa, attract a younger demographic to the park and make their home the place to be

It was a big win not just for Ottawa but the CFL as well, which could show off its shiny new expansion team in the nation’s capital as a modern success story.

Then came the 2019 season, when everything went wrong. Ottawa finished with the league’s worst record at 3-15, and its worst offence. The Redblacks dropped 15 of their final 16 games and went 1-8 at home.

At season’s end, general manager Marcel Desjardins and head coach Rick Campbell parted ways, with Campbell abruptly resigning at the end of the season before being named the new head coach in B.C. a short time later.

It was a new low for the franchise, and everyone knew it needed to be fixed. That helps explain the heightened sense of urgency around regaining some positive momentum this season.

The pressure in that regard sits squarely on Desjardins, the franchise’s first football employee who has held the decision-making reigns since Day 1. His successes and failures in Ottawa have largely been a product of his hunches when it comes to quarterbacks – and this year may be no different.

In 2014, Desjardins walked away from veteran quarterback Kevin Glenn in favour of 39-year-old Henry Burris. An expansion team setting sail with a player at Burris’ age was a counterintuitive notion, but one that ultimately worked. In three seasons with Ottawa, Burris took his team to two Grey Cups, won a league Most Outstanding Player Award, and was named the MVP in the Redblacks overtime Grey Cup win over heavily favoured Calgary in 2016.

Desjardins then put sentiment aside, committing to Trevor Harris as the team’s starter in 2017 even before Burris had announced his retirement. It was another transition that served both the player and the club well – that is until the two sides couldn’t come to terms on a new contract after the 2018 season and Harris departed via free agency for Edmonton.

Ottawa then went with a team of Jonathan Jennings, a reclamation project who’d once thrown for 5,000 yards in a season for B.C., and Dominique Davis, an unproven backup. Throw in the off-season departure of offensive co-ordinator Jamie Elizondo and the result was an offensive implosion.

The Redblacks finished last in points scored, touchdowns and net offence. It wasn’t much better on the other side of the ball as Ottawa allowed the most points, yards, and touchdowns.

It was the first truly ugly season in Redblacks history and one from which the franchise must quickly turn the page in 2021.

What They’ve Been Up To Since We Last Saw Them

Desjardins hired Paul LaPolice as the second coach in franchise history, fresh off his successful stint as offensive co-ordinator in Winnipeg.

Under LaPolice, the Bombers had a balanced offence that excelled at ball security and versatility, employing three starting quarterbacks en route to a Grey Cup win in 2019.

The challenge in Ottawa will be much greater, at least early on.

Shortly after he was hired, LaPolice began studying film on Calgary’s Nick Arbuckle, who’d started seven games in 2019 while Bo Levi Mitchell was out with an injury. The more he watched, the more he liked what he saw, so Desjardins traded for Arbuckle’s rights in January of 2020, roughly a month before the start of free agency.

But when the 2020 season didn’t happen, the Redblacks decided they’d rather hitch their wagon to former Bomber quarterback Matt Nichols, who had recovered fully from shoulder surgery and was available after being let go by Toronto.

So, Desjardins reversed the decision he’d made a year earlier, choosing Nichols’ experience over Arbuckle’s potential. The reunion of LaPolice and Nichols should be good for Ottawa, given the high amount of turnover on the roster.

But the key with Nichols has always been his health. With no other proven quarterback on the roster, it behooves the Redblacks to do all they can to protect the man who carried Winnipeg from the basement to the doorstep of a Grey Cup.

That’s a task that got tougher when it was announced just weeks ago that centre Alex Mateas was retiring, and his backup, Alex Fontana, was opting to sit the year out.

Throw in the retirement of receiver Brad Sinopoli and the Redblacks have critical roles to fill in what they hope will be a turnaround season.