January 21, 2020

Upon Further Review: Ottawa REDBLACKS

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

WAIT! Come back Ottawa football fan.

Yes, you. The one who clicked this because you thought it might be interesting but immediately regretted doing so because it brought about flashbacks of what was easily the sourest season of REDBLACKS football in their short history.

YOU are exactly the person who needs this article. Because you weren’t sure what you were watching last summer or because it will make you feel better about 2019.

No, you need this article because it will help you understand how Ottawa got to today with a new Head Coach in Paul LaPolice — more on him later — and a suddenly aggressive front office.

We begin this weekly series diving face-first into the aspects which defined the 2019 season from the bottom up. The REDBLACKS were that squad on the bottom and for Ottawa football fans, it felt like rock bottom even though they opened the 2019 campaign with a victory on the road.

» CFL 2020 Free Agent Tracker
» Which team would Zach Collaros be best-suited with?
» Checking Down: News and notes from the off-season

Ottawa REDBLACKS quarterback Dominique Davis runs with the ball (OttawaREDBLACKS.com)

A road win, in Calgary no less, despite having your starting quarterback throw four interceptions. The result was spectacular, the process was a sign of things to come for Dominique Davis who was named the 1A to Jonathon Jennings‘ 1B in 2019 training camp.

After a sensational home performance against the Riders, Davis’ game fell off a cliff as Ottawa tried to identify who they were offensively. What they quickly became was a dramatically underwhelming group attempting to find their footing in all three phases of the game, especially on offence.

2018-2019 Drop-off
Stat 2018 2019 Plus-Minus
Points For/Game 25.8 16.9 -8.9
Points Against/Game 23.3 30.2 +6.9
Turnover Differential +9 -14 -5
Net Offence Allowed 362.1 418.8 +56.7
Rush Yards/Game 94.0 76.1 -17.9
TD:Int Ratio 1.92 0.38 -1.54
Completion Percentage 69.0% 62.8% -6.2%
Pass Efficiency 98.6 69.2 -29.4

As Davis faltered, Ottawa turned to Jennings, but the play-calling and body language suggested a lack of belief. Combine that with some injuries, a lacklustre running game and adapting to a new scheme after offensive coordinator Jaime Elizondo pulled the plug on short notice and you get a recipe for a football-free fall.

Pass Play Call % (Through Week 8)
Trevor Harris (EDM) 69.2%
Dane Evans (HAM) 64.2%
Vernon Adams Jr. (MTL) 58.9%
Cody Fajard0 (SSK) 57.9%
Jonathon Jennings (OTT) 48.6%

To understand how Ottawa went from the 2018 Grey Cup in Edmonton to a country kilometre from the 2019 playoffs, you have to look back long before kick-off in Calgary.

In free agency, Trevor Harris departed for Edmonton along with receiver Greg Ellingson and offensive lineman SirVincent Rogers. Diontae Spencer went on to the NFL’s Denver Broncos while running back William Powell leapt at the chance to play the leading man for the Riders.

Harris took a lot with him to Edmonton. Anything from friends and teammates to hope and the ability to move the ball away from Ottawa’s goal line. You name it, Harris took it West.

Win Zone (Inside own 30) Production Grade
Edmonton Eskimos 57.6
Winnipeg Blue Bombers 56.0
Calgary Stampeders 54.6
Montreal Alouettes 54.4
BC Lions 53.4
Toronto Argonauts 53.4
Hamilton Tiger-Cats 52.4
Ottawa REDBLACKS 51.4
Saskatchewan Roughriders 50.0

What happened on February 12th, 2019 is unheard of in recent CFL memory. Not only did the REDBLACKS lose known commodities, they lost a whopping 74.6% of their offensive targets AND the man pulling the trigger.

OTT 2018 Targeted Touch Percentage
Name Percentage
William Powell 31.2%
Greg Ellingson 15.8%
Brad Sinopoli 15.4%
Diontae Spencer 12.4%

One would assume the REDBLACKS were primed for a setback season if they were unable to fill those empty roster spots.

