Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor were the first-place Ottawa Redblacks.
“Like I said at the beginning of the year, we expected to make the playoffs,” Marcel Desjardins, general manager of the Canadian Football League franchise, said after the Redblacks clinched first place in the East and a berth in the division final at home with a 12-6 record, capped by their 44-28 victory against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Nov. 7.
“Did I think we would finish first?” Desjardins added. “No, I can’t say that expected that, but sometimes things click and start to roll and we have the parts here to make it work.
“Kudos to Rick (Campbell, Redblacks head coach) and everybody for getting everybody on the same page. You know, we are where we’re at and we’re thrilled with it.”
Here’s a look back at the making of a first place football team:
March 2008: The CFL awarded a conditional franchise to Ottawa Sports & Entertainment Group, but nearly five years passed before the first football operations employees were hired and a sixth before the team’s first game, followed by several other significant developments that helped turn the Redblacks into division-final hosts in Season 2.
Jan. 30, 2013: OSEG signed Marcel Desjardins to a four-year contract as Redblacks general manager. “We want to build toward a contender and by the second year be more competitive and in the third year compete with the best and possibly for the Grey Cup,” he said then. “Will we get there? Possibly. But that’s what we will aim for.”
May 6, 2013: The Redblacks participated in their first Canadian college draft. The franchise agreement restricted them to four selections from a small subset of prospects with one remaining year of eligibility at U.S. schools. Three made the roster in 2014. Offensive guard Nolan MacMillan has since started every game and Kalonji Kashama is a backup defensive end, while defensive tackle Connor Williams spent the 2015 season on injured reserve.
Dec. 6, 2013: Rick Campbell signed a three-year contract as head coach. The son of Canadian Football Hall of Fame coach and executive Hugh Campbell had no assistants and only five players under contract. “We’re not going to take a penalty for too many men on the field,” Campbell joked, “so we have that going for us.”
Dec. 16, 2013: The Redblacks selected one import and two Canadians from each of the other eight CFL clubs in the expansion draft. Twelve players remain: fullbacks Patrick Lavoie and Jordan Verdone; offensive linemen J’Micheal Deane and Matt Albright; linebacker James Green; quarterback Thomas DeMarco; and defensive linemen Moton Hopkins, Keith Shologan, Zack Evans, Justin Capicciotti, Andrew Marshall and Jonathan Williams.
Feb. 5, 2014: Quarterback Henry Burris, then fourth in several CFL all-time passing categories, signed a three-year contract as a free agent. Burris said he had talked with Damon Allen, a Rough Riders QB in 1990-91, and heard “about all the great times that he had here and just how much the city would embrace us and how much we would enjoy it.”
May 13, 2014: The Redblacks traded the first-overall college draft pick to Calgary for centre Jon Gott, dealt quarterback Kevin Glenn, an expansion-draft selection who requested a trade after the signing of Burris, to B.C. for the fifth-overall pick and traded with Montreal to move up to fourth, choosing linebacker Antoine Pruneau. Three others drafted that night — receiver Scott Macdonell, defensive end Nigel Romick and long-snapper Kevin Malcolm — were on the active roster for Game 18 this season. Offensive lineman Aaron Wheaton and defensive lineman Vincent Desloges were on the practice roster. Receiver Alex Pierzchalski, a 2014 selection by Saskatchewan who was signed by Ottawa just before this season began, was on the one-game injured list.
Nov. 12, 2014: Five days after the Redblacks ended their first season at 2-16, chiefly because poor offensive production, offensive co-ordinator Mike Gibson was dismissed. “It’s tough. Any of these decisions are tough because it affects people and families,” Campbell said. “But part of my job is we are doing whatever we think is best for the future of the team.”
Dec. 3, 2014: Former CFL quarterback and Toronto Argonauts assistant coach Jason Maas signed on as Redblacks offensive co-ordinator and quarterbacks coach. “There’s a job that needs to be done and I was hired to do that by Rick and Marcel,” Maas said. “I feel like they wouldn’t have hired me if they didn’t feel I could do it.”
