ESKS, REDBLACKS KICK OFF SEASON WITH ANNUAL GREY CUP REMATCH
One team stood in the way last November for the Ottawa REDBLACKS, who face more of the same on Saturday night when they kick off their 2016 season against the Edmonton Eskimos.
The annual Week 1 Grey Cup rematch takes place at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium, where the Green and Gold will raise the championship banner nearly seven months after a 26-20 victory in the 103rd Grey Cup Championship over Ottawa.
For the REDBLACKS there’s no doubt it will be an evening of mixed emotions, as they themselves were just one play away from now being called the defending Grey Cup Champions.
“You never want to lose a championship,” REDBLACKS linebacker Damaso Munoz told OttawaREDBLACKS.com. “But we did and it made us better and stronger as a team and as a family.”
The REDBLACKS held a fourth-quarter lead in that game until Eskimos short-yardage quarterback Jordan Lynch scored what would turn out to be the game-winning touchdown. It was a bitter end to a season that will never be forgotten in the nation’s capital, as Ottawa defied the odds and bounced back from a two-win season with a 12-6 record, an East Division title and an appearance in the Grey Cup.
But while some, like Munoz, will use that game as motivation for Saturday’s opener, others have moved on.
“It’s hard to forget, but at the same time it’s two different teams and a new season. It’s a totally different situation,” said receiver Brad Sinopoli. “It’s not motivation for our team. We’re not talking about last year, we’re just going in trying to get our first victory.”
For both Munoz and Sinopoli and everyone else, that’s what matters most – starting the season 1-0. The matchup between these emerging cross-division rivals may be the same, but much more has changed.
For starters, Jason Maas has gone from being the offensive coordinator of the Ottawa REDBLACKS to the head coach of the Edmonton Eskimos. Maas orchestrated the CFL’s number one offensive attack last season but was hired by the Eskimos after they lost Chris Jones and almost all of their coaching staff to the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
What’s more, the first- and third-ranked defences in the CFL (Ottawa and Edmonton respectively) are each only half intact.
REDBLACKS rookie and 22-year-old Jonathan Rose will face a tough first task as the team’s starting corner against Maas’s aggressive, up-tempo offence as Ottawa moves forward without defensive backs Brandyn Thompson and 2015 All-Star Jovon Johnson.
Aston Whiteside makes his return to the REDBLACKS’ depth chart after suffering a season-ending knee injury last year, but outside of him and Zack Evans it’ll be all new faces on Defensive Coordinator Mark Nelson’s defensive line.
If pre-season is any indication, Burris and the REDBLACKS are ready to pick up exactly where they left off late last season — something they’re excited to do now that it’ll all count for real.Despite all the changes on defence, however, Ottawa’s offence will provide some semblance of continuity this season — even without Maas in the fold. Jaime Elizondo arrives from the Argos with the same offensive philosophy as Maas, while Most Outstanding Player and franchise quarterback Henry Burris will have his four 1,000-yard receivers from last season to throw to.
“Training camp is training camp,” said Burris. “You enjoy the process of coming out here and practising and getting ready for the season but you get to a point where it’s like, man, enough of this, let’s get to the real stuff.”
The Eskimos will have a few major wrinkles themselves. They’re the defending champions and the odds-on favourite to win it again this season, but to do that they’ll have to overcome some big changes on both sides of the ball.
It was Jones who helped spark the turnaround from 4-14 in 2013 to 14-4 in 2015, but now he’s gone and the Eskimos are Maas’s team. Maas brings from Ottawa the same offensive philosophy as the departed Steve McAdoo but will look to speed things up the same way he did last year when the REDBLACKS led the CFL in total offence (386.3 yards per game), passing yards (322.6 yards per game) and average time of possession (33:10).
Grey Cup MVP Mike Reilly, named the CFL’s top player for 2016 by TSN, teams up with 2015 league-leading receiver Adarius Bowman and Most Outstanding Rookie Derel Walker to form a dynamic offensive attack, but the Eskimos know this year they’ll have a target on their back.
“It’s different for us because this is the first time we’re defending the Grey Cup in more than a decade,” Reilly told Eskimos.com. “We’ve certainly been on the other end of it and we know what it’s like to play against a championship team. Last year was Calgary. They were getting everybody’s best shot and this year, we’ll be getting everybody’s best shot.”
The biggest changes for the Eskimos come on the defensive side of the ball, where Pat Watkins and Marcell Young are the only returning starters in the defensive secondary. Aaron Grymes left for the NFL while Otha Foster joined Chris Jones in Saskatchewan. Just last week they learned they’d be without starting corner John Ojo for the season after he suffered a ruptured Achilles.
Recent free agent signing Cord Parks moves from halfback to corner while Deion Belue (halfback) and Kenny Ladler (SAM linebacker) are young players expected to take on major roles for the Eskimos this season.
Either way that unit will have its hands full against Burris and his array of game-breaking receivers.
“When the team gets to go against a quarterback like this with a strong arm, we look forward to playing against him,” said Deon Lacey, the Esks’ starting WILL linebacker. “The guys are eager to get it rolling and knowing we have the Grey Cup rematch, the guys are eager to get it done.”
“They have to be tenacious and be able to do it for 60 minutes,” added Maas, who knows this week’s opponent particularly well.
For all the off-season talk about whether the Eskimos are still the top dog in the West, the team isn’t thinking about any of that or what happened last year.
“There’s not been a thought of the past since we started training camp,” said Maas. “We all took a moment of silence to congratulate everybody and since then, it’s been ‘what have you done for me lately.’”
“This is what you play for,” added veteran middle linebacker JC Sherritt. “These are the games that count. The goal is to start fast in this league. Right out of the gate, we get one of the best offences in the league to test us, so we’re excited.”