From 2015-18, the Ottawa Redblacks were a consistent force in the CFL, winning the Eastern Division three times, winning a Grey Cup and playing for the championship twice more.
The 2019 season, however, saw the franchise take a sharp turn downward.
After a 2-0 start, the Redblacks lost 15 of their last 16 games. With the 2020 CFL season canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the team has had to stew on its league-worst record for nearly 21 months.
Ottawa hopes to wash away the bad taste of an 11-game losing streak when it opens the 2021 season at the Edmonton Elks on Saturday.
Paul LaPolice will finally make his Ottawa head coaching debut after being hired in December of 2019. LaPolice had been the offensive coordinator for the Grey Cup-winning Winnipeg Blue Bombers and brought quarterback Matt Nichols with him when he moved to Ottawa.
Nichols is familiar with LaPolice’s offensive system and was meant to bring the steady hand of a veteran under center for a rebuilding team. His tenure with the Redblacks, however, is not off to a dream start after being limited in practice all week with an injury to his throwing shoulder.
Nichols is officially listed as questionable for Saturday’s season opener, possibly leaving Dominique Davis as Ottawa’s field general. Davis played 17 games in 2019, so he is familiar with the starter’s role, but he finished the season with 14 interceptions to just five touchdown passes.
The quarterback situation will be far less murky for the Elks, who bring back accomplished starter Trevor Harris.
Harris, who won a Grey Cup with Ottawa in 2016, is among the top 30 passing yardage leaders in CFL history and threw for 4,027 yards in just 13 games in 2019.
But an injury kept Harris out for six weeks late in the season and Edmonton lost seven of its last nine games to finish 8-10.
Edmonton head coach Jaime Elizondo was on the Redblacks’ offensive staff for the 2016 Grey Cup season and has experience working with Harris, possibly allowing the Elks to start fast this season.
After nearly two years off, Elizondo acknowledged his players will be eager to get back on the field but cautioned against putting too much weight in the start of the game.
“Everybody wants to start strong, but it’s really how you finish the game, I think, that’s really what matters,” Elizondo said.
“I think it’s more about solving problems as you go through the game and making adjustments. … You’ve got to focus on one play at a time – I think that’s more important than ever before because they haven’t played in so long.”