Jan. 15, 2015: Speedy wide receiver Maurice Price was acquired from Calgary in a trade for linebacker Jasper Simmons, who had been voted the Redblacks’ top defensive player and most outstanding player in 2014, and receiver Dan Buckner. “They took us to the wire in the two times we played them last year. They aren’t that far off,” said Price, who a few weeks later issued a verbal guarantee the Redblacks would be in the 2015 playoffs.
Feb. 10-11: The Redblacks made a splash in CFL free agency, signing offensive tackle SirVincent Rogers and receivers Brad Sinopoli, Greg Ellingson and Ernest Jackson, although not the pass-rushing defensive end they also sought. “We had to prioritize,” Desjardins said. “For us, we wanted receivers and offensive line, actually, before trying to go after a pass rusher. It’s just something we decided to do.”
April 21: Receiver Chris Williams, voted the CFL’s top special-teams player with Hamilton in 2012, signed a one-year contract with the Redblacks as a free agent. “Right now I’m just looking forward to coming in and trying to win a Grey Cup.”
May 12: This time the Redblacks retained the first-overall pick in the college draft used it on Ottawa native Alex Mateas, a University of Connecticut offensive lineman. Mateas received limited playing time in 2015 because the Redblacks used the same five offensive-line starters for all 18 games. Second-round pick Jake Harty, a receiver, was sidelined by injuries until late in the season, while sixth-round running back Kienan LaFrance received most of his playing time on special teams. Defensive tackle Ettore Lattanzio, a former Ottawa Gee-Gee drafted and released by Winnipeg, has been on and off the Redblacks active roster.
Aug. 1: Days after kicking a game-winning overtime field goal against Calgary, CFL “international” Delbert Alvarado was released and replaced by “national” Chris Milo, who had been released by Saskatchewan in early July. Milo beat league averages by making 91.2 per cent of field-goal attempts (31-for-34) and 88.9 per cent of one-point converts (32-for-36), and he averaged 36.7 yards as an injury replacement for two of the other five punters used by the Redblacks.
Aug. 26: Three days after his objectionable-penalty allowed the Toronto Argonauts to score a tying touchdown en route to a 30-24 victory, the Redblacks (4-4) released cornerback Brandon McDonald. He had been their leading tackler and was tied for second on the team in interceptions. “We can’t have the lack of discipline continue when we have tried to correct it a number of times,” Desjardins said. “He’s a good football player. It’s not an ability issue.” With defensive halfback Abdul Kanneh shifting to cornerback for most of the rest of the regular season, the Redblacks finished up 8-2, losing only to the Argos.
Aug. 28: Tailback Chevon Walker, who scored the franchise’s first touchdown in 2014, was released and Jeremiah Johnson went from backup to starter. “Last week (Johnson) showed he could get some yards, make some guys miss (tackles),” Campbell said, “and also he gets the yards that are there. Sometimes they’re not highlight-reel stuff, but a five-yard run needs to be a five-yard run, and he has a knack for doing that.”
Sept. 2: Remember that pass-rusher the Redblacks couldn’t land in February? Former Argo Aston Whiteside signed July 20 and racked up seven quarterback sacks in five games before a left knee injury ended his season. Coincidentally, Shawn Lemon‘s attempts to latch on with National Football League clubs failed, and the Redblacks signed the former Stampeder through 2016. “We’re just trying to get better,” Desjardins said. “If that means what we’re doing in practice or if that means bringing in players that we think will make us better, that’s all part of what we’re trying to do.” Lemon recorded six sacks in nine games.
Sept. 8: Running back William Powell signed as a free agent. Following two weeks on the practice roster, he started out returning kicks before becoming starting tailback after Johnson dislocated a foot on Oct. 6. “We’re a very confident team, but, at the same time, we don’t take any team lightly,” Powell said. “Every game is a big game from here on out, and we’re going to take it one big game at a time. We’re going to focus in, play our best, play our hardest. If anything goes wrong, we know it won’t be for the fact that we weren’t playing hard enough.” Powell averaged 98 yards in four victories against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Tiger-Cats.