2022 was a year of change for Shawn Burke.
After 14 years with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats — a stretch that saw Burke climb from a community relations role to the team’s senior director of player personnel and co-manager of football operations — he made the move east to Ottawa, to take on general manager duties with the REDBLACKS.
Burke and his staff got to work, putting their stamp on the roster with a dramatic overhaul. Many figured it would quickly change the fortunes of the REDBLACKS, who had gone 6-26 in the previous two seasons.
In his time with the Ticats, Burke had seen just about the full spectrum of the highs and lows that a team can face. He exited Hamilton with the team he’d helped build making back-to-back Grey Cup appearances and a combined 23-9 regular season record. Winning had become a habit for Burke. That changed this past year.
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Playing through a difficult schedule to start their season, the REDBLACKS fell to 0-4 on the night that Jeremiah Masoli‘s broken leg took him out for the year. The team never recovered, finished 4-14. Burke made the decision to move on from head coach Paul LaPolice on Oct. 1 and the team missed the playoffs for the third season in a row. The losses were hard on the entire organization, but it was a big adjustment for Burke.
“We’re all competitive people. Winning never feels as great as how bad losing feels,” Burke said from Kananaskis, Alta. where the league held its annual meetings this week.
“I think first and foremost I had great people around me, starting with the ownership level, then Mark (Goudie, president and CEO of OSEG) and Adrian (Sciarra, OSEG’s senior vice president, sports business operations). Then the staff around me to have someone like Brendan Taman that’s been through everything in this league.”
He listed off virtually everyone in the team’s offices, from his football operations people through the coaching staff, which transitioned from LaPolice’s lead to Bob Dyce’s for the team’s final four games. Dyce dropped the interim head coaching tag on Dec. 2 and will lead the team going forward.
“You’ve got to remember that you’re not in it alone. You’re in it together. Everyone’s trying to achieve wins. No one’s trying not to win,” he continued.
“I’ve always said, I’ve learned from people…no matter what, you take 24 hours to either feel the blues or feel the highs and get on to the next week. You try to do that. One thing I definitely invoked as the general manager and the leader of this organization is I have to get over it even quicker. I have to be that guy that doesn’t panic and sees the positivity of things and I saw it throughout the year.
“I saw a team that no matter what played hard football for 18 games. I don’t see this (off-season) as a starting-from-scratch or a wholesale thing, that’s why we’ve signed a lot of guys. It’s a re-tooling, not a rebuild. I think Bob will bring that dynamic of starting the foundation to do that from the off-season to Day 1 of training camp and hit the ground running. I’m excited to see what Bob can bring together. I think he’s done a great job with his staff and I’m excited to work with them and build this team for 2023.”
Burke figures that Masoli will be a key part of the coming season. His broken leg required surgery and there were infections unrelated to the injury that followed that slowed his recovery process.
“Jeremiah was up here the week before Christmas and saw the surgeons and saw the team doctor and everyone felt he was in a very good place, still in the rehabilitation stages,” Burke said.
“Then with the injury he had, until it gets to full strength he can’t really train around. He’s at the portion where now he’s had a complete repair and now he’s strengthening around it. He’s going to have a very normal off-season from a throwing standpoint and we fully expect him to be ready to run out there as a No. 1 on the first day of training camp.”
Masoli’s injury was a stark reminder of the importance of quarterback depth. Burke traded for Nick Arbuckle after Masoli was injured and leaned on him and second-year QB Caleb Evans. With both of them pending free agents, Burke is waiting to see what the players around Masoli will look like for his team this year.
“Some of it depends on them and their situations. I think there’s a couple unknown quarterback spots in the league right now that probably all of the free agent quarterbacks are waiting to see the how the dust settles,” Burke said.
“I completely understand and respect every quarterback in this league wants to be a No. 1 and wants a chance to compete to be No. 1. Ultimately they’re going to make the decision that’s best for their chance to do that, in all likelihood.
“Would we welcome Nick and Caleb back? Absolutely. I fully anticipate having another quarterback with CFL experience with us in training camp.”
While much of the focus in 2022 was on the REDBLACKS’ offence and what was lost, Burke wants to improve his team in all three phases of the game. That’ll be the key to ending the team’s three-year playoff drought.
“One thing that our team has to get better at is in all three phases, finishing and playing complimentary football,” Burke said.
“I thought we had points of the year that were really good in all three phases, and points in the year where, if one of the three phases played a bit better in the games we would have had more win totals. There was equal blame to go around.
“The difference between winning and losing is very miniscule. We just have to have a belief in our room that we’ll finish these games. We have to zone in for 60 minutes each night that we play and continue the battle and be a fast football team that makes it hard to compete against each week and see where the chips fall.”