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CFL season preview: The Ottawa RedBlacks

So who needs the NFL? Preseason football has already begun north of the US border, and we’re less than a week away from CFL kickoff on June 23. Before then, Os Davis presents previews for each of the Canadian Football League’s nine teams right here on The Grueling Truth. This time out, a look at the East division champion Ottawa RedBlacks.

The history: Not much from the RedBlacks, too much from Ottawa!

Ottawa, former home of two CFL teams (the Rough Riders from 1876(!) to 1996, and the Renegades from 2002 to ’05), was finally re-awarded a franchise for the 2014 season. Despite the league’s refusal to financially support the flailing Renegades operation in 2005, interest in reestablishing a CFL franchise never completely died out. Jeff Hunt was awarded rights to the Ottawa CFL franchise in 2008, which ultimately resulted in the foundation of the RedBlacks in ‘14.

As for the Rough Riders, traditionalists in the 1990s were certainly dismayed to see the demise of a franchise in existence since the 19th century. The Rough Riders (sometimes known colloquially as “The Red and Black”) appeared in some 15 Grey Cups between 1925 and their final title shot in 1981 – including the classic Rough Riders vs. Roughriders final of ’76 – winning nine.

Facing financial difficulties in 1993, management started talking about relocating the franchise to the United States. In one of the odder business decisions in North American sports annals, CFL leadership decided that half the Rough Riders roster would be jettisoned to form the Shreveport Pirates, a new franchise for owner Bernard Glieberman. Despite the expansion fees collected from US-based team owners in the wacky “CFL USA” expansion period of the mid-1990s, nothing could be done by the league to preserve the 120-year-old club financially and thus the team shut down before the 1996 season.

The Ottawa Renegades were born in 2002, but registered barely a blip on the CFL radar in running up four consecutive losing seasons for a cumulative record of 23-49 (.319) before folding.

While Hunt ultimately decided to keep some continuity with past Ottawa CFL teams via retaining the stylized “R” logo and referencing the Rough Riders through the unique new team name, ties to the hard-luck Renegades are few.

Last season: Talk about your Cinderella stories, your “nobody believed in us” teams, your underdogs of sports lore – that was your 2015 Ottawa RedBlacks. Non-Ottawa residing CFL fans went through a gamut of emotions regarding the RedBlacks as the season progressed, from treating the second-year franchise as afterthought through skepticism to surprise and finally admiration for what head coach Rick Campbell& Co. had achieved.

Still resembling the post-expansion draft team that the RedBlacks were, the team was led on offense by 40-year-old quarterback Henry Burris (formerly of Temple University, the Chicago Bears and Berlin Thunder(!) way back when) on offense and 25-year-old DE Justin Capicciotti (Simon Fraser U.) on defense.

After building up the RedBlacks’ inaugural roster starting with the offensive line, the 2015 preseason saw the Ottawa brain trust assembling an incredible corps of wide receivers for Burris to target: Coming aboard via free agency or trade were Maurice Price (Charleston Southern U., Kansas City Chiefs, Orlando Predators), Ernest Jackson (SUNY Buffalo, Chicago Slaughter), Greg Ellingson (Florida International, Tampa Bay Storm), Brad Sinopoli (U. Ottawa) and Chris Williams (New Mexico State, Chicago Bears).

Together, these five helped form the deepest and, many would say, best WR corps in the CFL. All but Price topped 1,000 yards receiving; Sinopoli ultimately took home the league’s Most Outstanding Canadian Player award as Burris, the CFL’s overall Most Outstanding Player, ran up a whopping 5,693 yards on 678 attempts with just 13 interceptions against 26 TDs – and remember, the dude was 40.

Such a cold rolling-off of statistics belies the excitement of the RedBlacks’ rise in 2015, however. Despite the obvious woes of two teams in the East division – namely the Montreal Alouettes, who lost two QBs in week one, and the Toronto Argonauts, who’d be denied four home games due to stadium scheduling conflicts – belief in the CFL’s newest team took time to gel. As did the RedBlacks themselves.

Week five gave the first indication of what might be in store from these RedBlacks, as the upstarts surprised the defending champion Calgary Stampeders, 29-26, in overtime. After a week six bye, Ottawa’s second win against Montreal brought the RedBlacks’ record to 4-2, putting them in a tie for first place with the nearly invulnerable-seeming Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Reality again appeared to set in with back-to-back losses at Calgary and at Toronto, dumping Ottawa back to .500 and putting them on the playoff bubble – but this was a team uncomprehending of the word “realistic” and wowed fandom with an 8-2 run the rest of the way; in these 10 games, the RedBlacks scored fewer than 26 points just once (and that was a frankly ugly 12-6 win at Hamilton in week 19). Due to oddities of scheduling, Ottawa ended up playing Hamilton in three consecutive games with a home-and-home set in weeks 19 and 20 followed by a meeting in the East division championship game. The RedBlacks won all three, an outcome few would have predicted even two months previously.

Unfortunately for the Ottawa faithful, Chris Jones and his Edmonton Eskimos proved too much for the RedBlacks in the Grey Cup game, turning the CFL’s Cinderellas back into pumpkins on the way to the title. Few, however, could be disappointed with one of the league’s most memorable (and shocking!) regular seasons ever.

The offseason: In direct contrast to the initiative that RedBlacks management showed in 2015, the ’16 offseason was marked by conservatism – with one notable exception.

To no one’s surprise, Campbell got his contract extended, as did Chris Williams. On the minus side, the RedBlacks lost OT Colin Kelly (Oregon State) to the San Francisco 49ers and some half-dozen veterans to various CFL teams, with the most egregious clearly the departure of Capicciottito the Saskatchewan Roughriders.The RedBlacks in turn won over Arnaud Gascon-Nadon from the Tiger-Catspresumably to fill Capicciotti’s spot.

But talk about your insurance policies. The true headliner in the RedBlacks offseason was without question the signing of QB Trevor Harris (Edinboro U., Orlando Predators). All Harris did in 2015 with the Toronto Argonauts was total a league-high 33 TD passes on his third-best 4,354 yards in 17 games. Why the seeming over-redundancy? Perhaps GM Jim Barker was scared straight by the injury carousel that the majority of CFL teams faced at quarterback in 2015; perhaps he wanted to deny his competition of Harris’s services; perhaps he’s worried by the paucity of CFL QBs.

Or maybe it’s just because Burris is, you know, 41 years old.

Expectations for 2016: Excepting RedBlacks backers, some regression from the bottled lightning season of 2015 is expected.

And the lucky bounces are, with one preseason game played, going against Ottawa: In the first half of the team’s preseason opener against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, halfback William Powell (Kansas State, Arizona Cardinals) was knocked out for the season with an Achilles injury. Powell joined the RedBlacks late last season and amassed 605 total yards and three TDs in the final five regular-season games; until last Monday, he was looking to contend for the CFL’s rushing yardage title in ’15.

On the other hand, in the aforementioned preseason opener, Burris looked as though he was halfway through 2015 again: Namely, sharp. And this is still Burris’s offense. SirVincent Rogers (U. Houston, Miami Dolphins, Arizona Rattlers), winner of the CFL’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman award, is still around and the truth we learned in ‘15 is that if Burris is given enough time to throw, the RedBlacks’ passing game is potentially the league’s tops.

In short, the RedBlacks may not revisit the Grey Cup in 2016 but, given the competition in the East and that nice insurance policy at QB, we’d feel comfortable penciling them in for the playoffs.

Talk about your tough acts to follow…

Next: The Hamilton Tiger-Cats