In hindsight, I can safely say that Shawn Burke wasn’t just feeding me a line.
It was a week and a half ago when I had a phone conversation with the general manager of the Ottawa REDBLACKS, who was in Nashville, TN, for the CFL winter meetings.
“At the end of the day, we have to put more W’s on the board and that means changing something up here,” said Burke of the REDBLACKS, a team trying to move forward after consecutive 4-14 seasons.
“We’re prepared to do that and excited to see what the start of free agency brings.”
The start of free agency? How about almost a month before that?
On a Thursday of big moves, the Ottawa REDBLACKS not only secured the prohibitive favourite to be their number one quarterback in 2024 – Dru Brown – but also a prime target for Brown to spy downfield in receiver Dominique Rhymes, who may return to Ottawa after three seasons in BC, according to a report from TSN’s Farhan Lalji.
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The Brown move, that might not be so surprising to anybody who’s been even remotely following CFL free agency rumours. The Rhymes get? Might even have startled Burke. He may not have known the Lions were about to part ways with one of their star receivers, releasing him ahead of free agency in order to create some financial room while they came to terms with a couple others.
“You might have an idea when the free agent list comes out,” Burke had said that day on the phone, from Nashville. “And then what that list looks like when you actually get to it is much different.”
Sometimes even before, it turns out.
In trading a fifth round pick in this year’s draft to Winnipeg to get Brown ahead of free agency (rarely does a deal like this get made without the player in question signing with his new team), the REDBLACKS get the CFL’s ‘next one,’ the understudy quarterback most likely to take the next step and become a fabulous starter.
That designation is never a guarantee, of course, and the REDBLACKS have been down a road like this before, only without the desired results.
In 2020, Ottawa secured the rights to Nick Arbuckle in a pre-free agency deal with the Calgary Stampeders. A canceled season later, they released Arbuckle in order to sign Matt Nichols, who never did regain his form in Ottawa. After stops in Toronto and Edmonton, Arbuckle was back with the REDBLACKS last season, but the promise of what might have been was long gone and he was replaced as Ottawa’s interim starter after two games.
So, sure, pump the brakes on the “Dru Brown as Saviour” storylines a bit.
But he does seem to be a cut above. When Brown was pressed into action last season, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ offence looked pretty well the same as it did when starter Zach Collaros was at the controls. That’s a pretty great sign. The 26-year-old went 62-for-89 for 983 yards and nine touchdowns with zero interceptions thrown.
Besides, of all the possible ‘next ones’ out there, Brown is THE guy among them and he is now in Ottawa. There is great value in that. The team and its beleaguered fans were in need of a shot of adrenaline, of excitable hope, and that’s just what they’ve gotten with this move.
With Brown in the fold and with last season’s occasional hero Dustin Crum back for his sophomore CFL season, the REDBLACKS have provided themselves with at least some stability at the position and they can hope for so much more. With Jeremiah Masoli and Tyrie Adams both rehabbing this off-season and with uncertain return dates – the REDBLACKS definitely needed that, too.
Prior to Thursday’s big moves, Burke had already done a little heavy lifting within the roster of his own team’s potentially expiring contracts.
The REDBLACKS had gotten a number of their own valuable names on new deals, players like defensive backs Brandin Dandridge and Ty Cranston, as well as defensive linemen Michael Wakefield and original REDBLACK Nigel Romick.
And on the same day as the trade for Brown and the rumoured signing of Rhymes, receiver Bralon Addison agreed to terms on a new contract.
All pretty good moves, you’d have to say, and Ottawa fans can hope for more of that. Let’s face it. More than hope, actually. They’re demanding it.
“I think you’ll see things heat up a bit,” Burke told me ten days ago. “It doesn’t take long to bring a deal together when you start talking. We’ll get conversing and speed up some things with some of our free agents.”
You’d have to think that exciting moves like the trade for Brown and the rumoured signing of Rhymes can only help in negotiations with a guy like, say, Lorenzo Mauldin IV, the REDBLACKS’ star defensive end who is free to walk if he likes on February 13.
Off-season momentum, secured. These things sometimes feed on themselves, so, what else might be in the cards for the Ottawa REDBLACKS?
Hard to say but we do know this much. With a couple of splashy moves in one day, general manager Shawn Burke showed he ain’t just feedin’ nobody no lines.