The CFL season has made it to the playoffs and we are one game away from the Grey Cup.
In the run up to that game I thought it might be interesting to do a series detailing the first time each team in the league captured the grand old trophy. This is the final installment of that series.
Now we move onto the CFL’s youngest team the Ottawa REDBLACKS.
The 104th Grey Cup saw 33,421 fans on hand at BMO field in Toronto. There they saw the 8-9-1 REDBLACKS upset the 15-2-1 Stampeders 39-33 in an overtime thriller.
A Little History
The REDBLACKS are the newest franchise in the CFL. They were awarded a franchise in 2008, started football operations in 2013 and played their first season as an expansion club in 2014 finishing with a 2-16 record.
However there has been football in Ottawa, on and off, for much longer than this. The Ottawa Football club was founded in 1876. They would later become better known as the Ottawa Rough Riders.
Despite a brief hiatus in the 1920’s when they were known as the Senators, the Rough Riders survived from 1876-1996. Ottawa had one of the oldest football franchises in North America up to that point.
The Glory Years
The good times for Rough Rider fans were at there peak in the 1960’s. In that decade they made the post-season every year, placed no lower than second in their division and won three Grey Cups.
A real driving force behind the Rough Riders success was coach Frank Clair. Having won the Grey Cup twice in Toronto he arrived in Ottawa in 1956.
After that he became GM and oversaw two more championships in the ’70’s.
Post Rough Rider Football in Ottawa
After the sad demise of this once proud franchise following the 1996 season Ottawa was without a CFL team.
That changed in 2002 when the Ottawa Renegades appeared. The Renegades struggled financially and went 23-49 over 4 years before disappearing.
The CFL again awarded a franchise to Ottawa in 2008. This would ultimately become the REDBLACKS.
Wikipedia states that “For historical purposes, the CFL classifies the Redblacks, Renegades and Rough Riders as one discontinuous franchise.” But the REDBLACKS are still seen as an expansion franchise that has only played six seasons.
Connection to the Past
Initially the team owners had wanted to revive the Rough Rider name in Ottawa. They even acquired the Rough Riders intellectual properties,including their trademarks, from the previous owner.
Objections from those associated with the Saskatchewan Roughriders scuppered a return for the Eastern Riders name however.
The italicized R seen on the REDBLACKS helmet is a tribute to the block R seen on the Rough Rider helmets of the past.
They may be an expansion franchise. But the REDBLACKS can also be viewed as part of a twice interrupted tradition of football dating back to 1876 in the city.
Road to the Grey Cup: Playoffs
The East Division had been the weaker of the two during the 2016 season. That meant the REDBLACKS could convert their 8-9-1 record into a bye as Division leaders.
They played the Eastern Final at home against a 10-8 Edmonton team that had dispatched Hamilton in the Eastern Semi-Final.
As we have seen, no crossover team has yet made it to the Grey Cup. This was no different as the more rested REDBLACKS triumphed, defeating the Esks 35-23.
Over in the West 4 teams had finished with winning records. None were as dominant as Calgary however who were way out in front. Their 9-1 in Division record was indicative of how dominant they had been during the regular season.
BC and Winnipeg played off for the right to face Calgary in the Western Final. The Lions, who at 12-6 were second in the West won through.
Their fate was the same as 15 other teams Calgary had handled that year. They were brushed aside 42-15 in the Western Final.
For many this set up a mismatched Grey Cup that Calgary would be the overwhelming favourites to win.
The Grey Cup Game
This was a championship game for the ages. A huge comeback, a huge upset and the city of Ottawa picking up its first CFL title in 4 decades.
Bo Levi Mitchell had thrown 8 interceptions all year long. In this game he was picked off 3 times, twice in the second quarter alone.
Ottawa QB Henry Burris was named MVP going 35 of 46 for 461 yards with 3 touchdowns and scoring twice on the ground himself. Not bad considering he appeared to injure his knee in warm-ups and was given treatment prior to kickoff.
Ottawa scored first on a 1 yard rush from Burris but Calgary responded quickly with a 7 yard TD pass of their own. A Field Goal saw the underdogs lead 10-7 after one.
The second quarter belonged to Ottawa. They picked off Mitchell on deep thrown balls twice and scored a touchdown and a Field Goal to lead 20-7 at the half.
The year prior Ottawa had got out to a 13 point lead in the Grey Cup but gone on to lose. They went into the second half knowing this wasn’t a done deal.
The lead was extended to 20 points early in the third as Burris hit Brad Sinopoli for a 9 yard touchdown.
Like the year before, Ottawa began to see their lead eroded. Halfway through the quarter the Stamps connected on a Field Goal to make it 27-10. This was followed by Mitchell hitting Lemar Durant for a 33 yard touchdown to make it 27-17 going into the final quarter.
The momentum stayed with Calgary as backup QB Andrew Buckley ran in a touchdown early in the fourth to make it 27-23 to Ottawa. Calgary had now scored 16 unanswered points to get back into it.
Ottawa found a response as Burris ran in his second TD of the game to restore the lead to 10 points 33-23 with six minutes to go.
There was a frantic finish to the game as with only 1:44 left on the clock Davaris Daniels swept into the end zone from 19 yards out for Calgary.
With the score at 33-30 the Stampeders recovered an onside kick and marched down the field. At the 2 yard line they handed it to backup QB Buckley who had scored earlier from the 1 yard line. An ankle tap tackle brought him down and the Stamps settled for the Field Goal to send the game into overtime.
The Stampeders won the coin toss & elected to start on D. Burris responded by throwing an 18 yard touchdown to Ernest Jackson which he juggled twice then caught falling over the goal line.
Ottawa failed on the 2 point convert so it was over to Calgary and their high octane offense. The REDBLACKS D stepped up and the Stamps threw three 3 straight incompletions.
This would go down as one of the great Grey Cup upsets, and one of the great Grey Cup games.
What Came Next
The REDBLACKS followed up their Grey Cup year with an identical 8-9-1 record in 2017. This time however they would be defeated in the Eastern Semi-Final.
Ottawa went 11-7 in 2018 and won the East. They made it back to the Grey Cup, but were beaten by Calgary who ended a run of frustration in the final.
Following that season the REDBLACKS saw Trevor Harris and other marquee players leave in free agency. They arguably never recovered and went 3-15 this year.
In their brief existence the REDBLACKS have gone 44-62-2 in the regular season. They have had 2 winning seasons, won 2 East Division Finals. They have parlayed that into a 5-2 run in the post-season.
That includes appearing in the Grey Cup 3 times already in their 6 year history. 2016 was their lone win – but what a win!
They recently parted ways with their first, and so far only coach so things will look different in Ottawa next year.
REDBLACKS fans will be hoping to see a rebuild and see their team quickly become competitive once more so that they can fight back to another Grey Cup.
Banner Image: Henry Burris lifts the trophy after Ottawa’s upset win over Calgary in 2016. Image from ottawaredblacks.com