In a year in which Muhammad Ali left us, Henry Burris and the Ottawa RedBlacks pulled off the ultimate rope-a-dope in the Grey Cup.
The CFL's championship week started with a debate over the Calgary Stampeders' place in the pantheon of the league's greatest teams after a 15-2-1 regular season and a 27-point rout in the West Division final. Ottawa came in lightly regarded after an 8-9-1 regular season, but never trailed across four quarters and overtime at Toronto's BMO Field Sunday night.
The 41-year-old Burris, against a team that let him walk five seasons ago, became the oldest Grey Cup-winning quarterback. He was 35-of-46 for 461 yards and three touchdowns, plus two rushing. He was named MVP.
Ottawa gulled CFL Most Outstanding Player Bo Levi Mitchell into the first three-interception game of his career. Calgary made an impressive comeback, but had nothing left in overtime after Ernest Jackson put Ottawa in front again with a juggling 10-yard touchdown catch.
It's the greatest disparity in regular-season records between the winning team and the losing team in CFL history, surpassing 2001 (when 8-10 Calgary defeated 14-4 Winnipeg). In historical terms, the BC Lions defeating all-import Baltimore in 1994 might still rank as the most significant Grey Cup upset in CFL history.
What did many observers miss about the RedBlacks, who are the first Ottawa championship team since 1976?
Ottawa was the first CFL team to have four 1,000-yard receivers - Ernest Jackson, Chris Williams, Greg Ellingson, and Brad Sinopoli - two seasons in a row. When Williams suffered a torn ACL on Oct. 7 - the same night Burris took over at quarterback from Trevor Harris - that led to a shuffling of the deck.
Williams was a big loss, but it created opportunities for seasoned Khalil Paden and former NFL receiver Juron Criner, a big target at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds. Burris also returned to 100 percent after the fingertip he fractured June 26 healed. Suddenly, the slot machines - Ellingson, Jackson, and Sinopoli - had more space on underneath routes.
Criner made one of the plays of the game with 6:47 left, a circus catch for a 38-yard reception down to Calgary's 7-yard line. That set up a touchdown which put Ottawa up by 10.
No need to overthink; Ottawa began getting contributors back when it counted while Calgary was thin along the offensive line.
The RedBlacks lost all-star left tackle SirVincent Rogers to an ankle injury in September. However, right guard Nolan MacMillan came back in October while Tommie Draheim and national rookie Jason Lauzon-Seguin stabilized the tackle spots. Burris was sacked only once Sunday.
It's a credit to the Stampeders that they were able to have the league's fewest sacks and turnovers in spite of weekly shuffles up front, but it apparently caught up to them in the season's 20th game. Right guard Ucambre Williams was starting his first CFL game at the position Sunday. There were so few healthy linemen that defensive tackle Quinn Smith had to switch sides of the ball - compromising the depth on the defensive front as well.
Ottawa, by and large, controlled the line of scrimmage. League rushing leader Jerome Messam had a receiving touchdown, but was limited to eight rushes for 35 yards.
Letting a 20-point lead evaporate and winning anyway is a microcosm of a season in which the RedBlacks always had a quiet confidence regardless of the previous game's result. That stems from how the RedBlacks have been a model organization since their inception in 2013. From the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group boardrooms to the RedBlacks' dressing room, there's an unspoken understanding about how important it is to get it right with a team that rose from the ashes of the Rough Riders and Renegades.
Players are treated well. This might not seem like much, but when a UFC event was held in Ottawa recently, free tickets were made available to every player. Coach Rick Campbell is also an even-keel guy whose unflappable demeanour has a calming effect on players. The mood was constantly, by football standards, laid back. Meanwhile, the city has fallen in love with the team, with the season ticket base north of 17,000.
It took time, but eventually they found the right mix, especially on defense, where veterans such as defensive backs Abdul Kanneh and Jerrell Gavins, and offensive linebacker Damaso Munoz got in sync with relative CFL newcomers like cornerbacks Jonathan Rose and Mitchell White.
The team's stock of national players is enviable. Ottawa started a Canadian, Kienan LaFrance, at running back and started three on the defensive line, while Peterborough-born Brad Sinopoli made six receptions for 94 yards and one touchdown to earn Top Canadian honours.
There is a perfect symmetry to Ottawa winning at BMO Field. The victory came on the same Exhibition Place grounds as the Rough Riders' last title in 1976.