Columnist image
Dave Naylor

TSN Football Insider

|Archive

It was undoubtedly the most depressing night of football for Ottawa fans since the Redblacks joined the CFL in 2014.

A terrible team, without a competent quarterback, short on talent and experience, playing poor football in front of mostly empty stands.

No, there was nothing inspiring about Ottawa’s 24-7 loss to Hamilton Wednesday night.

The city’s fans were up in arms on Thursday, venting their frustrations over the fortunes of a Redblacks team (1-5, last in the East Division) that appears destined to finish the 2021 pandemic-shortened 14-game season with the league’s worst record for the second consecutive season.

And with no answer in sight.

“We’re two weeks away from NHL season and the fans today wanted to talk Redblacks for the first 2.5 hours straight,” said AJ Jakubec, the team’s play-by-play voice and co-host of The Drive on TSN1200 in Ottawa. “Between phones and texts, fans were lighting it up. There’s a lot of passion here. We went from last night to big picture to what are we going to do with the quarterback.

“Fans want some sort of hope.”

At least people still care, which is a positive point of demarcation from past Ottawa football depressions.

But the CFL can’t be happy watching one of its model franchises in recent years slip into the abyss on the field and in the stands, at what remains a critical juncture in the league’s history.

A season like this, on the heels of a three-win season in 2019, can start to erode the relationship between a team and its fan base. The Redblacks must guard against that as they head into the second half of what is already starting to feel like a long season.

Ottawa’s problems go well beyond the quarterback position but that’s where the trouble is the most glaring, obvious and serious.

There remains little in what 34-year-old Matt Nichols or Dominique Davis, 32, have done this season that would lead one to believe they can take charge and create a turnaround in Ottawa, notwithstanding the fact that both players suffered injuries that knocked them out of Wednesday’s game.

How Ottawa ended up without a competent quarterback on the roster for a second season in a row is the kind of thing that’s hard to explain, especially since general manager Marcel Desjardins did such a good job preparing a succession plan when Henry Burris reached the end of his playing career in 2016.

Desjardins proactively signed Trevor Harris away from Toronto before the 2016 season, paving the way for a near seamless transition after Burris retired following Ottawa’s Grey Cup win over the favoured Calgary Stampeders at the end of that year.

Unfortunately, three years later, the transition after Harris walked to Edmonton via free agency after the 2018 season hasn’t been as smooth.

The Redblacks’ backups to Harris in 2018 were Davis and Danny Collins. Davis was in his first year with Ottawa, following three in Winnipeg in which he’d attempted just 29 passes. As Harris’s backup in 2018, he attempted just 39 more, so there was little evidence to project him as a future CFL starter.

Collins was a 24-year-old in his second season with Ottawa, a season in which he attempted 17 passes and then retired.

With Harris gone, Desjardins decided to bet on Davis for 2019, signing former BC Lion Jonathan Jennings as well. The result? The Redblacks had the league’s worst offence and won just three games.

Bringing Davis back off a season in which he threw just five touchdowns and 14 interceptions was curious. And it’s a decision that seems to have been made, at least when you look at it today, with the faint hope that Nichols would somehow regain his past form.

However, the Redblacks offence has scored only five touchdowns and surrendered three this season. Ottawa has scored just two offensive touchdowns before the end of the third quarter in 2021. 

These were the kinds of things they were hoping to avoid when they hired Winnipeg offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice as their head coach after the 2019 season.

Back in 2017, LaPolice’s offence helped the Winnipeg Blue Bombers go 12-6 with a quarterback combination of Nichols and Davis.

But four years later, their time has passed. They aren’t the Redblacks of present or of the future. And everyone knows it.

So where does Ottawa go from here? The Redblacks have a pair of young quarterbacks that have been with them all season in Taryn Christion and Caleb Evans. Neither has any pro experience.

The same can’t be said for the quarterback who will hit the field for the first time on Saturday, former Pittsburgh Steeler Delvin “Duck” Hodges.

Hodges, 25, has playing time in just eight NFL games, including six starts, completing 62.5 per cent of his passes for 1,063 yards, five touchdowns and eight interceptions. The Steelers were 3-3 in games he started.

He has a reputation as a gamer, a player who stands out more for his intangibles and grittiness than his physical gifts. That has been true of a lot of successful CFL quarterbacks.  

Ordinarily, the signing of a part-time NFL starting quarterback wouldn’t get as much attention as it has with Hodges, including during Wednesday night’s TSN telecast of the Redblacks’ most recent loss.

The reason is obvious … with so little hope left in either of Ottawa’s quarterbacks, the road to the starter’s job for Hodges would seem to be wide open as soon as he can get acclimated to the offence.

