OTTAWA — The Ottawa REDBLACKS may be considered an expansion franchise, but they have no intention of playing like one.
Under the leadership of general manager Marcel Desjardins and first-time head coach Rick Campbell, the REDBLACKS believe they are a legitimate competitor in the CFL East Division.
“We, from the very get go didn’t want to think of ourselves as an expansion team, we just wanted to play like everyone else is and that’s just to play,” Campbell said. “We have enough veteran coaches and players to do that.”
“We knew we were playing catch up with the other teams as we’re not as established with who we are and what we’re doing, but we didn’t want to use it as an excuse. When it’s time to play a game, we’re going to play a game.”
The REDBLACKS mark the return of CFL football in the nation’s capital for the first time since 2005. In its prime Ottawa was a successful football market, but poor ownership and a decreasing fan base led the city to lose its franchise, not once but twice.
Now with a refurbished stadium and a committed ownership group, the team is set to resurrect football fever in Ottawa.
The players say they have no intention of letting the expansion label have any impact on their performance.
“We can’t use that as an excuse,” said offensive lineman Jon Gott. “We’re all professionals and we came here to win and that’s what we want to do.”
The REDBLACKS finished the pre-season a respectable 1-1, and much of the REDBLACKS’ ability to remain competitive will rely on the success of 39-year-old quarterback Henry Burris.
Burris has the ability and experience to lead this team, and wants to prove he remains a premier quarterback after being released by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
“When I got released that definitely put some logs on the fire,” said Burris. “I’m looking forward to seeing the guys with that desire to make it happen and sacrificing whatever it takes to make it happen and I know I’m going to be one of those guys.”
Having Burris at quarterback gives the REDBLACKS an immediate sense of confidence, and there are a number of other players who want to prove they can still have an impact.
Wide receiver Paris Jackson, who posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2008-09 with the BC Lions, and running back Chevon Walker, who also played in Hamilton last year, are both anxious to start with their new team.
With Campbell having spent the last two seasons as defensive co-ordinator with Calgary it’s no surprise one of the REDBLACKS greatest strengths is considered its defensive line.
“We have a surprising amount of depth on the D-line, I don’t really know if the word surprising is right, but for a new team we’re very deep at the defensive line position,” said Campbell. “That really was a focus from the expansion draft was the offensive and defensive lines and making sure you have enough of those guys and then build the skill guys around them.”
Defensive tackle Keith Shologan will be heavily relied upon, while players like Jonathan Williams, Jovon Johnson and Brendan Lang will all be looking to contribute.
One of the REDBLACKS biggest challenges early in the season will be developing an identity.
While a number of players have experience at this level, it still remains a challenge to come together as a team.
“The funny thing about us is we don’t really know for sure what we will be as we don’t have any past experience to draw on, so that’s part of the fun part for us is finding our identity and what we’re going to be about,” said Campbell. “Obviously we’re going to try and be good at everything and there’s going to be things we’re better at than others, but that all remains to be seen.”
In addition to an identity, players will be dealing with the emotion of representing a new team and the pressure of posting that first victory.
With a bye the first week, the REDBLACKS open the season tonight in Winnipeg and players admit that first win will be looming in the back of their minds.
“We’re football players and we’re paid to win so that first win will be big,” said defensive back Eric Fraser. “We’re all competitive guys and I don’t play the game to lose and once you’re keeping score you always want to end up with more points on the board than the other team.”
The REDBLACKS would ideally like a win in one of their first two games on the road to avoid the pressure of playing their first home game July 18 still looking for their first victory.