It was Mike Reilly’s idea to ask the Edmonton Eskimos for permission to talk with other teams prior to making his decision about where to play in February.
The franchise quarterback wanted a clear picture on what every team had to offer. Reilly and his agent Dan Vertlieb met with Esks’ general manager Brock Sunderland in January.
“I had come to the decision at that point that I knew everything that I was going to know about Edmonton. But what was holding up my decision was knowing those other opportunities out there and I didn’t have any information about them,” Reilly said.
“And I didn’t feel comfortable making a decision until I’d had the opportunity to figure out what the other options were. That’s just a smart business and career move in general is not to make a decision until you have all the information.”
Reilly conveyed the message and made sure Edmonton knew his intentions were honourable. He has respect for Sunderland, head coach Jason Maas and the Eskimos organization. It was prudent to allow Reilly to seek out suitors because the green and gold had to be ready for the star quarterback staying or leaving.
“The best thing for Edmonton was to know as soon as possible because if my decision was going to be to stay in Edmonton, they would know what their cap was and they could start preparing for the free agency period and trying to figure out what pieces that they wanted to bring in,” Reilly said.
“And then on the flip side of things, if I was not going to be back in Edmonton, the worst-case scenario was for me to make that decision within hours or days after free agency opened because then they would be behind the eight-ball. Then the other available free agents would potentially not be there anymore.”
Sunderland thought about the scenario for a couple days, eventually feeling it would benefit the Eskimos and keep the relationship with Reilly strong. Allowing a player of Reilly’s calibre who was still under contract until mid-February the chance to be free and have discussions with teams was unprecedented in recent CFL history.
“Everybody understood that it would be for the best interest of everyone to get that done sooner rather than later,” Reilly said.
According to the CFL, it’s at the club’s discretion as to whether they wish to allow one of their players to have contact with rival teams. Reilly was the highest-paid player in the CFL during the 2018 season making over $500,000. That salary was going to jump substantially wherever Reilly signed.
“The market sets itself in the sense of I don’t think that GM’s whose job is to build the best team that they possibly can are going to sit there and put themselves in a spot where they don’t think that they can win just to get a player,” Reilly said.
“In any type of free market system, it’s supply and demand and there’s going to be a value that they’re going to put on the position. That’s what they get paid to do is to figure out what that value is, what they think they can afford to pay somebody to come in while still managing to keep enough pieces around on the roster to be successful and to be a championship team.”
Lots of Canadian money was being offered to Reilly and Bo Levi Mitchell – the two premier quarterbacks who hit free agency. The Argos and Riders were both wanting to entice either one of the Grey Cup champion signal callers to play for their franchises. Toronto had the Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment bank open.
“Toronto is documented as having offered certain values to Bo. Everybody knows what Bo and I are making but there are other teams that were willing to pay a number. So if there’s multiple teams that are willing to pay a certain number they certainly feel like that’s the market value and that they can build a championship team around that,” Reilly said.
“Once the time comes down the road if I become a GM then that’ll be my job to deal with that. Any player around the league would and should look at it the same, you’re going to try to maximize your own value.”
Trusting the general manager to build a winning squad wherever Reilly inked his deal was an important factor. That ultimately led Reilly rejoining forces with Ed Hervey in B.C. The Lions GM had traded for Reilly and gave him his first starting role in the CFL.
The Lions paid $2.9 million over four years — $725,000 per season — for Reilly. That made the 34-year-old the highest-paid player in the league. Hervey had Reilly on a big money pact while in Edmonton and constructed a winner, capturing the 2015 Grey Cup.
After Chris Jones, who was the head coach for the Eskimos’ Grey Cup team, left for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, Hervey hired Maas as the bench boss. Reilly and Maas were like-minded in their approach, work ethic and competitiveness in football which drew the pair close during three seasons together. Maas was the hardest person to leave in Edmonton.
“Jason’s a very good friend of mine, my wife and kids are friends with Marge and his kids. It was a hard conversation to have because I was leaving, but it was an easy conversation in the sense of I certainly wasn’t going to lie to him, I have too much respect for him,” Reilly said.
“There’s conversations that you have throughout your life that are uncomfortable and you really don’t look forward to them and that was one of them, there’s no doubt. We talked for 45 minutes, maybe an hour. He certainly wasn’t happy with the decision, but I think he understood it and he respected it. We’re on great terms.”
Just like the way Reilly left the city of Edmonton for the West coast.