Before the 2020 season Ottawa was facing the prospect of replacing a head coach that had been with them for six seasons leading them to 4 playoff appearances, 3 Grey Cup appearances and 1 Grey Cup victory. They chose to hire former Winnipeg Head Coach Paul LaPolice, who had logged just one winning season in 3 attempts.
Paul LaPolice originally broke into the CFL in 2000 after originally beginning as a college coach in 1993. The majority of his time at the college level he was coaching receivers and/or tight ends. Following one season as the receivers coach in 1997 for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he was promoted to offensive coordinator. His offenses would go on to break numerous school records. He also helped running back Krishaun Gilmore, and Quarterback Matt Robbens to All American Selections. Rensselaer would go undefeated in 1999.
In 2000 LaPolice was hired to coach quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers for Toronto. One of the many things you’ll begin to realize when comparing the CFL to the NFL, is they have much smaller coaching staffs in Canada, likely due to much smaller budgets. Most coaches will hold two roles, coaching multiple positions. There has been debate as to if this approach has held back development at times, but ultimately it is a side effect of being a smaller league. I digress. During the 2000 season LaPolice coached running back Mike Jenkins to 1,480 yards from scrimmage. Also wide receiver Derrell Mitchell totaled 104 touches for 1,455 yards and 15 offensive touchdowns. Despite this fact the offense scored a league worst 390 points in 18 games on their way to a 7-10-1 record.
LaPolice would go on to spend two seasons in this role with Toronto. This was due in part to the success he found with key position players. Despite poor quarterback play both seasons he was able to help Derrell Mitchell to 2,831 total offensive yards and 21 touchdowns in two seasons, in his second season he helped Ted Alford collect 75 receptions on his way to 1,172 yards on the season. Mike Jenkins improved dramatically going from only barely eclipsing 1,000 rushing yards in 2000 to rushing for 1,484 yards and 8 touchdowns, adding another 361 yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground. The performance by these three players helped him garner recognition around the league.
This led to a promotion to offensive coordinator for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 2002. LaPolice immediately made an impact watching his offense led by Khari Jones as it put up 14 team records, including 46 touchdown passes by Jones. As if that wasn’t enough Jones, and Milt Stegall connected on 106 passes totaling 1,896 yards and 23 touchdowns, also the second leading receiver on the team Arland Bruce was able to top 1,000 yards with 66 receptions for 1,028 yards and 12 touchdowns. In the run game Charles Roberts led the way with 216 carries for 1,162 yards and 5 tds, with back-up Mike Sellers collecting 77 carries for 377 yards and 2 touchdowns. Jones added 50 attempts for 235 yards and 1 touchdown, while Bruce added 18 yards and 1 td on 3 carries. This was quite the first season for LaPolice, and it helped the Blue Bombers to a 12-6 record, before winning 1 playoff game and losing to the Edmonton Eskimos 33-30 the following week.
In year two, things didn’t go nearly as well. Khari Jones fell off of his 2002 level of play dropping from 46 tds, down to 25 while still tossing 15 ints. He also went from throwing for over 5,000 yards, to barely topping 4,000 in 2003. However once again the position players around him played well. After losing second receiver Arland Bruce, LaPolice made the adjustments necessary to overcome his departure. These adjustments meant increasing the role the running backs played in the passing game. This led to Charles Robert putting up a monster season. He would compile 315 touches for 2,102 yards and 10 touchdowns, but Mike Sellers also saw an uptick in receptions, and carries as well. Sellers was able to notch 134 touches for 908 yards and 9 touchdowns. Milt Stegall wasn’t able to achieve the heights of his 2002 season but still managed 68 catches for 1,144 yards and 15 touchdowns through the air. He also led second receiver Bob Gordon to a solid season with 47 receptions for 896 yards and 4 touchdowns. Despite this the Blue Bombers went on to an 11-7 record, and LaPolice was let go following the season.
He would join the Hamilton Tiger-Cats as a receivers coach where he would stay for two seasons. During his first season he had 4 different pass catchers catch 47 or more passes and top 875 yards, and 5 touchdowns. This included an 1,147 yard, 8 td season and, 1,184 yard, 8 td season by Dj Flick, and Craig Yeast respectively. This immediately rehabbed any negative image LaPolice had as a coach. In year 2 he didn’t quite find the same success. While both Flick, and Yeast were able to top 1,000 yards again, their third receiver totaled just 624 yards and 1 td, while the rest of the group saw a dramatic drop off from there statistically.
In 2006 he rejoined the Argos. This time only coaching receivers. This reunited him with Arland Bruce, who he had coached in 2004 with the Tiger-Cats. Bruce would go on to be named CFL Offensive All Star, and CFL East Offensive All Star in his second season under LaPolice. This team featured two well-known American Quarterbacks by the names of Eric Crouch, and Spergon Wynn. However neither found much success as back-ups to Damon Allen who threw more interceptions than touchdowns, as did Wynn. The only real performer on offense, was Bruce. The second leading receiver was Tony Miles who caught 53 passes to Bruce’s 77, but managed just 671 yards and 2 touchdowns to the 1,370 yards and 11 touchdowns Bruce was able to compile. To make matters worse, the Argos couldn’t find a consistent run game in 2006 either with Ricky Williams, yes that Ricky Williams, managed 109 carries for 526 yards and 2 touchdowns. His back-ups John Avery and Jeff Johnson combined for 136 carries and 659 yards and 4 touchdowns.
