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CFL.ca will be previewing the 2021 season, breaking down special teams, defence and offence for all nine teams as they get set to hit the field.
Like I did with the Ottawa REDBLACKS defence let’s just get this out of the way quickly: The last time we saw Ottawa, we can politely say that their offence was lacking.
Their last great game was back in Week 2, when they scored 44 points and put up over 400 yards. It went downhill after that. The quarterbacks threw more interceptions than touchdowns, the running backs scored zero touchdowns while running with the ball and the offence as a whole scored 61 fewer powers than the second-worst scoring team, the Toronto Argonauts.
Making matters even worse, the 2021 version will no longer have the services of their leading receiver Dominique Rhymes, who moved on to the BC Lions. Then there are the retirements of Brad Sinopoli, Jalen Saunders and their starting centre Alex Mateas. That’s a significant talent drain for a team that’s used to winning. How strange a year must 2019 have been for an organization that had made three trips to the Grey Cup since 2015? That is the current backdrop for an Ottawa team looking to rebound from a CFL worst 3-15 record without so many familiar/productive faces in the lineup.
We have heard the usual platitudes coming from the team talking about using all the outside doubt surrounding them and using it as rage fuel to prove us all wrong. Matt Nichols has come out and said he hopes everyone picks them to finish last, while his head coach Paul LaPolice stated he has never even heard of the gambling sites that have the REDBLACKS’ over-under win total at 3.5.
For my preview of Ottawa’s offence, I want to steer away from the “us against the world” predictable talking points and focus on a different theme: Opportunity. Yes, the 2021 season is a wonderful chance for so many players to stick it to the critics but it is also represents opportunity for so many players.
Mark Korte, the team’s 4th overall pick in the 2018 Draft, has flipped between starting at guard and at tackle when SirVincent Rogers left the team. Korte has a chance for the offensive linemen hat trick as the team’s starting centre. This is Korte’s moment to prove he can quarterback an offensive line that will feature new players at both tackle and one guard position. If he can pull this off, he can find himself a permanent home at such a critical position.
Speaking of the 2018 Draft, former McMaster receiver Daniel Petermann wasn’t selected until the third round but has a chance to be if not the first option (have to think it will be R.J. Harris, who will lead the team in targets in 2021) then certainly the second target Nichols will be looking for. Petermann has played under LaPolice in Winnipeg so he enters the year with familiarity of his coach’s offensive philosophy.
Petermann was often an afterthought in the Bombers’ passing game, buried on the depth chart. In Ottawa he has more than enough size and speed to shine. Anthony Coombs never had the problem of being the forgotten man. His story has always been about health or lack thereof. As someone who watched a lot of Coombs, he was always the sort of make-defenders-miss player you were excited to see when he had the ball working in space. The problem has always been health, with injuries limiting him to 69 games in six seasons.
Petermann is looking for an opportunity to prove he belongs as an everyday starter while for Coombs he is out to show he can stay healthy and contribute on a weekly basis. I would be shocked if he finished with less than 50 catches this year.
At running back Timothy Flanders has a chance to finally step out of the shadow of Andrew Harris and be the work horse for Ottawa’s ground attack. LaPolice ran a balanced attack in Winnipeg, no reason why that would change in Ottawa. Flanders had some impressive moments filling in for Harris including in 2016 a three-game run of 262 yards averaging a healthy six yards per carry. He’s a player who has always contributed when given the shot. It will be a crowded backfield to start the year as there are several running backs vying for the same alpha role but Flanders should be considered the favourite.
Of course, when you talk about how a player will respond when opportunity knocks how can you not finish it off with Matt Nichols? Every person who has written about the CFL has at least one Nichols column in their past. It is a rite of passage to write about whether or not Nichols is good enough to be on that top tier of CFL quarterbacks.
Winnipeg’s leading passer in 2019 never got a chance for Grey Cup glory after injuring himself in Week 10 and instead had to see Zach Collaros and Chris Streveler covered in confetti. 2021 could go a long way toward changing people’s perceptions of Nichols. If he can lead Ottawa from the basement to respectability that can only be seen as a hell of an achievement with so many of the players around him having never been full-time starters and with so many pieces new to the team.
Under the play calling of LaPolice, Nichols has done a lot of winning while posting solid passing numbers. He was the highest-rated quarterback in the league before that season ending injury against the Lions. Nichols isn’t the best quarterback in the CFL but he may be the most important one. This is a team that is looking for stability at the most important position on the field. There is going to a number of players at both the skill positions and on the offensive line taking on new roles and greater responsibility. The REBLACKS desperately need Nichols and his knowledge of how this coaching staff wants to run the offence to be that calming, stabilizing force to help ease in the rest of the team.
The final person I want to highlight is not a player but rather the head coach. This is Paul LaPolice’s opportunity to prove he can be an upper echelon head coach. We know the incredible work he did running the Bombers offence. Think of the job he did helping the team to 11 wins with three different starting quarterbacks. The first game that Zach Collaros started in 2019 was the season finale, a 29-28 win over Calgary. Collaros would go on to win three playoff games and the Grey Cup.
LaPolice put together such a smart game plan, not asking Collaros to do too much (he averaged 23 pass attempts per game in the postseason) yet the team still found a way to put up 88 points in that three-game playoff run. His last time leading a team, the Bombers from 2010 to 2012, saw some great moments in 2011 as Winnipeg made it to the Grey Cup but all that winning in 2010 was sandwiched with a whole lot of losing in both his first and third year that saw him let go after eight games.
The 2021 season represents a marvelous opportunity not only for the players to show what they can do but also for a head coach who has rightfully been given a second chance to demonstrate he, like so many of his new players, belong on the field.