Ottawa Receiving Stats
Stat R.J. Harris Dominique Rhymes Caleb Holley
Targeted Touch % 15.6% 14.4% 12.1%
Yards in Air per Target 11.6 14.6 10.7
Catch Rate 73% 72% 62%
Production Grade 57.6 62.4 48.4

They tried with a multitude of small names stepping into larger roles than previously asked in a CFL setting, but the void was too large. Everyone took a step back, including native son Brad Sinopoli, as Ellingson and Powell went on to improve their game-changing ways in new colours.

For Sinopoli specifically, the realities of his new surroundings were stunning. Fresh off a record year for Canadian catches — in a system perfectly tailored to his primarily underneath route running and timing — the Peterborough, Ontario native saw personal numbers decline in almost every category imaginable. It was a stark reminder that a receiver is often only as good as his quarterback, coach, scheme and vice versa.

Brad Sinopoli 2018 2019
Completion % 71.5 63.1
Accuracy grade when targeted 66.8 61.2
Yards in air per target 9.55 8.80
Production Grade 56.8 51.8

Sinopoli’s downturn in production was a direct result of the trickle-down on February 12th, 2019.

The REDBLACKS lost Elizondo’s tempo offence with Harris’ quick release. They lost the vertical push of Spencer and Ellingson which restricted the underneath zone Sinopoli used so effectively to set records in 2018. They also lost a consistent running threat in Powell who allowed Sinopoli to fly freely to the flats off play-action.

Just take a look at the 2018 REDBLACKS’ offensive profile versus this season and you’ll understand how different those two groups were equipped and subsequently performed.

Perhaps the most damning number for Sinopoli at the heart of all this inefficiency was his 2nd down impact grade — which is calculated by adding targeted touch percentage to production grade.


It dropped from 75.7 to 60.5.

That can’t be understated. It’s a base metric that tells us how much love you are getting (targeted touch percentage) and how effective your targets are at moving the football or scoring points (production grade).

THAT is bad.

It’s over, I promise, but I believe Ottawa fans should actually embrace the pain of 2019. Not unlike devastating natural disasters, sometimes in great loss, there comes extreme renewal and a fresh sense of direction.

Nick Arbuckle
Category Total Rank
Completion Percentage 73.1% 1st
Accuracy Grade 70.7 1st
TD:Int Ratio 2.20 4th

That certainly appears to be the case for the REDBLACKS after adding Paul LaPolice as Head Coach and trading for the early negotiating rights to former Stampeders QB Nick Arbuckle.

In Arbuckle, the REDBLACKS traded a third-round CFL draft pick for the chance to go on a date, see the town and discover if there are any mutual interests — the teams will also reportedly swap first-rounders if Arbuckle puts pen to paper.

Arbuckle has been to town, seen the sights decided to hold off on signing for now. Before you criticize his decision as you wish for your REDBLACKS to rapidly solve every issue of 2019 consider this…

Wouldn’t you want to be a free agent in Arbuckle’s position?

Undrafted to the NFL, two years as a backup in Canada then all of a sudden, you’re the hottest commodity on an ageing free-agent quarterback market.

Mitchell vs. Arbuckle 2019 Stats
 Stat Bo Levi Mitchell Nick Arbuckle
1st Down Pass Production Grade 59.4 57.4
2nd Down Pass Production Grade 46.2 49.2
TD:Int Ratio 1.73 2.20
Yards Per Pass Attempt 8.34  8.83

He’s earned the chance to decide where he spends the next few years regardless of the message REDBLACKS general manager Marcel Desjardins sent by acquiring his expiring rights. I fully expect Arbuckle to field offers up to and on February 11th when free agency officially opens.

If LaPolice and Desjardins get their man all will be right — for now — in Ottawa. If not, Matt Nichols or even Zach Collaros are still viable options, but Ottawa fans need to realize it runs much deeper than just a quarterback. In LaPolice, you have an open-minded veteran of the CFL who can design schemes and oversee the organization at a level that should help return — at the least — the offence to relevancy in a relatively quick manner.

Just look at what LaPolice did in Winnipeg last season as offensive coordinator.

Is Ottawa’s roster where Winnipeg’s 2019 group was? Will the 2020 REDBLACKS take on the exact same style and identity of the unique Bombers Grey Cup run?

The obvious answer is no, but with LaPolice, whatever form the REDBLACKS take is sure to be an upgrade, especially if one of the marquee free-agent quarterback names decided to commit to restoring winning football to the nation’s capital.