Redblacks ready to roll against banged-up Argonauts
Jovan Johnson says Ottawa must contain Toronto QB Ricky Ray
Henry Burris boasts an impressive CFL resume.
Over 15 seasons, he's twice won a league championship, been named a Grey Cup and CFL MVP and is one of just five players ever to surpass the 50,000-yard passing plateau.
But even with 17 years of pro football under his belt — he also played in the NFL with Green Bay and Chicago — the 39-year-old Texan will experience a career first Friday night when he leads the expansion Ottawa Redblacks (0-2) into their first-ever game at TD Place Stadium against the Toronto Argonauts (1-2).
"I've never been in this position before," Burris said following Thursday's practice. "I played in the first Monday night game following 9/11 (Green Bay's 37-0 win over Washington on Sept. 24, 2001), I've played in Grey Cups and those were some pretty emotional times for me.
I know this fan base has waited since 2005 to have a true home game and a true home stadium. It's an honour to be here and able to be part of this team to break ground as far as getting this organization and city back into football.- Ottawa QB Henry Burris
"But I can just imagine how emotional and how much energy is going to be in this stadium and this entire city. I know this fanbase has waited since 2005 to have a true home game and a true home stadium. It's an honour to be here and able to be part of this team to break ground as far as getting this organization and city back into football."
Not since the former Renegades in November 2005 has a CFL team played a home game in Ottawa and the city hasn't celebrated a Grey Cup winner since '76 when Tony Gabriel's historic TD catch rallied the Rough Riders to a thrilling 23-20 victory over Saskatchewan. But a sellout gathering of 24,000 will be on hand for the Redblacks inaugural home game.
"It's a big deal and we've been waiting for this day for a long time.," said Ottawa head coach Rick Campbell. "We've had a bunch of firsts over the last several months as far as what's gone on with our franchise and [Friday] will be a big night and we're definitely proud of it."
It's only fitting that Burris achieve a career first going head-to-head with Toronto quarterback Ricky Ray. The two had many memorable battles when they were with the Calgary Stampeders and Edmonton Eskimos, respectively, and last year Burris led the Hamilton Tiger-Cats past the Argos in the East Division final.
"I feel like we're in The Matrix, we keep following each other," Burris said. "It seems in the most special moments, we always go against each other.
"He's done a lot of great things in his time and I hope that's a two-way street. When we see each other on the sidelines we want to beat each other."
Argos injuries piling up
But Ray has much more to be concerned about than outplaying Burris. Toronto will be minus its top three receivers in Chad Owens (foot), Andre Durie (clavicle) and Jason Barnes (knee), meaning youngsters Anthony Coombs, Terrell Sinkfield and Darvin Adams will all start versus Ottawa.
"That's going to be tough," Ray said. "Any time you don't have a starter in the lineup you can't rely on the production you're used to getting.
"With these guys, they've been here, they've been through training camp, they know the offence. It's just about being out there and not thinking too much when they're playing and trying to avoid some of those mistakes and be able to play fast. Until you have that game experience together, you don't know what to expect. We're all going to be out here learning a little bit, hopefully we can get it done."
Veteran Ottawa defensive back Jovon Johnson said it doesn't really matter who the Argos have at receiver because Ray is the key to their offence.
"He takes the passes that you give him, he doesn't force things downfield," Johnson said. "He doesn't do things he's not accustomed to doing, that's what makes him great.
"To not have guys like Chad Owens and Andre Durie, I'm sure that's big for them because they go to Owens and Durie a lot. It's one of those unknown things, you don't know who they're going to play and just have to be ready for whatever comes your way."
With Ottawa's first home game generating such a huge buzz here — a pep rally was held Thursday at city hall — the Redblacks will definitely have the home-field advantage as they search for their first-ever win. However, that also means there'll be a lot of pressure on them to perform well.
"Hopefully it's loud and exciting," Argos head coach Scott Milanovich said. "Our guys are looking forward to playing in the new stadium being kind of the first show in town."
Toronto receiver John Chiles, who played collegiately at Texas, said a big, loud crowd can dramatically impact the outcome of a game.
"I'm expecting it to be crazy, I'm expecting it to be loud, I'm expecting the fans to be up and screaming and having a good time," Chiles said. "In college I played before 110,000 people every week and I remember when it got loud it got tough for teams and they struggled against us.
"And even at some away games it was tougher for me being on the road. The crowd can definitely have an effect on the game."
However, Chiles said the Argos aren't looking to play the spoiler role.
"No, we try not to use that term," he said. "We're just focusing in on what we need to do to win and not get too involved with the extra stuff."
Campbell said while he's looking forward to the Redblacks having a rabid home crowd firmly behind them, it's important his players avoid being swept up in that emotion.
"We just have to make sure we keep our heads about us," he said. "I know this is going to be a great place to be, we just need to make sure we're good on our assignments and what we're doing and go out there and play football."
That won't be a problem for Johnson.
"I'm never nervous," he said. "I'm always even-keeled, that's just me and my personality. I always want to perform and never feel pressure on the field.
"You can't look at it as extra pressure. I'd call it added incentive for us to go out and play well and give them (fans) a team they can look forward to."