Last year we all agreed to watch the Grey Cup, and what the hell, let’s watch it again! Canadians, you know the drill - watch it because it’s your civic duty. Americans, feel free to watch it out of morbid curiosity, or to see college players you forgot existed, or out of plain old Sunday night boredom. Either way, we’re doing this. Get yourself a beer.
Sorry, the teams are actually called the “Eskimos” and “REDBLACKS”? Those aren’t just made-up joke names?
Yeah, those are the actual teams. We’ll talk about that in a minute.
Here’s what you need to know about the two teams who’ll be squaring off in Winnipeg tonight:
That’s right - per the team’s official stylebook, you have to write their name as REDBLACKS, in all-caps, like you’re screaming it. The Eskimos are facing the REDBLACKS! These days, most reporters covering the CFL (and even Wikipedia!) have decided to drop the all-caps gimmick when referring to the team, so from here on out let’s just call them the Redblacks.
If you haven’t heard of the Redblacks, it’s because they’re an expansion team founded in 2014. The fact that they’ve put together a roster of cast-offs assembled through the expansion draft and taken them to the Grey Cup in only their second season of operation is borderline miraculous. If you’re a sucker for a Cinderella story, here they are. It’s a credit to Ottawa’s management that they’ve managed to get so far so soon, which is especially jarring since “Ottawa CFL team” and “great management” haven’t exactly been synonymous over the past twenty-odd years.
(This has nothing to do with previewing the Grey Cup, but just to set the stage, let’s take a brief detour through the hilarious history of the CFL in Ottawa.)
Now, if you’re an American reader and you only know three things about Canadian football, it’s that: (1) they have something called a rouge, (2) Michael Sam played there, (3) there were two teams called Roughriders. The Saskatchewan Roughriders have been in operation since 1910, and from 1876-1996, Ottawa had the Ottawa Rough Riders. It’s not often that a team that’s been around for over 100 years suddenly declares bankruptcy and folds, but then again, few teams have ever had management as bad as the Ottawa Rough Riders in the 90s.
After over a century of continuous operation and nine Grey Cups, the Rough Riders fell into the hands of a father-and-son ownership group in 1991 that meddled in player decisions so much, they made members of their coaching staff quit in protest. The dirtbag son dated cheerleaders and paid women to flash their breasts as part of an ill-advised Mardi Gras promotion, while the father constantly threatened to move the team to Shreveport, Louisiana. (The team was eventually split in half near the end of its life, with half the franchise moving to becoming the ill-fated Shreveport Pirates in CFL’s short-live US expansion.) In an infamous low point, the Rough Riders drafted a player named Derrell Robertson in 1995, unaware that Derrell Robertson had died in a car crash in 1994.
The Rough Riders ultimately folded in 1996. In 2002, the CFL came back to Ottawa in the form of the Ottawa Renegades, only to fall back into the hands of the same owners that drove the Rough Riders into the ground - the Renegades would eventually fold in 2005 after four lackluster seasons. It wasn’t until 2014 that football would come back to Ottawa, and holy shit - despite the stupid name they came up with, this latest attempt is actually good so far! No one expected the nascent Redblacks, made up from the league’s table scraps and relying heavily on a ten-thousand-year-old quarterback, would make the playoffs this year - let alone have a shot at winning the whole damn thing.
On the other side of the frozen field in Winnipeg will be the West champions, the Edmonton Eskimos. Now, the REDBLACKS have an incredibly stupid name for completely unrelated reasons, but Eskimos - yeesh. The name goes back to the 1890s, when rival newspapers in Calgary and Edmonton traded barbs about each other’s rugby football teams. The Edmonton papers called the Calgary team a bunch of cow herders, while the Calgary paper called the Edmonton team “Eskimos”, owing to Edmonton’s cold climate - and for some reason, the name stuck. Although the name “Eskimos” isn’t as shitty as some teams (looking at you, Redskins!), let’s go out on a limb and say it’s not cool to be named “Eskimos” in the year 2015, and we’ll leave it at that.
Anyways, Edmonton’s got a damn good team this season. With a stellar 14-4 regular season under their belts, they’re riding a nine-game winning streak going into tonight’s game. They haven’t lost a game since September 7th. If the bookies are to be believed, they probably won’t lose the big one tonight, either. The Eskies are looking to add a 14th Grey Cup to their shelf, and their first since 2005. A ten-year Grey Cup drought is rare for the Eskies - this is a team that’s regularly put together dynasties, including a record five straight Grey Cups from 1978-1982. If they can keep quarterback Mike Reilly producing at his current clip, they’re looking like a team that will be very, very good for the next little while.
Eskies QB Mike Reilly is one of the budding star QBs in the CFL. The big, hardnosed 30-year-old bounced around a few NFL practice squads before landing in the CFL, where he got the starting job in Edmonton in 2013 and has been thriving ever since. (While on the Packers practice squad in 2009 he struck up a friendship with Aaron Rodgers, and if you squint a bit, you can see a bit of Rodgers in Reilly’s game - or maybe it’s just the green & yellow jersey.)
