EDMONTON - After Wednesday’s Don Oramasionwu-signing press conference, head coach Kavis Reed sat in one of the player stalls, perhaps the very one where Brendan LaBatte would have sat if he’d been signed.
Twenty-six hours earlier Reed sat with LaBatte in a restaurant in Weyburn, Sask., trying to convince the young offensive lineman to become an Eskimo.
They didn’t get their man.
LaBatte Thursday was introduced as a Saskatchewan Roughrider, the big winners of the first two days of free-agent frenzy.
“Uh, where did you take him for lunch?” asked your correspondent.
“I took him to Smitty’s,” said the coach.
“He wanted to go to Boston Pizza, but it was out of my price range,” he laughed.
“I guess I should have bought him an extra waffle.”
You might as well laugh. It’s been an off-season for the Edmonton Eskimos to make you want to, if not cry, certainly scream. Certainly for the fans. Maybe especially if you’re the head coach.
By losing LaBatte, the Eskimos came out of the first two days of CFL free agency looking like losers. And it’s a year when they very much needed to look like winners.
“We had identified LaBatte as the guy we wanted,” said the coach of the guy they hoped to have to go with local product and former U of A Golden Bear Simeon Rottier, acquired from the Hamilton Tiger Cats, to fix everything on the offensive line. Now the Eskimos have been left with an import/non-import ratio problem.
And that’s the least of their problems.
They were 11-7 last year. Played host to the first home playoff game since 2004. Were one win away from the Grey Cup game.
Then Esks GM Eric Tillman traded quarterback Ricky Ray away for kicking prospect Grant Shaw and quarterbacking suspect Steven Jyles — the hockey equivalent of a pail of pucks.
Long-time season ticket holders fear the ’60s have returned, with a team featuring the best defence in the league but no quarterback. And the young fans, who are looking for some sizzle, can’t find any.
They lost Jerome Messam to the NFL, Jason Barnes, Rod Davis and likely Greg Peach to other teams in the league, and got back in free agency a No. 3 and a No. 4 receiver, and back-up defensive lineman who may or may not be ready to be a starter.
Fans had been told the big advantage of making Ray a Toronto Argonaut was that it would leave gobs and gobs of room, more room than any other team in the CFL, under the salary cap. Along comes free agency and … is that all there is?
“Talk about that,” I said to the coach after going through the way I see the lay of the land.
Reed looked at me and then came up with what might stand up to be the quote of the year.
“Can I call a time out?”
Reed said he can see it from the fans’ perspective.
“I can understand Joe Public. You look at the accounting book, at one side of the list and then the other and you ask ‘Where’s the plan? What’s the plan?’
“We do have a plan. It involves building a solid foundation,” he insisted.
“Will it work? Time will tell.”
Reed admits there’s danger here.
“It doesn’t sell tickets and it doesn’t keep my job. I’m not stupid,” he said.
It’s the way it is when Tillman is your GM.
Tillman turned this team around. It’s his 11-7 season, his first home game since 2004. He has the credentials. He has the proven history of success. But it’s like he lost all his credibility the day he traded Ricky Ray away.
“When I interviewed for this job, I explained my philosophies, my proven way of building football teams,” said Tillman in a one-on-one a few minutes earlier.
“I told them ‘I’m going to be unpopular every February.
‘Every February I’m going to get my butt whipped. You’ll be paying me to do that. Ultimately it will be evaluated in October and December.’
“I’ve been in situations where people have been shouting ‘The sky is falling’ before. I had them at this time of year before in Saskatchewan, with a long list of players who left. One year, one-third of the starters left.
“I have confidence in my ability and the abilities of Paul Jones and Ed Hervey to find players, good young players,” he said of identifying talent to place on the negotiation list and move through the organization.
Tillman has definitely improved the receiving corps, with the acquisition of 6’6” import Greg Carr from Winnipeg to go with Cary Koch from Saskatchewan. Koch went from No. 3 receiver to No. 4 when Carr, who was an announced-but-not-signed returnee to the Blue Bombers, was enticed to change his mind by a new offer from the Eskimos.
Winnipeg screamed foul, saying the Eskios plopped down another $15,000.
“I’d like it on the record exactly what we did,” he said.
“First of all it wasn’t $15,000 it was $13,000. And $3,000 was part of a bonus and $5,000 added to our offer each year,” he said of the five-figure bump.
“Two guys we really wanted were LaBatte and Donnie O.,” he said of the Canadians.
“We felt they are two players really ready to explode. At the end of the day, Saskatchewan did a great job to get Branden.”
The bottom line, though, is no Ricky Ray and nothing to show for all that extra cap space his departure created.
“We created the cap space and no splash,” Tillman admitted.
“Nobody has more cap space. The cap space can still play out. If Marcus Howard, for example, is leading the league in sacks next year, we can use it to extend his contract. If Jerome Messam comes back, we can use it to extend him. There are long-term benefits. You can use $100,000 to give five guys $20,000 extra to keep them, or three guys $33,000 to keep them.
“I use the salary cap different than anybody else in the league.”
The bottom line is Tillman is more unpopular in February in Edmonton than he’s ever been anywhere else before.
And there’s a lot of angst, not only in Edmonton, but throughout the Eskimos organization to see how this is going to play out.
Wherever the Edmonton Eskimos are going from here this year, and however this all ends up at the end off November, it will get even more interesting, if that’s the right word, when the schedule comes out Friday.
It will all start at 5 p.m. June 25 in Commonwealth Stadium against Ricky Ray and the Toronto Argos.
And how do you feel about that if you’re coach of the Eskimos?
“Well, I guess you had to expect that,” said Reed of the obvious highlight game for the league to kick off the new season.