July 15, 2014

Campbell: Anticipation builds ahead of historic opener


As if the Ottawa REDBLACKS needed yet another reminder that they need to score more. A towering crane dangled the main “TD Place”
sign above practice, before finally placing it into position atop the new scoreboard at the home of the REDBLACKS.

The crane operator, though only doing his job, couldn’t have been more succinct if he had dropped the sign right into the west end-zone as the REDBLACKS offence went about trying to get things right.

For a team that preaches it is “not an expansion team” and has goals of the CFL playoffs in Year One, the start would not be that alarming, if not for the fact that REDBLACKS have visited the end-zone just once in their last seven quarters. Fortunately, just about the entire region is too caught up in the first CFL game on Bank Street since the finale of the best-forgotten Renegades way back on November 5th, 2005, oddly enough a 27-17 victory over the same Argos.

The new team, the new stadium, the new greenspace at Lansdowne Park, the on-going construction . . . it all has fans too busy. 

“This place will be rockin,” said veteran centre John Gott, around whom the offence evolves. “I’m excited for that. Finally, after almost two months, it’s going to be nice playing in front of our crowd.”

There’s little doubt TD Place will be the place to be in Ottawa.

The game has been sold-out for weeks and longtime fans that missed out on tickets have been bugging friends of friends to see if there’s any way to still get a ticket. And the answer is ‘No’.

When asked if REDBLACKS expectations might be too high, Gott pondered for a moment.

“Did you see the other teams (in the East)?” he fired back. “We lost two and the others are only a game ahead of us.

“We’re still close. It’s early.”

Standings aside and with no team in the East currently with an even mark, the home opener is going to be a special day in Ottawa football history. This fact is not lost on the players. Not the rookies who barely know their way around the city. And it’s certainly not lost on the veterans.

“Our biggest focus is to entertain this electric atmosphere that’s going to be here,” said quarterback Henry Burris, who simply put hasn’t had much time to set up behind a young offensive line. “We want to come out here and play the type of game (the fans) expect us to play. We’re trying to be the team that mimics what is going on in the stands.

“It’s going to be an amazing atmosphere here on Friday I know my focus right now is to make sure we’re playing amazing football.”

The new stadium yes is amazing. The offence not so much and for a team that felt at the outset that scoring would not be a problem, well averaging just 19 points-per-game is not going to win in the CFL.

Oddly enough it’s the same per game average offensive output the expansion 2002 Ottawa Renegades put on the board. And the REDBLACKS have insisted since Day One “we are not an expansion team” so there’s no way this team feels like it will match the ‘Gades first-year 4-14 won-loss mark. This club wants more . . . much more.

“We’ve been ahead both games at half time but the goal is to be ahead at the end of the game and we have not found a way to do that,” said head coach Rick Campbell. “We want to win here.

“I don’t like to think of it as (growing pains). That’s like making an excuse and we don’t want to do that here.

“But we’ve just got to be more consistent. We make some big plays but we need more consistency.”

For starters, Burris needs help. As his head coach says “we’d like to keep him clean. He had a lot of guys in his face.”

The club also needs receivers to make that catch when it’s needed.

Burris led all CFL throwers last season with 4,925 yards passing. The arm, even at 39, is still the same. The results aren’t there yet.

“The one thing I’ve said is we have to learn how to win,” said Burris.

“We’ve been in both games and we’ve had more than a few opportunities to put points on the board. We’re a team that’s trying not to have those same mistakes moving forward.

“We’ve got a lot of great personnel here but we’re trying to grasp different things and we’re trying to fast-track things.

”But look at Saskatchewan. They were supposed to go undefeated and look where they are. No team in this league goes undefeated and no offence in this league goes through a season without a slump.

“We were 1-4 last year to start in Hamilton and we went to the Grey Cup. Good teams trust each other and we’re still developing that trust.”

Now, no-one is foolish enough to draw any comparisons between the 2014 REDBLACKS and the CFL’s first real expansion team, the 1954 B.C.
Lions. That team didn’t win a game until September when By Bailey scored the game-winning touchdown in a 9-4 win over the Calgary Stampeders. It proved to be the only Lions win that first season on their way to 1-15.

But that first win had the city of Vancouver celebrating in the streets and you can bet it will be similar out of Bank Street if the REDBLACKS can beat Toronto.

“This is going to be a fun night and we have to make sure we do our best for our fans,” said Campbell. “The very first time we practiced here I felt a real appreciation for what this stadium is and will be and we have to make sure we keep the excitement of the moment.”