Since Reilly returned from injury earlier this season, Edmonton hasn’t lost a single game. He’s been voted the CFL’s toughest player for each of the past 3 years in TSN’s annual player poll, and he isn’t afraid to play hurt or to run shoulder-first into a linebacker to get a first down - in fact, he played all of last year’s West Division championship game on a broken foot. He’s a coach’s son, a walk-on without a scholarship at a Division II school, undrafted, scrappy, tough - basically, Mike Reilly is PFTCommenter’s ideal football player.
On the other end of the ball, there’s the veteran Henry Burris, a member of the old guard of CFL quarterbacks, and the CFL’s 2015 Most Outstanding Player. He threw for a league-leading 5,703 yards and a CFL-record 481 completions this season, starting all 18 games. In fact, the 40-year-old hasn’t missed a game since 2007.
The Oklahoma-born Burris is a CFL lifer, and other than a brief NFL stint in 2002, he’s been playing in Canada since 1997. (He’s tried and failed to get Canadian citizenship for the past few years - he apparently failed the employment criteria, since, and I’m not making this up, the Canadian government considered the CFL a “part-time job”.) After a dismal 2014 with the expansion Redblacks offense still trying to get on the same page, Burris looked like a younger version of himself in 2015, and finally started clicking with his receivers. He’s also a beloved personality across the Canadian game, known for his great quotes and big, gap-toothed smile. Leading up to the Grey Cup, he’s been telling everyone who’ll listen that this game is about proving to the league that he’s still got it. Expect him to play with a bit of a chip on his shoulder tonight.
Edmonton’s Adarius Bowman is one of the league’s great receivers. Once touted as a potential first-round NFL pick because of his strong play at Oklahoma State, he flamed out for a bit after a series of injuries, only for the Canadian to get a second life with the Eskies. He led the league in receiving yards in 2014, and came second in 2015. Expect Reilly to target him early and often. The Eskies’ other big passing threat took an unconventional route to the CFL: Derel Walker was a standout at Texas A&M getting passes from future CFL star Johnny Manziel, but after falling out of favour with the NFL, he paid $200 to attend an open CFL tryout. Unlike most of the out-of-shape schlubs that attend these things, Edmonton saw promise in him, and the 24-year-old had a breakout rookie season that featured 1,110 receiving yards on the way to winning CFL Rookie Of The Year.
The Redblacks also run a pass-heavy offense (no surprise, given that Burris set a CFL record for completions this season) that relies on four big receivers - Chris Williams, Ernest Jackson, Greg Ellingson and Brad Sinopoli - all of whom topped 1,000 receiving yards this season. Ottawa boasts a strong offensive line, including gigantic LT SirVincent Rogers (his name is SirVincent!) who won the CFL’s Outstanding Offensive Lineman award this year. The strong OL gives Burris plenty of time in the pocket to target his receivers for deep bombs, which should make Edmonton worried. Ottawa’s running game isn’t their strong suit, but RB William Powell, picked up in September after being cut by the Detroit Lions, did manage to pick up impressive running yards with the Redblacks down the stretch.
Both of these teams boast stingy defenses. Ottawa’s defensive linemen and linebackers, nicknamed “Capital Punishment”, led the league in sacks (62), and the defense as a whole allowed the fewest net yards per game (297.6). Ottawa has a crushing defensive style that stuffs the run, but against an aerial team like the Eskies, they’ll have their work cut out.
Who to know: Look for two big veteran DEs, Justin Cappiciotti and Shawn Lemon, to make life hell for Mike Reilly.
Edmonton, meanwhile, prefers to stifle the passing game: they allowed the fewest passing yards in the league this season. They typically only rush three defensive players, with the remaining nine dropping back into pass defense. This means they can afford to double-team receivers on opponents that only run two or three receivers, but with Ottawa running a full four receivers, the Edmonton defense will have their hands full.
Who to know: Cornerback Pat Watkins, who never really stuck in the NFL, partly because the Cowboys used him as a safety despite being 6’5. He found a home in the CFL at cornerback, where between Toronto and Edmonton he’s been a three-time CFL All-Star.
It’s fucking Fall Out Boy for some reason. Plenty of time to grab another beer!
It looks like it’s going to be a shootout. Two strong aerial attacks, two gunslinger quarterbacks, and a lot of talented receivers. The bookies favour Edmonton by +7.0, but you wonder how much of that is just the stink of “expansion team” hanging over Ottawa, and the East in general. For a long time, the CFL’s West Division has been completely dominant over the East Division - in fact, you could make the argument that all five teams in the West were better than any of the four teams in the East in 2014. This year, the script’s been flipped for the first time in a long time, and the East was downright better overall than the West.
It would be very easy to count the Redblacks out, because they’re an expansion team from the historically inferior East relying on a 40-year-old quarterback. For some reason, my gut’s telling me you only underestimate Ottawa at your own peril. I’m going out on a limb, but put me down for a nailbiting finish of 28-27 for Ottawa.