O’Leary: Sunderland refuses to let Reilly departure define Esks free agency

When you think of the moments that will live forever in Edmonton, the good ones generally pop up first. There’s Wayne Gretzky lifting any of the four Stanley Cups he won with the Oilers. There’s Mark Messier taking them to their fifth in 1990. There’s the other dynasty that unfolded first, one LRT stop to the south with the five-in-a-row Esks, led largely by Warren Moon. While the Oilers have been down more than they’ve been up since that 1990 Cup, the Esks found their way back to championships in 1993, 2003, 2005 and 2015.

The banners and plaques and memories live on all of these years later, but there’s always something there on the other side of it, always a reminder that even if the glory comes in bursts, it’s short-lived and hard to get back. Sometimes it feels impossible.

Warren Moon went to the NFL. Gretzky was traded. Messier too. The Oilers lost in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006, but the real heartbreak came days later when Chris Pronger demanded a trade. Ricky Ray, such a key piece of those 2003 and 2005 Grey Cups, was traded and the Esks subsequently plummeted.

 

 

Then Edmonton football fans had to wake up on Tuesday morning to watch the clock strike 10 a.m. MT and wait for Mike Reilly to walk into the open arms of former Esks GM Ed Hervey and become a BC Lion.

It had the makings of being another dark day in a city whose sports history is made of clouds that unleash heartbreak, feelings of abandonment and an agony that’s slowly and articulately expressed by thousands on Twitter.

Brock Sunderland hasn’t had anything to do with about 99 per cent of the highs and lows that Edmonton sports fans have gone through over the last 41 years. His time in front of reporters on Tuesday afternoon will probably feel like a choppy segment in his day, one fuelled by 30 minutes of sleep that started with losing a franchise quarterback and finished with an impressive on-the-fly overhaul of his roster.

“Warren Moon has left this franchise. Ricky Ray has left this franchise. Hugh Campbell has left this franchise,” Sunderland said on the phone from Edmonton, after he’d signed 11 players (nine free agents and two prior draft picks) to contracts.

“And you know what? A common denominator after every one of those people leaving is that the team has won a Grey Cup. It’s possible.”

Tuesday had all of the makings of that all too familiar storm, but the downpour never came. Maybe it’s because Sunderland isn’t from Edmonton. Maybe it’s because he’s done what we could all stand to gain from and distanced himself from what the unruly mob has had to say online. Losing Mike Reilly could have been a wake for Edmonton and its football team. Sunderland turned it into a rebirth.


MORE ON ESKS BUSY DAY 1 OF FREE AGENCY

» Eskimos steal headlines on hectic Day 1 of FA
» Star QB Trevor Harris heads West
» Official Free Agent Tracker


Additions/Re-Signings:

Player Position Transaction Former Team
Trevor Harris QB Signed (02/12/19) OTT
Larry Dean LB Signed (02/12/19) HAM
SirVincent Rogers OL Signed (02/12/19) OTT
Jovan Santos-Knox LB Signed (02/12/19) WPG
Grey Ellingson WR Signed (02/12/19) OTT
Don Unamba DB Signed (02/12/19) HAM
DaVaris Daniels WR Signed (02/12/19) CGY
Anthony Orange DB Signed (02/12/19) BC
Ricky Collins WR Signed (02/12/19) BC
Travis Bond OL Re-signed(02/12/19)

 

He was on the phone with Trevor Harris, he said, five minutes into free agency. The deal came together quickly. Harris lobbied his top receiver, Greg Ellingson to make the trip west with him. He signed a pair of offensive linemen to protect his 5,000-yard-throwing quarterback, in SirVincent Rogers and Travis Bond. He got Harris two more targets, in DaVaris Daniels and Ricky Collins Jr.

He found a replacement for the recently retired J.C. Sherritt with Larry Dean. Then he added his former Ticats teammate, Don Unamba. Then he plucked former Bomber, Jovan Santos-Knox out of the sky and put him at the will linebacker spot. Later in the day they added defensive back Anthony Orange (the most inquisitive man on Instagram).

A one-minute conversation at a bar will tell you that Harris isn’t Mike Reilly, but he was the next best available quarterback that happened to lead his team to a Grey Cup appearance three months ago. The Esks endured the massive loss that their fan base had dreaded for the last year and came out of it far better than anyone could have guessed.

He said he knew by the weekend that Reilly wouldn’t be back, but after Reilly had turned down some sizeable offers over the last year, Sunderland figured his odds were already 50-50 at best. So he’d put together Plans B, C and D, glass to be broken in case of franchise-altering emergency.

“The team is not feeling sorry for itself. We’re not flinching. We’re being aggressive,” he said.

“The plan was if Mike wasn’t going to be here, knowing that we were holding a ton of money for him, I figured that money is here and we’re going to spread it out and be as aggressive as possible.”

Harris’ camp had leverage in the negotiation, Sunderland admitted.

“The one thing about Trevor is he understands putting people around him,” Sunderland said.

 

“Trevor deserves more and he could have asked for a lot more but he’s got the football acumen and understands all the moving parts. He took a little less than he’s certainly worth — and I mean that in a complimentary way — to help us do what we did today.”

Sunderland knows Harris well from their time together in Ottawa, as part of that REDBLACKS team that shocked Calgary in the Grey Cup in 2016. Harris almost started that game, before Henry Burris went out one leg and solidified his rep as one of the best to ever play in the CFL. Last year, Harris squatted on the field at Commonwealth Stadium, heartbroken to see the Stamps get the best of him.

There are plenty more games on that field in front of him and Sunderland only sees him continuing the progression he’s made through seven years in the CFL.
“I think he can be a highly productive, Grey Cup-winning quarterback,” he said. “And that’s why we went after him.”