February 5, 2024

Rob Vanstone: A window into Hour 1 of CFL free agency

For the Saskatchewan Roughriders, the CFL’s free-agent negotiating window opened in a windowless room.

Mosaic Stadium’s war room, as it is known, is the nerve centre when the Roughriders’ primary football-operations decision-makers convene for key events pertaining to player personnel.

There is the draft, of course, and another annual exercise — also vital to team construction — that is the beginning of the one-week period in which the league’s nine clubs can permissibly touch base with players and agents in advance of Feb. 13, when deals can be formally sealed.

On Sunday, the window opened, as did the door for a snoopy scribe who was invited to observe the proceedings. A time limit was not imposed, but the fly-on-the-wall Riderville.com correspondent arbitrarily assigned himself an hour to soak in the surroundings and bring you, the fan, closer to the inner workings.

10:55 a.m.: Five minutes before kickoff, so to speak, Vice-President of Football Operations and General Manager Jeremy O’Day walks toward a white board that is full of names, names, names. Available players are ranked by position. The names of national free agents appear in red ink. The Americans’ names are written in black. An asterisk appears beside the names of 13 players who have been identified as priorities. Seated beside O’Day, to his left, is Head Coach Corey Mace. Both of them are conferring with Assistant GM Kyle Carson, whose knowledge of the player pool is encyclopedic.

10:56: Offensive Co-ordinator Marc Mueller pops his head in the door and inquires, “What’s up?” The visiting writer had expected tension and nail-biting, but the atmosphere is casual and cheerful. This is not the first go-round for O’Day and Carson, after all, and Mace is invariably upbeat and chatty. He, too, is well-versed in the ways of Canadian professional football, having been part of the league since 2010.

10:59: One minute before the window opens, Mace sings the title verse of “The Final Countdown.” Tick, tick, tick …

11:00: It’s “go” time — and J.O. time. Over the next two or three days, O’Day and the league’s other General Managers will tentatively secure deals with most, if not all, of the premier free agents. But it becomes clear, very quickly, that the GM isn’t the sole driver of this vehicle. O’Day, Mace and Carson have discussed and refined their strategy leading up to this moment, which calls for the newly appointed Head Coach to initiate contact with one free agent who is of particular interest. The phone, audible to all thanks to the wonder that is the speaker function, rings a few times before the player answers a FaceTime call. “What’s up?!” Mace exclaims, whereupon the how-are-yous are exchanged. “I’m lovely, man,” Mace replies. “J.O. is right here.” After O’Day speaks with the player, Mace resumes the one-on-one conversation and walks into the hallway, giving the prospective Roughrider a visual tour of the stadium and its assortment of player-friendly amenities.

11:05: While Mace is on the phone, O’Day busily exchanges text messages and emails. The phone and computer screen are tools of the trade. Five minutes into the formal process, he stands up and walks over to the board, as he will do several times over the first hour. He then circles the name of a player, signifying that this coveted free agent is highly amenable to joining the Roughriders. Meanwhile, Mace’s deep voice can be heard a few first downs away from the war room as he engages with another player whom the Roughriders have identified as someone who can help the team right away.

11:14: Mace winds up a conversation with one free agent by touting the team’s ardent, enthusiastic fan base. “You’ll get nothing but love out here,” Mace says. There will be further conversations.

11:15: The war room is like a second home around draft time or on a day like this. O’Day arrived nice and early after working out in Mosaic Stadium’s expansive, state-of-the-art fitness room. The homework was done long before the workout began. Now it is time to put all the wheels in motion. “It’ll just be steady,” O’Day says. “Once we reach out to everyone, we’ll be texting and calling.”

11:16: The Roughriders have now talked to one free agent and his wife. This is a team effort on both sides of the equation, remember.

11:20: O’Day stands up, again, and walks toward the board. “I’m going to give this one an arrow up,” he explains while making a notation next to the name of one player. “I’ve got a good feeling about this one.” It is not yet a circle, let alone a completed contract, but it is a good sign.

11:21: A call is placed to Ohio and one of last year’s marquee free-agent additions. Within seconds, O’Day is speaking with the Roughriders’ No. 1 quarterback. “We’re calling you out of the bullpen here,” O’Day says to Trevor Harris, who is asked to reach out to a free agent who, ideally, will soon be a teammate on the offensive side of the ball.

11:29: The market for some players is becoming clearer as O’Day and Carson touch base with contacts throughout the gridiron game. The Roughriders’ GM stands up and writes some projected salary expectations beside the names of a handful of players.

11:30: An agent calls O’Day to discuss a client’s possible fit in Saskatchewan. “Let’s talk about it and see if this is a situation where we can financially get in the market,” O’Day says. The two sides agree to reconnect soon.

11:35: Mace concludes another call — and another tour of the world-class facilities — by once again handing the telephone to the GM. “I’m sure you’ll be busy talking to people, but I just wanted to hop on,” O’Day says.

11:45: Through the course of conversations, it has been determined that one free agent is interested in merchandising/marketing possibilities. The suggestion is made that Craig Reynolds, the Roughriders’ President and CEO, become incorporated into the process in this specific instance. It is, we reiterate, a team effort.

11:48: Having been on his phone and welded to his laptop, Carson has established a feel for the landscape. He mentions a number of players and the anticipated price ranges. Too high? Too low? Is there room to move? What will other teams do? So many variables. So much has to come together in a few short hours.

11:50: O’Day adds three more projected prices to the white board. As well, OFFER and NO OFFER are written beside the names of a few players.

11:55: Talks continue in the hallways, strolling and chatting being part of the process. Carson continues to stare at his computer screen and send/receive messages via phone and email. Mace’s voice, always enthusiastic, can be heard from down the hall as O’Day re-enters the war room. I express my thanks for the time and access, which was provided so cordially, and return to my (disorderly) desk — the objective here being to open yet another window … for the fans.