Paul LaPolice has been down this road before.
The 51-year-old American is entering his first season as head coach of an Ottawa Redblacks squad that posted a CFL-worst 3-15 record in 2019. So it figures expectations for the team aren’t high as it prepares to open the ’21 season visiting the Edmonton Elks on Saturday.
But it’s a similar situation LaPolice faced in 2011 entering his second season as Winnipeg’s head coach. Projections for a Blue Bombers team coming off a 4-14-0 record were predictably low but the club registered a stunning turnaround, finishing atop the East Division with a 10-8 record and reaching the Grey Cup before losing 34-23 to the B.C. Lions.
“I’ve been in situations as a head coach previously with a team that was picked last in the East and won first in the East,” LaPolice said during a videoconference. “The noise outside the building is irrelevant to us.
“The people who’ll make the most difference in our success are going to be the players in the room and the coaches … I have high expectations for this year.”
GM Marcel Desjardins said people are free to expect little from Ottawa this season, at their own peril.
“You’re free to put your money down so you can lose it,” he said. “We’ll prove you wrong.”
LaPolice and Desjardins have a lot of work to do. Not only did Ottawa have the league’s worst record in 2019 but it also lost the likes of receiver Brad Sinopoli and offensive lineman Alex Mateas — both Canadian starters — to retirement this off-season.
But LaPolice certainly has some familiarity with veteran quarterback Matt Nichols, having spent four seasons together (2016-19) in Winnipeg when LaPolice was the club’s offensive co-ordinator.
The six-foot-two, 215-pound Nichols thrived in LaPolice’s offence, registering career highs in passing yards (4,472) and TD passes (28) in 2017.
“There’s no way to put a value on playing for someone you want to play for and who makes you a better player,” Nichols said. “I’m excited to play for coach LaPolice again.
“I think he gets the best out of me.”
Nichols staked Winnipeg to a 6-2 record in 2019 before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. Nichols had a solid 71.25 per cent completion average with 1,936 yards, 15 TDs and just five interceptions.
But Winnipeg acquired veteran quarterback Zach Collaros, who 4-0 as the starter and led the Bombers past Hamilton 33-12 for their first Grey Cup title since 1990. LaPolice became Ottawa’s head coach Dec. 7, 2019.
A big reason why Desjardins hired LaPolice was to breathe life into an Ottawa offence that ranked last in nearly every major CFL offensive category in 2019.
“We’re going to focus on the things that we think successfully wins football games, teach those things, put players in positions to make plays and those things take care of themselves,” LaPolice said.
Dominique Davis, who opened the ’19 season as Ottawa’s starter, re-signed with the CFL club this off-season. The 32-year-old is entering his third season with the Redblacks following three years with Winnipeg.
Dominique Rhymes (65 catches, 1,056 yards, five TDs) was Ottawa’s leading receiver in 2019 but he’s now with the B.C. Lions. R.J. Harris (62 catches, 774 yards, two TDs) re-signed with the Redblacks this off-season.
The ’19 season was also a tough one for an Ottawa defence that allowed a CFL-high 415.4 yards a game and ranked eighth in offensive points surrendered (29.7) and sacks (28). It wasn’t surprising to see the Redblacks dip into free agency to secure Canadian defensive linemen Stefan Charles and Cleyon Laing as well as veteran Frank Beltre.
The six-foot-five, 323-pound Charles, of Oshawa, Ont., has spent time in both the NFL and CFL since 2013 but Laing, a six-foot-four, 290-pound Edmonton native, is in his second stint with Ottawa. He was part of the Redblacks Grey Cup-winning squad in 2016.
The six-foot-two, 240-pound Beltre comes to Ottawa having played previously with the Calgary Stampeders (2014-16) and Toronto Argonauts (2018-19). He has registered 110 tackles, five sacks, and three forced fumbles over 57 career games.
Lewis Ward enters his third season handling Ottawa’s kicking duties. He made 43-of-50 field goal attempts (86 per cent) in 2019 after hitting on a stellar 51-of-52 tries (98.1 per cent) the year before when he was the CFL’s top rookie and special-teams performer.