Ottawa Redblacks GM Marcel Desjardins isn’t one to dwell on the past, even if it involves a stunning Grey Cup victory.
The Redblacks will kick off the CFL season as the team to beat following last year’s thrilling 39-33 overtime championship win over Calgary. Ottawa begins its title defence June 23 hosting the Stampeders in a Grey Cup rematch.
“I don’t look back,” Desjardins said. “I try to be, and we try and be proactive in what we do day to day and try to have an answer before a question is asked.
“Our goal every year at this time is to get to the Grey Cup and see what happens from there. It’s worked the last two years…let’s just hope we’re able to get it done again this year.”
The regular campaign opens June 22 with the Saskatchewan Roughriders visiting the Montreal Alouettes.
It’s been a meteoric rise for Ottawa, which has appeared in consecutive Grey Cups after a 2-16 inaugural 2014 season. Ottawa lost 26-20 to Edmonton in the 2015 title game before upsetting a 15-2-1 Calgary team after finishing atop the East with a 8-9-1 mark.
The Grey Cup win was Ottawa’s first since 1976 when Tony Gabriel’s late 24-yard TD grab earned the then Rough Riders an exciting 23-20 victory over Saskatchewan. Montreal (2009-10) was the CFL’s last repeat champion while no team has won a title on home soil since the Roughriders in 2013.
But Ottawa will field a much different team in 2017 than the one that finished last season in November at Toronto’s BMO Field.
Quarterback Henry Burris, the Grey Cup MVP, has retired while veteran receivers Chris Williams (B.C.) and Ernest Jackson (Montreal) along with running back Kienan LaFrance (Saskatchewan) were among those who left in free agency. Kicker Chris Milo and American linebacker Damaso Munoz were released.
Desjardins re-signed offensive lineman Nolan MacMillan — the first player drafted in franchise history — then added linebackers Khalil Bass (Winnipeg) and Ron Omara (Hamilton), receivers Kenny Shaw and Diontae Spencer and defensive back A.J. Jefferson (all Toronto), kicker Brett Maher (Hamilton) and defensive back Adam Berger (Calgary) in free agency.
Arguably Desjardins’ biggest move came last year when he signed former Toronto quarterback Trevor Harris, who’s now Ottawa’s starter. Veteran Drew Tate, obtained in the off-season from Calgary, is expected to assume backup duties upon recovering from a concussion.
“I’d say most teams in the CFL are probably similar [in having busy off-season],” Desjardins said. “What’s tough is when it’s change you can’t control like injuries during the course of the year.
“Free agency is a different animal…you kind of have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen before it happens. But yeah, change is the nature of the game and whoever adjusts the best as those changes are mandated upon them are usually the ones who’ll have more success.”
Here’s a look at some of the other CFL storylines heading into the season opener:
League searching for new commissioner
Jeffrey Orridge is out as CFL commissioner. League chairman Jim Lawson will serve as interim commissioner until a replacement is hired. Lawson feels a new commissioner will be appointed sometime in July. Not surprisingly, Lawson wouldn’t divulge who some of the leading candidates are but one name that keeps coming up is Wayne Parrish, a former sports columnist and Sun Media executive who also served as Canada Basketball’s executive director and CEO. TSN’s Glen Suitor and Duane Forde — both former CFL players — have expressed interest in the job.
New leadership in Toronto
Jim Popp and Marc Trestman are together again, this time with the Toronto Argonauts. Popp hired Trestman as Montreal’s head coach in 2008 and over five seasons he posted a 59-31 regular-season record, appearing in three Grey Cups and winning two. Popp spent 21 years as the Als GM, leading the team to eight Grey Cup appearances and three wins. He also earned a Grey Cup ring in ’95 as the Baltimore Stallions’ GM. The Argos were last in the East Division last year with a 5-13 record in their first season under new ownership playing at a refurbished BMO Field. Ricky Ray, 37, entering his 15th CFL season, is the starter after enduring injuries the last two years.
Durant biggest addition to Alouettes roster
It’s been a busy off-season for rookie GM Kavis Reed. Since being promoted this off-season from the coaching ranks, Reed has overhauled the roster. He’s released such veterans as linebacker Bear Woods — the East’s top defensive player last year — and let others like linebacker Winston Venable and defensive lineman Alan-Michael Cash walk as free agents. Reed has also added such proven performers as defensive back Ryan Phillips, receiver Ernest Jackson and defensive lineman Jabar Westerman but his biggest move was acquiring quarterback Darian Durant from Saskatchewan as Montreal looks to reach the CFL playoffs for the first time since 2014.
Comeback on hold for Vince Young
The former Texas star’s football comeback with the Saskatchewan Roughriders is on hold after suffering a torn hamstring during training camp. This week, Riders head coach/GM Chris Jones said Jones would be out four-to-six weeks. Hardly an ideal scenario for a 34-year-old who was out of football since 2014 before signing with Saskatchewan. Veteran Kevin Glenn will lead the Riders into new Mosaic Stadium this season. After posting a 5-13 record in his first season with the club, Jones could find himself on the hotseat with Ridernation if the club struggles out of the gate this year.
Sunderland takes over Eskimos
Jason Maas returns for a second season as Edmonton’s head coach but has a new boss in GM Brock Sunderland. He was hired to replace Ed Hervey, who was fired in the off-season. Sunderland inherits a solid roster anchored by CFL passing leader Mike Reilly. Adarius Bowman, the league’s top receiver last year, also returns but Derel Walker — who was second overall to Bowman — is now with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Shamawd Chambers, who was named the top Canadian in Edmonton’s 2016 Grey Cup win, is back with the Eskimos after signing with Saskatchewan as a free agent in February 2016.
Lions could be thin on defence
The B.C. Lions face opening the season minus two defensive stalwarts. Linebacker Adam Bighill — who formed a dynamic tandem with 2014 CFL outstanding player Solomon Elimimian — joined the NFL’s New Orleans Saints this off-season while veteran defensive back Phillips was release before resurfacing with Montreal. Bighill had 489 tackles and 33 sacks in six seasons with the Lions while Phillips had played 12 years in B.C., registering 47 interceptions and 478 tackles. The Lions were second in the West Division with a 12-6 record and boasted a defence that allowed the fewest yards and finished tied for the league lead with 52 sacks but had a CFL-low nine picks