Ottawa REDBLACKS General Manager Shawn Burke says there is no extra pressure on his shoulders this offseason, outside of what he already puts on himself.
A flurry of new contracts have bucked the trend in the past few days, as previously, announcements have been few and far between. To date, 14 of the REDBLACKS’ 33 pending free agents have come to an agreement on a new deal.
The slow release of news hasn’t been through a lack of effort to get things done, Burke says, rather citing a handful of behind-the-scenes matters that have complicated the process.
“We had to do some evaluations following the season,” Burke said. “We want to involve Coach Dyce and his coordinators, and the search on the offensive side delayed some of those re-signs. The players are committing to you as much as you are them, they want to know who they are playing for, and we’ve had some more clarity in the new year.”
Perhaps more than anything else, a deep dive into what went wrong a season ago was critical. Even after starting 1-3, the REDBLACKS looked to have turned the corner on the back of Dustin Crum, stringing together two impressive wins in a row to improve to 3-3, but the optimism was short-lived. Ottawa struggled to plug the leaks in their proverbial boat, finishing the season 4-14, unable to reach the postseason for the fourth consecutive season.
There were plenty of moral victories, and you could make the argument that the REDBLACKS deserved more than they got in 2023, but as the fans will tell you, the scoreboard is a cruel thing, and all that matters is that the number on your side is bigger when time expires.
“We have to be better,” Burke said. “We know we need to be more than a four-win team, and that means making changes. We’re trying to put together the best pieces possible to be the most competitive football team we can be.”
Work has been done, getting key players back, including the Bryce Carter and Lorenzo Mauldin duo, which has combined for 36 sacks in the past two seasons, Michael Wakefield after his six-sack season, Bralon Addison, Devonte Williams, and Brandin Dandridge, just to name a few.
Before free agency has even opened, the REDBLACKS have added meaningful outside help as well, most recently with offensive lineman, Dariusz Bladek. To go along with Addison and Jaelon Acklin in the receiver’s room, Dominique Rhymes returns to Ottawa, two years removed from a 1,400-yard season in 2022, when he finished second in the CFL in yards and touchdowns (11).
“They wanted to move on something quick, so we had to huddle up fast,” Burke said. “Sometimes, you don’t have the luxury of time when you want to get something done.”
“He’s a guy that Coach Dyce is familiar with from his time in Ottawa, and he’s someone that Jeremy Snyder knows very well. The conversation about who he is off the field happened very quickly, and we felt this is something we couldn’t pass up or wait on, so we attacked aggressively.”
Who will be throwing Rhymes the ball has been a topic of conversation, and with the acquisition – and subsequent signing – of Dru Brown, there appears to be some clarity to the situation.
Burke says they won’t name a starter this early in the process, but putting their plan into motion was important, and allows the blueprint to take shape.
“We felt it was important to get certainty going into free agency,” Burke explained. “We’d know if we were able to get a deal done or not, and we’d know the financial implications. It sets the stage for what we’re going to do as an organization.”
The quarterback room still poses some issues for the coaching staff, however, primarily connected to the health of Jeremiah Masoli and Tyrie Adams, who suffered a ruptured left Achilles tendon and a torn ACL respectively during the 2023 season.
“It’s critical that you’re speaking with your medical staff and getting year-end assessments,” Burke explained. “You stay in constant conversation with players, and you want to get them set up for their rehab. Right now, I feel very confident that everyone who didn’t finish the year will be ready to start the year, with the exception of Jeremiah Masoli, and Tyrie Adams.”
“Until we get closer to the dates, we won’t know. The reality of both their injuries – even though they are different – is the timeline is somewhere between eight and 12 months. They could be back, they might not be, but until you get into the [working out] part of the rehab, you [can’t be certain].”
Burke’s overall assessment of the quarterback spot is cautious, knowing that someone will need to step up and prove something.
“I see some uncertainty, that’s just me being honest,” Burke said. “You have two guys coming off season-ending injuries. With Dustin, you want to see progression, but you saw spurts of what you could see. You always want to have experienced guys who can play.”
Free agency opens February 13th, and is preceded by a legal tampering window, in which teams are allowed to make offers to other teams’ pending free agents, although contracts can not be finalized until the official opening of the open market.
Before then, Burke anticipates a league-wide flurry of news, as teams and players come back to the table in search of a fair deal.
“Deadlines bring more pressure for both parties,” Burke said. “We’re conversing daily, but sometimes, you have to have honest conversations about the market. It’s a very busy time in our league calendar.”
Between free agency, the CFL Draft, and signing young American talent out of college, there is a lot of work to do for Bruke’s staff.
“There’s a lot of trust, and not a lot of ego,” Burke said. “We chop it up, and we get our workload done. I just can’t say enough about the staff.”