Greg Ellingson and the rest of the Ottawa REDBLACKS have an appetite and you may be part of the reason they do.
How do you feel about them? Do you look at them as the defending champs and the team to beat in 2017? Or are they merely a decent squad, in your mind, a team that just got hot at the right time last year on the way to a Grey Cup Championship and, by the way, lost too many key components from that unit to be considered a league elite?
If it’s the latter, Ellingson hears you and would like to politely disagree.
“I think we kind of haven’t had the credit that we deserve as being the defending champs,” he told CFL.ca earlier this week, his tone much more resigned than bitter. “But we’ll just keep playing REDBLACK football and hope to stack the wins up.”
Winless after two games against the CFL’s evergreen contending darlings, the Calgary Stampeders (a tie at home followed by a loss on the road), the Ottawa REDBLACKS feel they have plenty on the line when they meet the Toronto Argonauts at TD Place on Saturday night. They’re playing to ensure getting that first win doesn’t stretch out too long, giving momentum a chance to gather velocity in the wrong direction. That’s first and foremost.
In the bigger picture, Ellingson has the feeling that the 2016 Grey Cup champs are not getting the level of respect they’ve earned, even with the major roster changes that have been undertaken since last November.
That’s a fuel that can be added to the bonfire of motivation, even if it is not the primary one.
Despite putting points on the board, the REDBLACKS enter Week 3 without a win after going 0-1-1 in their two game set with the Stampeders to open the season.
“I wouldn’t say that’s (it’s the) one specific thing,” replied Ellingson, when asked whether the feeling is rampantly raging throughout the Ottawa line-up. “Everybody has their own motivations. But that’s definitely one that ties into my drive.”
“People kinda just look at Calgary and the West and think that those are the teams that are gonna win ‘cause the West is so much stronger than the East – that’s what people seem to think – so we’ll keep playing one week at a time and hope to prove people wrong.”
To do that, Ellingson and his teammates need to shed themselves of the dullness that can be apparent when a new season dawns; one that can be aggravated by the process of assimilating new parts, something the REDBLACKS are needing to do after an off-season of change. While those adjustments can lead to tribulations, Ellingson believes they can also factor into another form of motivation as the season chugs along.
Don’t suspect, Ellingson declared, that the REDBLACKS will be a well-fed team, stuffed on the accomplishments of last autumn.
“I don’t think that’s the case, whatsoever,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys on the team now that didn’t win a championship last season that wanna win one. And you’re playing for your teammates too.”
Outside of the newcomers who were not a part of the REDBLACKS roster in 2016 – players like receivers Diontae Spencer and Kenny Shaw on offence as well as linebacker Khalil Bass on defence – Ellingson brings up the names of running back William Powell and quarterback Trevor Harris.
Powell would have been Ottawa’s starting tailback in 2016 but suffered an Achilles tendon injury during pre-season, one that ended his year.
Harris flirted with the starter’s job but was relegated to the sidelines when Henry Burris got healthy and hot and rode the feeling all the way to the Grey Cup.
“There’s plenty of guys that are hungry, that didn’t get to prove themselves,” said Ellingson. There’s guys that maybe have a ring but feel like it’s not as meaningful because they didn’t contribute as much.”
So the motivations are all in place. The desire to force doubters to think of the REDBLACKS as a powerhouse and the hunger of new teammates and those who want to win it all again, this time as featured players.
So far, they’ve played decent football. At times, they’ve been great, matching the Stampeders’ big plays in those two games with a few of their own. There are numbers to indicate that the Ottawa offence is in good hands, even with the departures of Burris (retired) and receivers Chris Williams (signed with B.C.) and Ernest Jackson (Montreal). Harris has passed for 725 yards and five touchdowns in two games. Ellingson and his close friend Brad Sinopoli have taken their joined-at-the-hip kinship onto the stats page, where they each have fifteen receptions, each for 199 yards.
Still, Ellingson feels things are just not humming as of yet, though he suspects they will be very soon.
“There’s things that need to be cleaned up, obviously,” he said. “Small things. Depth of route, timing with the waggles. Our offence is so fast tempo. A little bit of it is conditioning.”
The departure of Williams and Jackson as free agents left the REDBLACKS’ down more than a quart in the receiving corps. They topped things up during free agency by signing Spencer and Shaw, who’d been bright spots for the Toronto Argonauts. While Shaw has yet to contribute in the way he can due to injury – replacement Josh Stangby has done a nice job in his place – Spencer went off against Calgary last week, hauling in a Harris bomb for a 65-yard touchdown and romping for a 96-yard punt return major.
“We replaced them well,” said Ellingson of Williams and Jackson. “We brought in guys that can contribute in different ways. It’s not that much of a drop off (from last season). They’re great athletes and they’ve kinda proved that. We have depth here. We have guys that can step up.”
“Guys are making plays. That’s good to see, especially with the new guys coming in.”
Saturday’s game against the Argos would be a good time to get things running more smoothly, to hit the next level. Ellingson admitted that he is feeling some urgency, even though this will be just game three of a long season.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I mean, we don’t have a win on the board and you definitely wanna get one up there, especially with the tough stretch we have coming up after this game, with three games in twelve days, I think it is.”
Well, that’s one more motivating factor for Saturday night’s game. It can join the others, like playing for teammates who didn’t eat the same meal you did last Grey Cup Sunday. Or feeling you’re not getting your due from the doubters.
“In this profession you have to prove it week in and week out,” said Ellingson.
The defending champs still have some questions to answer, in some corners. It’s time for them to start answering those questions with wins.