O’Leary: A big week for Ottawa, Edmonton fans

The most basic concept of engaging sports fans is the idea of hope.

If fans have something to believe in, whether it’s one talented young player or a core of players coming up together, or some new bodies in the coach or GM chairs, it can reset a lot of angst, frustration or abandonment that creeps in with prolonged losing.

If you’re a fan of the Ottawa REDBLACKS or Edmonton Elks, you should be feeling more hopeful about your team’s future after this past week.

The REDBLACKS got the ball rolling on Sunday, hiring Shawn Burke as their general manager. The Elks followed suit on Tuesday, naming Chris Jones as their GM and head coach. This should come as good news to fans of the teams that each won three games in 2021, falling well short of the playoffs.

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Most Outstanding Special Teams Player DeVonte Dedmon is the REDBLACKS’ best player at the moment. New GM Shawn Burke will look to surround him with talent this winter (Ottawa REDBLACKS.com)

In both cities, the new GMs have work to do. The REDBLACKS have some pieces in place. They have one of the premier returners in the league, DeVonte Dedmon, under contract for the coming season, along with arguably the best kicker and punter in the league, in Lewis Ward and Richie Leone, respectively. They’ve got a good running back in Timothy Flanders and there are good receivers on the roster including R.J. Harris and Ryan Davis.

Defensively, there’s linebacker Avery Williams, who finished third in tackles in 2021 (with 89), with the hard-hitting Micah Awe (74 tackles) right behind him at fourth and Randall Evans at eighth (70). Brandin Dandridge played in just eight games and his four interceptions had him one off of a tie for the league-lead. His partner in the backfield, Abdul Kaneh, finished with three, including a game-winning pick-six in Week 1 against Edmonton.

“I told LaPo (REDBLACKS head coach Paul LaPolice), I’m not a rookie guy, I’m not a veteran guy; I’m a winning guy. And that’s what’s most important,” Burke told reporters in his introductory press conference on Monday.

“Getting the right mixture of people and all working together for one common goal is what’s important.

“I definitely have some deep rooted philosophies on scouting and how things are done and how you present yourself and how you work with people. And the people that are a part of the staff, we’ll be united and we’ll share the same thing. It’s hard work, it’s using resources, and it’s being smart. So I look forward to helping shape a roster here. And working together with the coaching staff to fill the needs that they see.”

In Hamilton, Burke played a key role in taking a Ticats team that had tumbled to an 0-8 start in 2017, transitioning them from Zach Collaros to Jeremiah Masoli as a starter. By 2019, the Ticats were a 15-3 outfit that bolstered an award-littered roster and won its first of two Eastern Division titles. It may not happen overnight in Ottawa, where Burke will no doubt be working around the clock to get a starting-calibre quarterback on the roster, but he’s proven that he can help steer a team from its difficult times into more successful ones.

Elks fans shouldn’t need much convincing of what Jones can do for their team. He came on as head coach in 2014, taking over a team that with first-year starter Michael Reilly had won just four games the season prior. The Elks bounced back as a ferocious defensive team with ample offensive weapons and went 12-6, losing in the Western Final to the eventual Grey Cup champion Calgary Stampeders. The next year, they took the big, final step, winning 14 games and defeating the REDBLACKS for a Grey Cup.

It’s what happened after the Cup was hoisted and the team was celebrated that had fans in Edmonton a little apprehensive about Tuesday’s news that Jones was back. Word leaked out during the 2015 Grey Cup week that Jones would be heading to Saskatchewan for a better title with the Riders at the end of the season. Sure enough, Jones and most of his coaching staff migrated to Regina.

He left the Riders in similar fashion, inking an extension with the team in 2019 amidst rumours of NFL interest in his services. Shortly after the deal was signed, he took a job with the Cleveland Browns.

Jones stressed in his introductory press conference on Tuesday that this time around, both in Edmonton and with the CFL, it’ll be different for him. He signed a four-year deal, Elks chair Ian Murray said, and the expectation is that he’s there for all of it.

“We had so much fun when we were here prior with our staff that was here all together,” Jones said.

“It’s an opportunity for us to come back and kind of cement our legacy as a group and cement the legacy of this organization (to) get it where it should be and that’s winning football games and being ultra competitive all the time, both in practice and in games.

“Now it’s time to do like Wally (Buono) and Huff (John Hufnagel) and some of those guys and let’s do it for a long period of time and have fun doing it.”

Jones is one of the few figures in the CFL where the on-field results are almost a given. True, his Riders team struggled in his first year there, but they were a Grey Cup contender by the time he’d left after three seasons. The results were instant in his first stop in Edmonton and while the challenge will be different for him and his team this time around, there’s no reason to think he can’t build on an already promising roster and find talent where he and his staff see fit.

The concerns over how long he stays are legitimate, given how things have shaken out in the past, but consider this: As a GM and head coach (and defensive coordinator), Jones won’t get a better offer from a CFL team, unless he wanted to follow in Hufnagel’s steps and take on a presidency/GM role; that’s something that Hufnagel only took on later in his career.

We can’t predict the future, but Jones seems to be aware of the expectation from his new team. Perhaps after a year that took him from coaching at his hometown high school to a mid-season role with the Toronto Argonauts and now back in Edmonton with two titles he’s enjoyed holding in the past, he might want some time to settle into them.

We don’t often see a lot of significant transactions in the week leading up to the holidays, but REDBLACKS and Elks fans have plenty to be optimistic over after enduring a difficult season.

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