Redblacks the better team in dramatic Grey Cup triumph

It seemed no one believed the Redblacks could pull off a win on Sunday — not even the team's management, who neglected to stockpile enough bubbly for a proper victory celebration. But as Dan Séguin writes, Ottawa was the better team.

No one believed underdogs from Ottawa could pull off a win against unstoppable Stampeders — until they did

Ottawa Redblacks running back Kienan Lafrance, left, and quarterback Henry Burris celebrate their team's win over the Calgary Stampeders in overtime CFL Grey Cup football action on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016 in Toronto. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

What a loud and dramatic ending to one of the quietest Grey Cup weeks in CFL history. 

One of the reasons there was so little buzz in Toronto for this 104th Grey Cup is that very few people believed the juggernaut Calgary Stampeders, with their impressive 15-2-1 record, could be beaten — certainly not by a pedestrian team of upstarts from Ottawa who lost more games than they won during the regular season.

Well, obviously Henry Burris and the Ottawa Redblacks weren't buying that.

In one of the most stunning upsets in Grey Cup history, the Redblacks started strong, faded in the middle, then surged in overtime to secure a 39-33 win, bringing Ottawa its first CFL championship since 1976.

Burris injured in warm-up

The night began in dramatic fashion as Burris injured his knee in warm-up, raising questions about whether he'd be fit to start the game. He did, and after badly missing on a first-attempt swing pass, Burris settled in to deliver a performance for the ages.

Burris completed 35 of 46 passes for 461 yards and three touchdowns, and ran for two others. The performance earned him game MVP honours, and at 41 he became the oldest quarterback in CFL history to lead his team to a Grey Cup win.

With the game only a four-hour drive away, BMO field in Toronto was filled with Redblacks faithful. "R-Nation," as they like to be called, came decked out in their red and black, many carrying flags, bells and horns to cheer on a team that was looking to rebound from a heartbreaking loss to Edmonton in last year's championship game.

They weren't disappointed. Not only was Burris on point, running for one score and hitting Patrick Lavoie for another, but Ottawa's defence stymied league MOP Bo Levi Mitchell from the outset. They sacked him once and intercepted him twice in the first half, heading to the dressing room with a 20-7 lead at the midway point.

Leads lost before

But Ottawa fans have seen big leads in big games slip away before, including last year's final in Winnipeg when an early 13-0 lead wasn't enough to beat Edmonton. Older fans thought back to 1981, when a 20-1 halftime advantage for the Rough Riders evaporated and the team lost — again — to the Eskimos.
A dejected-looking Calgary quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell leaves the field after the favoured Stampeders lost the 2016 Grey Cup final to underdogs Ottawa despite mounting a late-game comeback. (Peter Power/Canadian Press)

So despite stretching their lead to 20 points last night on a third quarter touchdown catch by Brad Sinopoli, there were still some nervous moments ahead for R-Nation.

The Stampeders weren't nine-and-a-half point favourites for nothing. They romped through the regular season, winning 14 straight games at one point. Calgary walked over B.C. in the western final and nearly swept the CFL individual awards on Thursday night. They are a very good team.

Calgary mounted comeback

Led by their all-star quarterback, Calgary mounted a comeback that probably should have won them the game. Having pulled to within three points in the final minutes, the Stampeders recovered an onside kick and had marched to the Redblacks two-yard line when rookie head coach Dave Dickenson made a call that will likely haunt him for years.

On second and goal, instead of letting Levi Mitchell and star running back Jerome Messam attempt to complete the comeback, Dickenson called on backup quarterback Andrew Buckley to run a sweep, a play that had been successful earlier in the game.

But this time defender Abdul Kanneh tripped up Buckley and the Stampeders were forced to kick a game-tying field goal, sending the game to overtime for only the third time in league history.

In the extra frame, Burris went back to work, calmly hitting his No. 1 target all year, Ernest Jackson, with a pass that the receiver bobbled several times before securing for the game's winning score.

One defensive stand later and BMO Field erupted. Ottawa players and fans alike jumped and yelled and began to celebrate a championship that few thought possible. 

Ran out of bubbly

It seems even team management wasn't convinced the Redblacks had a shot. Shortly after the locker room celebration began, players complained that the meagre supply of champagne had run out. Beer and cigars soon replaced the bubbly as the league's unlikely champions hugged and cheered.

Make no mistake: the better team won last night. General manager Marcel Desjardins, head coach Rick Campbell and the rest of the Redblacks staff should be commended for the fine work they've done assembling a championship team in just three years.

The celebration continues Monday with the team's return to Ottawa, and Tuesday with a Grey Cup parade that football fans in the capital have been dreaming about for 40 years.