Drew Tate was having a little fun with the situation, jesting about the extra work he was putting in as the Ottawa REDBLACKS starting quarterback this week. Running quarterback meetings. First team reps. Extra stretching. Media demands.
“This is why I always liked the back-up lifestyle more,” he joked in a vocal style lightly reminiscent of Matthew McConaughey, only Tate’s southeast Texas drawl lacks the same molasses-dripping, slow-motion quality of the movie star’s. “Shoot, I just show up, throw a couple balls, have a couple laughs and then I’m out, right? That’s the back-up style.”
It’s a style that Tate – at one time on solid footing to become a full-time starter – has lived for the last few seasons. No wonder he’d gotten used to it. Now, though, the role he might have had all along if not for some bad, successive injury luck, has been thrust upon him and we’re about to see if he is still up for it.
The REDBLACKS had just finished up their Day One preparations with an eye to this Sunday’s rather critical set-to with the Alouettes, in Montreal. Tate, the 32-year-old, ninth-year veteran, sounded like he usually does, over the phone. Which is to say relaxed. Focused, but relaxed. His mind was sharp and he was chatty, gladly answering questions about his insertion as QB1 for Ottawa, while incumbent Trevor Harris stays on the sidelines in a shoulder sling for the next few weeks.
‘THE WAGGLE’ talks Drew Tate’s first start as a REDBLACK in this week’s podcast
“I thought Day One went really well,” Tate said, admitting that things weren’t perfect, but that he was confident that they’d get much closer to that by the time kick-off arrives.
“I’m excited for this challenge,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Tate is in his first year with the REDBLACKS, secured in a deal with the Calgary Stampeders this past off-season, an insurance policy in the event that Harris were to suffer an injury serious enough to keep him out of the line-up.
That has, indeed, happened and now it is up to Tate to step into an Ottawa offence that has seen Harris put up some very good numbers, even if the REDBLACKS have struggled to translate those numbers into an adequate number of wins.
There have been other questions surrounding the defending Grey Cup Champions in a disappointing season that now hinges on all of the team’s units putting things together in a more cohesive manner. However, if Tate is unable to replicate Harris’ performance in the offence, the prospects will remain dim and it might not matter if Ottawa’s defence and special teams find their legs.
There is, therefore, pressure. The REDBLACKS can’t afford to fritter away opportunities while Harris mends. He may be out as many as six weeks and if that’s the case, Tate will need to be more than a place holder. He will need to perform.
“I feel comfortable right now, where we’re at,” said Tate. “I feel confident and I feel like we’ll, you know, play fast.” He caught himself there, looking ahead to game time, before reeling in his thoughts and looking ahead, instead, to Day Two of installations. “Well, really, I don’t wanna (talk about) Sunday, I’m just worried about tomorrow and taking a step forward, personally.”
Is Tate up to the task, considering his limited time on the field, not only this season but in the last three as a Stampeder, where he barely got any action behind starter Bo Levi Mitchell? There are believers all around the REDBLACKS, including their former quarterback and a current star receiver, to name two.
“I foresee him doing great things because he’s had a great year of practice so far,” said morning TV star Henry Burris, whose retirement after leading the REDBLACKS to Grey Cup glory meant Harris was number one and that the team needed someone like Tate to file in behind. “He has all the physical abilities to get the job done but what’s even more important with him is he has those leadership and also mental qualities as well.”
“I honestly don’t expect a drop off,” said Ottawa receiver Brad Sinopoli, admitting that it is a blow to lose a quarterback who’d been playing as well as Harris had. But Sinopoli has faith in Tate, for both off and on-field reasons. The two were teammates in Calgary, and Sinopoli was happy to be reunited when Tate was dealt east.
“He’s a great guy,” Sinopoli said, enthusiastically, explaining that he and Tate grew close pretty quickly, with Tate helping Sinopoli along when the latter entered the league as a rookie quarterback before transitioning to receiver with the Stamps. “Super down to earth. He’s as chill as they come. A great friend. We were happy when we got him this year and right away he fit with everything that was going on here, in the locker room.”
In the locker room, yes. On the field, well, that took a little more time. Tate came into a totally new way of reading defences after eight years of doing it the Calgary way. There were hiccups.
“I found out real quick, in camp,” said Tate, recalling the first day. “I’m throwing posts and corners and all this stuff. And they’re like ‘whoa, what are you seeing?’ And I’d tell them and they’re like ‘well, that’s not the read’. Oh, okay.”
Now, though, Tate has more than a half season of re-programming under his belt and some live action from last week on which to draw. “There’s nothing like playing,” he said. Small things did trip up the Ottawa offence a little during his relief appearance against Hamilton. For instance, Tate’s barking of signals differed from Harris’ way of doing things but that was rectified, pronto.“We fixed that problem after the first drive,” Tate said.
Both Tate and Sinopoli agree that the nature of Ottawa’s offence, coupled with Tate’s set of skills, should make for a reasonably smooth transition.
“The system is just so quarterback friendly, I think that’s one thing that stands out,” said Sinopoli. “It is a little different for Drew, coming from Calgary, and what he’s known for eight, nine years. But, again, because it is so quarterback friendly and the way that Drew is, I don’t expect any drop off. I think that he’s gonna be great.”
“On paper, I feel like I have a pretty good handle on it,” said Tate, before chuckling over what that actually means in the grander scheme. “Now it’s just about doing it. That’s where you earn your money. Or, you don’t, basically. Too bad the game ain’t played on paper, right? You actually have to go out there and do it.”
While the REDBLACKS were falling behind the Ticats last Saturday night, Tate was on the sidelines, emerging, as he has all season, to hold placements for Ottawa kicker Brett Maher. The limited nature of his engagement changed when Harris was driven hard to the turf at TD Place, his right shoulder messed up under the weight of Hamilton defensive lineman Davon Coleman. Tate was in and moments later he threw his first regular season pass, finishing the game 8-for-13 for 114 yards and one touchdown, a sweet-looking bomb to Joshua Stangby, deep in the Hamilton end zone, fired from around the Hamilton 35-yard line. It was a reminder that Tate possesses great physical skills and was at one time thought of as Calgary’s undisputed starter until a succession of injuries sidelined him and a young Mitchell took hold of the reins, never looking back.
Tate sucked it up in Calgary, serving as Mitchell’s understudy, playing sparingly and starting only in regular season-ending games in both 2015 and 2016. His challenges have helped make him a great teammate, Burris figures.
“Guys can relate to Drew because he’s had his ups and downs,” he said. “He’s had his setbacks. But he’s always continued to battle. He’s a real good guy in the locker room but also he’s such a hard worker on the field.”
“He’s a competitor,” continued Burris. “He has the kind of Jeff Garcia mentality where he’ll run through a brick wall if he has to in order for his team to win.”
Heady praise, being compared to the ultra-tough Garcia. Sinopoli, too, sees it and something more. For him, Tate’s abilities to perform in a crunch are self-evident but he points to the Hamilton game as proof if you need it. “He got thrown into the fire and he was just able to flip a switch and be able to do things that I don’t see very often,” said Sinopoli.
“He’s just one of those guys where as soon as it’s time to go, he’s ready to go.”
It has been a long, long time since Drew Tate had the opportunity to be the man, to show that he can lead his team through that proverbial brick wall after first blasting a hole in it himself. That was supposed to be his destiny in Calgary.
Now, he is in Ottawa, with an opportunity to show what he could have done all along. The REDBLACKS sure do need him to be that Drew Tate.