The matchup for the 110th Grey Cup is all set for this Sunday. The Montreal Alouettes will face the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in front of a sell-out crowd in Hamilton. Grey Cup Week, as always, will be filled with the usual festivals and hoopla.
But here in Ottawa, the Grey Cup game now feels almost as far away as it did back in the 1980s and 90s when the Ottawa Rough Riders failed to win a single playoff game for the final 14 years of their existence.
Not that long ago, the Redblacks were rolling. They had just finished their fifth season in the CFL and had already been to the Grey Cup game three times, winning it all in 2016 – the city’s first title in 40 years.
But since walking off the field at the 2018 Grey Cup game, this time losing to Calgary, no one would have ever predicted the Redblacks would be this awful. They’ve now missed the playoffs for four straight years and failed to win more than four games in any of those seasons.
So, as their season ended against Toronto on October 28th, it was a safe bet there would be changes. However, the club opted to retain general manager Shawn Burke for another season. They also decided to keep head coach Bob Dyce for at least another year.
After a four-win season, they needed to do something. So, they recently dismissed assistant coach and offensive coordinator Khari Jones.
“On behalf of the Ottawa REDBLACKS, I’d like to thank Khari Jones for his contributions to our organization and his professionalism over the last year,” Head Coach Bob Dyce said in a prepared club statement. “Coach Jones gives everything he has to his role as a coach in the CFL, and we wish him all the best in the next chapter of his career.”
Jones lasted only one season with the Redblacks, serving as this year’s offensive play-caller. While the offence was generally ineffective, particularly with its passing game, it was handcuffed by injuries to quarterbacks Jeremiah Masoli and Tyrie Adams. Dustin Crum, who started the year as number four on the depth chart, came in and had brief success, helping Ottawa to a 3-3 record. After that, the club went 1-11 the rest of the season.
Redblacks President Adrian Sciarra says he has confidence in his current GM, who has a record of 8-28 over his two seasons.
“When it comes to the football operations side, I’ve got great confidence in Shawn Burke,” Sciarra told TSN 1200 radio. “His commitment, work ethic, and knowledge of the game are unbelievable. Nobody wants better results more than he does. I know he’ll help us turn it around.
“Shawn will never make excuses, and I won’t either. But we had some tough breaks, especially early in the year. The team kept battling. Injuries happen in football. I would have loved to see what Jeremiah (Masoli) could have done with us in the last two seasons. But those are things we need to be able to overcome and still put wins on the board.”
That’s much easier said than done, of course. The CFL is a passing league, and Ottawa was dead last in passing yards, both for and against. That makes it impossible to be competitive.
They could turn things around if Masoli returns and stays healthy. Or if Crum or Adams can emerge as top quarterbacks. Or if Dyce and Burke, in their second and third seasons on the job, have learned enough lessons to steer this team back to the playoffs.
That’s a lot of “ifs” in one paragraph.
Perhaps, as they sit down to watch Sunday’s big game, Ottawa needs to steal everything Winnipeg has been doing. While the Redblacks have had a terrible record the last four years, the Bombers have made it to the Grey Cup game in those same four years. Championship game appearances have become routine for Winnipeg fans.
“R Nation” used to feel that way, too. But that’s a long time ago now.
On the other end of the city, Ottawa’s NHL team is going through its own nasty drought, missing the playoffs for six straight years. But their fans have now been satiated by change – a new owner in Michael Andlauer, a new GM in Steve Staios, and the welcome return of Cyril Leeder and Daniel Alfredsson have restored hope.
In sports, you need to be able to sell fans one of two things: winning or the hope that you’ll win soon. The Redblacks are currently failing in the win column and the hope meter.
They brought in a rookie GM two years ago. They brought in a rookie head coach last year. And now they’re planning to replace an assistant coach. They have an entire off-season to do more, but, for the time being, that’s not enough to restore faith and hope in the fan base. After five years of misery, Ottawa must give fans a reason to think things will be different because they don’t have one right now.
As the final gun sounds to end the 2023 CFL season on Sunday, it also kicks off what should be a fascinating off-season in Ottawa.