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When Paul LaPolice was hired by the Ottawa REDBLACKS to be just their second Head Coach in franchise history, he knew the stakes were big. After winning the Grey Cup as Offensive Coordinator of the Bombers in 2019, LaPolice combined a tenured CFL coaching history of success with recent offensive wizardry to become the hottest commodity on the CFL coaching marketplace.
His ability to combine the strengths and limit the weaknesses of Zach Collaros and Chris Streveler through the playoffs was pure magic which made me wonder — like many of you — as soon as he was hired to lead Ottawa: what the heck is he going to do at quarterback?
For General Manager Marcel Desjardins, this question loomed especially large after the loss of Trevor Harris, among others, in February of 2019. It became glaringly obvious as the season of despair rolled from summer to fall in the nation’s capital that Dominique Davis was not ready yet – if ever – to play the leading role on a Grey Cup worthy team.
LaPolice and Desjardins had to find their man.
Thankfully for them, the options were bountiful as Jeremiah Masoli was primed to become a free agent, while all three Bombers pivots could follow their coordinator East if they saw fit.
Masoli signed back in Hamilton — the first quarterback to sign anywhere in the 2020 off-season.
Then it happened. Arbuckle’s rights were traded to Ottawa.
If there was one lock this off-season, I thought for sure it was Arbuckle signing in Toronto with his former QB coach and new Argos head coach Ryan Dinwiddie.
Instead, Arbuckle’s rights hopped a couple 401 exits, took the 416 North and 417 East, arriving at TD Place.
The REDBLACKS have their man… IF he re-signs.
Let’s assume Arbuckle does sign on with the REDBLACKS. Who then did LaPolice and Desjardins just trade for? Why was it the right fit and what does it mean for the rest of the roster?
We begin, as always, by looking at the strengths and tendencies of the quarterback under the microscope.
What LaPolice got — and must have been enticed by when watching film — was the consistent release, sound footwork and ability to attack all areas of the field.
Arbuckle led the CFL in completion percentage on passes attempted 20 yards or more in the air (53.3%) yet was much more than just the gunslinger that Dominique Davis attempted to be in desperate times last season.
Arbuckle also had the second-highest completion percentage on passes of 0-9 yards in the air for a mark of 82.9%. A rate of success and efficiency which trailed only LaPolice’s previous pupil, Matt Nichols, in Winnipeg (84.6%).
Arbuckle is a throwing hand dominant quarterback, meaning his tendencies lean right with his right-hand release. But his ability to flip hips and feet and deliver accurate screen and quick-game throws back to the boundary were often put on display for Dave Dickenson’s Stampeders last season.
It is striking how similar the profile of Arbuckle in tendency and success rate is to Matt Nichols as both relied heavily on the check down zone under ten yards between the hashes and took shots down the field sparingly, but with an above-average rate of success.
Does Nick Arbuckle possess a more accurate arm than Nichols? Not likely, but we get to find out in 2020 with a larger number of meaningful throws anticipated. Does he have a higher ceiling based on what we have already seen in his young CFL career? Yes.
The combination of athleticism, arm strength, mechanics and high-level coaching that is sure to give Arbuckle quarterback-friendly throws — as Dickenson did — should make Ottawa football fans a much happier group this summer. They appear to have upgraded the most important position on the field in an aggressive move that can make or break a team’s free agency as other players come February determine who they want to play with.
LaPolice and Desjardins won’t have to do much convincing that Ottawa is an attractive destination for receivers who have seen Arbuckle’s work in 2019. He was able to play at or above the level of Bo Levi Mitchell as the 2018 MOP battled through injury and rhythm concerns.
Is Arbuckle destined to be the next MOP and have Mitchell-like success in Ottawa? Never say never. Bo set an unattainable standard with his work of the last five years, but even he didn’t perform in spot duty as a backup in 2013 — 69.6% completion rate — as well as Arbuckle did in 2019.
Will Arbuckle condense the multiple game plans of LaPolice into one dynamic player? Don’t let the body type fool you. He won’t in the same way LaPolice employed quarterback runs after Halloween in 2019. He’s no Taysom Hill in his multiplicity and doesn’t have the pure running ability of Streveler.
In 2019, Arbuckle scrambled on pass plays just seven times while handling short-yardage runs 23 times.
Not once was there a called run play that came outside of a short-yardage situation, even as Calgary’s starter.
What does that tell me? If LaPolice wants to continue building out a well-varied attack like he won the Grey Cup with in Winnipeg, he will have to find another quarterback to handle the run game, which means he and Desjardins aren’t done yet.
Lucky for them, there are still plenty of plates spinning as we near the one-month countdown to free agency officially opening.