In 2007 LaPolice followed former Argonauts offensive coordinator, Kent Austin to Saskatchewan as his receivers coach under offensive coordinator Ken Miller. The offensive minded staff led a passing attack that helped their offense to an impressive 530 points. LaPolice was reunited with Dj Flick a man he had coached to great success in Hamilton. He again led Flick to success despite the new QB, and surroundings. Kerry Joesph, and Marcus Crandell combined for 4,984 passing yards, 29 tds, and 13 ints. Joesph being the dual threat he was added another 90 carries for 737 yards and 13 touchdowns, while Wes Cates rushed for 866 yards and 5 tds. At receiver LaPolice oversaw a group that saw 3 men collect 45 or more receptions. Flick led the team with 1,020 yards and 10 tds, his 3rd 1,000 yard season under LaPolice. Andy Fantuz was second with 56 receptions 978 yards and 7 touchdowns, while 3rd receiver Matt Dominquez was able to rack up 45 receptions for 761 yards and 5 tds. This season culminated in an 11-7 record, with a 3-0 record on route to a Grey Cup victory. LaPolice’s first of his career. After one season as a receivers coach with the Roughriders, he was again promoted this time to offensive coordinator for the 2009 season. Kent Austin after winning the Grey Cup in his first season as a head coach, 18 years after winning a Grey Cup as a player in the same stadium walked away from the CFL. He accepted an Offensive Coordinator position at the college level under Houston Nutt.
This led to a minor shake up with the previous offensive coordinator Ken Miller taking over as head coach, and promoting his right hand man Paul LaPolice in the process. The long time Roughrider’s assistant coach, Miller would go on to hold the head coaching position for four seasons. In both men’s first seasons at their new posts they led their team to a 12-6 record, but lost in the first round of the playoffs. In 2009 his final season with the Roughriders, LaPolice helped lead his team to a First place finish in the Western Division for the first time in 33 years. The offense would put up the second most points in the league behind the arm of Darian Durant a first year starting quarterback in the CFL.
This tenure helped LaPolice earn his first job as a head coach in the CFL. This time he took over the Blue Bombers for himself. His first season as a head coach had gone poorly watching his team lose a record 9 games by 4 points or less in route to a 4-14 season. In year two the Blue Bombers improved dramatically, winning 10 games. A 6 game improvement from the prior year. The went on to appear in and lose the Grey Cup that season. He was named a finalist for coach of the year, and given a contract extension. In year 3 LaPolice returned with high hopes, but they quickly were dashed when after 8 games his team had a 2-6 record. At this point despite the ink on the contract extension having barely dried, he was fired midseason by General Manager Joe Mack. This led Paul LaPolice to step into broadcasting for the 2012-2015 seasons.
LaPolice took his talents to the broadcast booth following the 2012 firing, and remained there until the 2016 season. In 2016 Winnipeg for whatever reason decided to again hire him but this time as the offensive coordinator. He would go on to lead Andrew Harris to heights never before seen by a veteran running back at this level. In his final season after 4 seasons as the coordinator the Blue Bombers again won a Grey Cup. Marking the second victory LaPolice had experienced in the CFL. He would immediately be offered the head coaching job for the Redblacks who were desperately trying to return to their winning ways.
Prior to the 2020 season it was announced that the CFL had cancelled the season. This led LaPolice to have a full year of developing a playbook for his first season as the head coach of the Redblacks. It did not help him in his cause to lead a winning season as Ottawa stumbled to a league worst 3-11 record through 14 games. The thing is, if you look back at his 2021 roster, it was arguably the least talented roster he had ever coached at the CFL level. He was forced to rely on a rookie quarterback in Caleb Evans who struggled. He had 5 different quarterbacks throw at least 6 passes, and not a single one managed to throw more touchdowns than interceptions, in the run game they didn’t have a single player run for more than 390 yards on the ground or total more than 3 tds, and out wide they had 3 receivers top 430 yards, but none of which were able to put up more than 600 yards, and only one of those 3 actually scored a touchdown. This should be in stark contrast to the roster that Ottawa has built heading into the 2022 season.
Going from what might have been his worst roster, to what might be the best roster he has ever coached in one offseason should certainly help his case this season. Looking back at his track record, if you can give him even one prominent player at his position group, you will watch him find success with that player. Well in 2022 he goes to battle with a veteran QB in Jeremiah Massoli, he will have an efficient and patient back in William Powell, and will pair these two with a host of talented pass catchers, including retaining his leading receiver from the 2021 season. I believe in Paul LaPolice despite his past with Winnipeg, and you might say I believe in him more because of what he accomplished in Winnipeg going from a 4 win season to 10 wins the following year. We might be seeing a similar turn around in 2022 thanks to a huge influx of elite level CFL talent. I know I’ll be rooting for Ottawa to come out on top during the June 10th rematch between LaPolice and the Blue Bombers.
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