Landry: LaPolice’s approach the same w/ reloaded REDBLACKS

Paul LaPolice rejected the analogy outright.

I’d been picturing the head coach of the Ottawa REDBLACKS as being like Seinfeld’s George Costanza in that one episode where everything goes his way. There’s a short scene where George is skipping merrily through a New York City park, hands raised in the air as he celebrates his new job as a hand model.

LaPolice must be just like that these days, I figure, skipping to work with thoughts of the REDBLACKS’ sweet haul during free agency fuelling some sick dance-walk moves.

“No,” he snorts, comically exasperated at the comparison. “Good Lord.”

OK. Maybe the coach doesn’t like George Costanza. Maybe he’s just not a skipper. What I’m after, though, is just how Paul LaPolice is feeling now that his team has gone from threadbare to draped in luxurious velvet after new general manager Shawn Burke’s shopping spree.

Feeling re-energized, coach? He sighs. Pauses a good four or five seconds, then answers.

“I’m happy with the results, I guess I would say, of free agency. Yeah, definitely I was happy. I thought Shawn did an outstanding job.”

Paul LaPolice didn’t need a kickstart to be energized. If the assertion was that a giant free agency talent haul was necessary to bring joy into his professional life after a dark and dreary season, that is what he is rejecting because he never did lose any energy for coaching.

“If I’m skipping into the office it’s because I love the job, right? I have a passion for the game,” he said.

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Jeremiah Masoli headlines a massive offensive overhaul for the REDBLACKS, one that has their fan base excited about what the group can do when the season kicks off in June (Geoff Robins/CFL.ca)

The REDBLACKS signed 22 players during free agency, sending shockwaves through the rest of the CFL and good vibrations through their fanbase.

The roster has been restocked with a clutch — several clutches, really — of bona fide stars, beginning with quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and running back William Powell. A partial list of the new difference-makers includes the names of receivers B.J. Cunningham, Darvin Adams and Jaelon Acklin. Defenders Patrick Levels, Trumaine Washington and Alden Darby. Defensive lineman Kwaku Boateng. Offensive lineman Ucambre Williams.

Each of them veteran players. Each of them accomplished. If it can be said of the REDBLACKS that they were thin on talent in 2021 — it can be and was — that is no longer the case. On paper, the 2022 version of Ottawa’s football team seems primed to contend.

“There’s a lot of things that we’ve done to put ourselves in a better position to be competitive,” says LaPolice. “We weren’t last year.”

The 2021 season was quite a painful one for the man called LaPo and for everyone involved in the REDBLACKS organization as well as the team’s legion of plaid-clad, passionate fans. There were two ugly losing streaks, one of five games and another of six. There was a record of 3-11 and a last-place finish in the East, far below third-place Montreal and a full 12 points back of first-place Toronto.

Injuries mounted, particularly at the quarterback position where expected starter Matt Nichols never did reach 100 per cent effectiveness before being shut down for the season at around the midway point. Backup QB Dominique Davis was also injured, so the team ended up going with inexperienced pivots Caleb Evans and Devlin Hodges down the stretch. In one game, the REDBLACKS had to finish up with a receiver — Nate Behar — at quarterback, due to mounting injuries.

A game Ottawa defence spent most nights being spent by halftime, as the team’s league-worst offence stalled over and over and over and over again, providing little cause for hopes for a comeback.

Through all of it, there was LaPolice on the sidelines, barely — if ever — dropping his determined facade in the face of all that gloom.

It hurt, though. Sure it did.

“Yeah, there is astounding disappointment,” the coach says, asked to re-immerse himself in the personal feelings of a season gone terribly wrong.

“We felt we were going to flip some things and do things correctly and do things to compete,” he says of the weekly grind. “So not having the results you want is humbling. It’s disappointing. It’s frustrating. You feel terrible, because you get brought here to help heal and help fix things.

“It’s tough to lose a bunch of games. I haven’t had a lot of that. I’ve maybe had one or two of those in my 20-year career where there’s mounting losses. But I think it’s my job to understand it’s a week-to-week business, right? And try to make sure the players understand that.”

LaPolice went into the season committed to helping put the REDBLACKS’ previous disappointments behind them. Enduring a three-win season presented new challenges for him as a coach (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang)

Being fixated on what was necessary to affect repairs helped LaPolice keep his focus during the toughest stretches, rather than being sucked into any sort of self-pity. “Coaching is design more than anything,” he says, asserting that there’s little room for emotion. He is tightly-bound to the notion of process.

“I think my job is always the same to say to the guys, ‘Hey, this is what happened, why we lost. Let’s put that past us in where can we improve and let’s try to get better and understand you can win the next game if you do this, this and this.’ Because that’s what I believe. I believe we’re gonna win every week.”

It’s a belief that he says he did not ever abandon in 2021 and one he will employ in working to assure that the new, talent-rich REDBLACKS will come together this season.

“There’s a lot of work to do,” LaPolice cautions, lest anyone get too carried away with the team’s prospects for the upcoming year “We’ve still got to play Winnipeg in our first two games,” he adds with a knowing laugh.

“It’s a whole new team,” he continues, “so you’ve got to teach a lot of things to a lot of guys.”

None of them, really, need to learn how to be pro football players.

Still, there is a lot involved in pulling a new group of veteran players together and making them a cohesive unit. For inspiration, LaPolice can look at last year’s Toronto Argonauts, a team that was overhauled during free agency after a four-win season, and wound up finishing first in its division.

“We brought in pieces who have played,” says LaPolice. “Now we’ve got to do our best to teach them about what wins games and what loses games and put ‘em in position to be successful.”

If he has his way, LaPolice will not be a part of an Ottawa franchise that ever has to max its credit cards in luring other teams’ talent during free agency again. Not that he isn’t grateful. It’s just that he envisions something else being in place for the REDBLACKS.

“You don’t want to be a team that goes and signs a bunch of free agents,” he explains. “You want to be re-signing all your guys and you want to have the talent that people are trying to steal your guys. That’s what we want to build here.”

If that happens, Paul LaPolice won’t need to go through the pain of the 2021 season ever again.

“That was hard for me last year,” he says. “We weren’t as competitive as we wanted to be. That’s what we’re trying to fix.”

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