The 2014 season is just over two weeks old, yet we have plenty to sink our teeth into. We’ve got some West Division early season surprises and a long awaited debut in the books. On top of that, we’ve also seen some really encouraging individual trends develop, and we’re just getting started!
Milestone number one
The Ottawa REDBLACKS finally have their first regular season game in the books. And even though it was a 36-28 setback at the hands of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, I feel like there’s a lot to feel positive about for the league’s ninth franchise.
First off, there’s some skill on the offensive side of the football. We knew that Henry Burris could still play, as we saw examples of time and time again during 2013. Prior to their first game, Burris was the main reason why I thought the REDBLACKS might be more competitive than other expansion teams might be. He makes players around him better, he’s a proven CFL winner, and he’s got a chip on his shoulder. And Burris had some really nice moments against the Bombers.
I think it’s safe to say that Burris is continually motivated to prove many doubters wrong at this point. The Stampeders decided to go in a different direction a few years ago, and he caught on in Hamilton. He had an outstanding 2013 with the Tiger-Cats, helping lead them to the Grey Cup game before the team opted to move on.
Now in Ottawa, it would be only natural for the guy to have a little extra motivation! That could end up being a very positive thing for his new team.
So, Burris played well in game one, but he wasn’t the only REDBLACKS player to impress. In Marcus Henry and Kierrie Johnson, they have two receivers playing in far more advanced roles than they have before.
Henry saw his role increase every year in his three seasons with Edmonton, but this is by far the best chance he’s had to be a top target. Johnson, on the other hand, looked like he might be able to emerge as a nice threat in BC but that never materialized in his time with the Lions. After a stint in Saskatchewan, Johnson brings some big play ability to Ottawa’s offence.
And don’t forget Chevon Walker. The guy that Burris once called the best blocking back he’d ever played with has joined him in our Nation’s Capital. Walker rushed for 62 yards against Winnipeg and remains an absolute handful to bring down on first contact. But it’s his ability to give his quarterback solid extra protection that makes him such a valuable player.
So, the REDBLACKS were unable to win their first ever CFL game, and there are lots of things to work on going forward. That defence looked susceptible to the long ball during the pre-season and it certainly was against Drew Willy and the Bombers.
But I liked parts of their pass rush, I like some of the playmakers on offence, and Ottawa has given me a little confidence to say they’ll be a competitive group this season.
The last two seasons have been nightmares for Brandon Whitaker. A knee injury ended his campaign in 2012, which lead to an entire off-season of rehabbing and strengthening. Fast forward to 2013 where Whitaker finished the season on the nine-game injured list, unable to complete the year thanks to hamstring and shoulder injuries. But the Alouettes sure are happy have him back.
The Baylor product was such an absolute beast in his one full season as Montreal’s starting tailback, going back to 2011. If you remember reading this column at the time, we called him the best all round running back in Canadian football, because he was at the time.
2011 saw Whitaker rush for almost 1,400 yards while he added 630 more catching the ball out of the backfield. He was dangerous coming at you and going around you, and was a perfect foil to Anthony Calvillo.
Now here we are in 2014. Calvillo is gone and Troy Smith is still learning the ropes of the Canadian game. A healthy Whitaker is just what the doctor ordered in Montreal. In a 24-9 Als win over BC this weekend, Whitaker ran for 76 yards and a touchdown to go along with 21 yards receiving. It wasn’t a banner performance, but it was a solid one, and one Montreal needed.
Smith was better against the Lions, but he and the Als would be well served to use Whitaker more often. Whitaker is an explosive runner, but it’s his proficiency in the passing game that could be of the utmost importance. Smith is never going to be a pinpoint passer, so having a dangerous checkdown weapon as a “get out of jail free” card could end up being crucial.
A few throws underneath to Whitaker in the flat going forward could turn second and long into second and short, which is where Smith and this Montreal offence are going to thrive going forward. Add in Whitaker’s outstanding blocking and you can imagine that his return to the lineup was welcomed heartily. Now let’s hope those nightmares are a thing of the past.
On your feet
There were times last year when you thought Mike Reilly was Rudy on the Notre Dame practice squad. The Edmonton Eskimos quarterback was on the run for so much last year, because the group in front just couldn’t protect him well enough. He’d try to make plays happen himself, he’d risk his own well-being to complete a pass, and he was a straight up warrior.
It was inspiring stuff, but it was also the ticket to early retirement. That’s why one of the top priorities during the off-season in Edmonton was to revamp their offensive line. The Eskimos brought in Tony Washington from Toronto to anchor the line at left tackle, allowing them to move Thaddeus Coleman to the right side. They also signed Andrew Jones as a free agent and plugged him in at right tackle.
So far, so good through two games.
In Edmonton’s 28-24 win over Hamilton on Friday night, Reilly was sacked just twice and had noticeably more time than he had for the vast majority of last season.
When Reilly has time, he can be extremely dangerous. He throws the long ball well, he isn’t afraid to move the pocket, and he has the speed to breakaway if he needs to. That stuff is going to be on display way more if his offensive line continues to play the way it has through two games.
One more thing on Reilly: How impressive was that touchdown pass to Nate Coehoorn to open the scoring? On play action, Reilly rolled left and worked through his progressions on the run to spot his receiver. But it was the throw that really did it for me. Reilly had to throw across his body while on the run and made it look easy. This guy is an athlete.
Speaking of Edmonton, they’ve posted the highest attendance total of the young season with 30,714 on hand to see them register their second win in as many games on Friday.
The Eskimos are one of the positive stories early this season and they’ve got another Friday night home game this weekend against Ottawa. I know Commonwealth Stadium takes its lumps in Edmonton, but I’ve always really enjoyed watching football games there. And when it gets busy, it gets loud.
If you had forgotten about Ricky Ray, he showed you Saturday why that was a bad idea. Against a Riders defence that looked really strong in Week 1 against Hamilton, Ray put on a near-perfect passing display. The Argos quarterback threw for 407 yards and three touchdowns on 29-for-37 passing and even added 32 yards on the ground.
Last year was a down year for Ray thanks to injury, but he certainly silenced any “he’s on the down slope” chatter that there might have been.
And finally, how much fun is Nic Grigsby to watch? After running for 122 yards in his CFL debut against Toronto, the Bombers tailback decided it was all about efficiency this weekend against Ottawa.
Grigsby’s rushing totals were lower, but he had three touchdowns sprinkled in with his 62 yards on the ground. He is shifty and a fun part of a Winnipeg attack that looks pretty darn dangerous right now.