Burke trying to create sustainability out of struggling Redblacks
The Ottawa Redblacks and general manager Shawn Burke are trying to build something special.
Burke joined the Redblacks in December of 2021 and he's trying to build a contender out of a team that has finished in last place in the East Division each of the last four seasons.
Heading into Week 11, the team is on pace to finish last in the East once again with a 3-6 record but Burke is trying to build a system that can create some sustainable success.
"I think it's a delicate balance when you come into a new situation where everyone is trying to win quickly," Burke told TSN1200 at the "QB Club" fan event on Tuesday. "Obviously I was hired for a reason because we weren't having success. At the same time, you want to build things in a way where they're sustainable. Ultimately, everyone in this room wants sustainability where we can be a team that competes to win division titles every year, playing in conference championships, and compete for Grey Cups."
Ottawa is coming off a back-and-forth game against the Toronto Argonauts on Sunday where the Argos were able to pull away in the fourth quarter for a 44-31 victory. The week prior, the Redblacks mounted a furious comeback in the fourth quarter against the Saskatchewan Roughriders but ended up losing 26-24 on a last-minute field goal.
While the on-field results haven't always equated to wins in the standings, Burke believes the effort and competitiveness of his team is going in the right direction.
"I don't think there's a team in the league that looks forward to playing the Ottawa Redblacks," said Burke. "We've got to take care of the things we can control in order to finish games. Football comes down to five or six plays in a game and if you get more than that, you're going to win those games. When the spotlight finds you, it's about making that play for the team."
Burke cited the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Calgary Stampeders as examples of how he wants to build his team.
The Blue Bombers have been the class of the CFL over the last two seasons and remain tied for first place with the BC Lions in the West Division this season. They have made the Grey Cup game the last three years and won two of them.
Prior to the Blue Bombers' dominance, the Stampeders were Grey Cup finalists between 2016-2018 and won the 2018 Grey Cup over the Redblacks. The team also has not missed the playoffs since the 2004 season.
"I have a great deal of respect for the Stampeders and where they've had that line of success in how they've developed players and put their practice roster in place," explained Burke. "You're seeing that in Winnipeg right now [as well]. They built that sustainability, they built what their vision of the team was and they had faith in who was running the team. That's how it got to the place where everyone is talking about [them] year after year."
The Redblacks have had to deal with significant injuries to a large portion of their core players including defensive back Brandin Dandridge, wide receiver Bralon Addison, and 2023 first-overall selection Dontae Bull. While some of these players are getting closer to returning to action, the team is taking a cautious approach.
"If a player doesn't feel like he's physically and mentally ready, it's not going to help to put him out on the field," said Burke. "It just doesn't work well so we always take that caution. We want guys to feel mentally and physically ready and we'll support them along the way.
The biggest injury for the Redblacks came at the quarterback position when Jeremiah Masoli went down with a ruptured left Achilles on July 8 to end his season. The injury came a year to the day after being knocked out of the 2022 season when then-Roughriders defensive lineman Garrett Marino committed an illegal hit to Masoli's legs.
While Masoli hasn't been available to the Redblacks on the field, the 34-year-old pivot has been invaluable to the club off the field by mentoring their young quarterbacks, including current starting quarterback Dustin Crum.
"How he was how the team took their cue," gushed Burke. "He was nothing but professional [after the injury] in addressing the media and being there for his teammates. You see him in the quarterback meetings every day, helping our young quarterbacks and doing a great job being in their ear, being a different set of eyes.
"He's brought a lot of how we want to build this team, even though it can't be quantified in games."
Masoli's CFL future is still up in the air after sustaining two major leg injuries in the course of the year. However, Masoli and Burke aren't concentrating on what may be in the future, but instead looking towards helping the team this year.
When the time does come to evaluate Masoli's future, Burke said he'll follow the pivot's lead.
"When the time comes to have that conversation if he'll play again, he'll lead the conversation," said Burke. "He knows I have a job to do as the leader of the organization and I have to make the best decisions for the organization and not individual people."