That won’t happen for at least a few weeks, but we’re getting close to where there’s not much point in rolling Nichols or Davis out under centre, given that neither of them figures to be part of the team’s future.

The rest of this season for Ottawa is about hope, about identifying parts of this team that can be carried into the future, starting at quarterback.

It’s no fun when a football team reaches this point so early in a season. But for the Redblacks, it feels like 2022 begins now.

 

CFL committed to Hamilton Grey Cup game

How Ontario’s COVID regulations could affect the Grey Cup in Hamilton

How will Ontario's restrictions for fans at events affect the Grey Cup in Hamilton? Why is Bo Levi Mitchell struggling so much this season? CFL Insiders Dave Naylor and Farhan Lalji have the latest.

The province of Ontario is expected to soon announce that CFL games in the province will be allowed to hold up to 75 per cent capacity, up from just 15,000 so far this season.

That won’t materially affect the Toronto Argonauts or Redblacks the rest of this season but it’s good news for the Tiger-Cats, especially as hosts of this year’s Grey Cup game.

The prospect of a 15,000-seat capacity Grey Cup was something the league has known was possible for a while, all the while hoping that vaccine requirements would give the province the comfort level to raise the limits.

At 75 per cent, the Grey Cup would still face a $3 million shortfall on gate revenue. And then there are the various events that accompany the game which are under the province’s indoor regulations of 1,000 people or fewer at this time.

No matter what, the Grey Cup is not moving, barring a full-scale lockdown, which no one is anticipating right now.

 

Vaccination rates – NFL versus CFL

As a general rule, comparisons between the NFL and CFL are silly and pointless. Different game, different athletes and too many subtle differences to count.

But we’re going to break that rule when it comes to comparing vaccination rates, since both leagues have gone out of their way to convince as many players as possible to get vaccinated and have made life inconvenient for those who do not.

On Thursday, the NFL released statistics showing that 94 per cent of its players are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, a number believed to be substantially higher than the CFL.

The CFL is expected to release updated numbers by early October, after a push of players were vaccinated following the Edmonton Elks’ outbreak last month and the federal government’s announced plans to ban unvaccinated people from boarding domestic flights by the end of October.

But it raises a question: Why has the NFL – in a country that has more vaccine hesitancy than Canada – been able to get more buy-in from its players? The most obvious answer comes down to the biggest difference between the two leagues – money.

NFL players are simply risking more financially if they refuse to get vaccinated, compared to the majority of CFL players who earn a fraction of what their counterparts down south make. And it may be as simple as that.

The NFL did propose a vaccine mandate to its union, which was refused. The CFL never made such a proposal, understanding that it was sure to be rejected.

It will surprise no one if the opening position from the league in a new CBA following this season will be that every player CFL player must be vaccinated.

 

Forced fumble frenzy

The forced fumble, especially when it involves a quarterback standing 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage, is the most devastating play in football.

And no one has done it better than Winnipeg’s Willie Jefferson, with his ability to navigate his way around offensive linemen and use his giant arms and hands to swat the football from a quarterback’s hands.

It’s a technique he’s perfected during his time in the CFL, along with fellow defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat.

Jefferson leads the CFL with nine forced fumbles since the beginning of the 2019 season, while Jackson has six.

That’s 15 forced fumbles in 25 regular-season games emanating from just two defensive ends.

That is production.

 

Jones is in charge of Argos D

Jones joins Argos as defensive consultant; will call plays vs. Als

The Argonauts have hired former Elks and Riders head coach Chris Jones as a defensive consultant. Head coach Ryan Dinwiddie spoke about the hiring and why it was an easy choice for the team to make.

Chris Jones is in charge of the Argonaut defence and will be making the calls Friday night against the Montreal Alouettes.

The Argonauts new “defensive consultant” made that clear after his first practice, when he spoke publicly for the first time since accepting the position a week earlier.

Jones was brought in after defensive co-ordinator Glen Young and defensive backs coach Josh Bell were both put on leave, shortly after team owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment announced all its employees must be vaccinated, unless covered by a CBA.

Jones is actually the second Argo defensive coach added this season. Rich Stubler joined the staff at the outset of training camp, after defensive line coach Mike Davis took a job with an arena league team in Las Vegas.

Jones and Stubler might have the two most esteemed resumes of defensive coaches in the CFL, but can they work together?

That’s been the question since the news on Jones broke, especially since their styles differ on the surface.

As Jones said after his first practice Tuesday, the key will be to blend their approaches, finding a way for him to use some of Toronto’s big-bodied defensive linemen to create pressure while Stubler puts his touch on the back end.

It should be fun to watch.