Following quarterback switch, Redblacks fans are questioning GM Marcel Desjardins

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/

What do snakes and COVID-19 have in common? Both have led to quarterbacks leaving the Ottawa Redblacks before playing a down.

With the news of general manager Marcel Desjardins deciding to release last off-season’s prized acquisition, Nick Arbuckle joins the likes of Kevin Glenn as quarterbacks who joined Ottawa only to depart before ever stepping on the field.

Some will take this as proof to reinforce their existing belief that Desjardins isn’t a competent GM and that he is someone who can’t connect with players or sell them on the city and his franchise.

The fact that he has managed to re-sign and retain over 30 players this off-season — including impact players like Brad Sinopoli, Mark Korte, Jalen Saunders, Antoine Pruneau, Cleyon Laing and Lewis Ward — would seem to throw cold water on that theory, but don’t let facts get in the way of a good narrative, I guess.

Still, that hasn’t stopped some fans from taking to social media to lament the loss of Arbuckle and complain about the subsequent signing of Matt Nichols to replace him.

Many are hung up on the fact that the Redblacks traded for Arbuckle’s rights last off-season, swapping first round picks with Calgary, and invested a hefty signing bonus $220,000 in a 27-year old believed to be the quarterback of the future.

Many of those angry can’t seem to understand why Ottawa made that decision and now, a year later, failed to rework Arbuckle’s deal.

In a word, chalk it up to what has plagued everybody and ruined even the most well-laid plans: COVID-19.

Last off-season, Nichols was coming off a season-ending shoulder injury and Arbuckle was a promising young player. Desjardins and the Redblacks gambled by trading for his rights and it paid off when he inked a two-year contract.

In a non-coronavirus timeline, Arbuckle plays the entire 2020 season and the Redblacks suddenly have a much better sense if he is indeed their quarterback of the future. Nobody could have anticipated a global pandemic bringing the league to a halt.

In a pandemic world that included a season cancelled, a major loss of revenue, and a mandate from ownership to cut costs and limit player spending to the lower end of the cap, Arbuckle was simply never coming back on a deal that could have paid him up to $495,000 if incentives were hit. That’s Henry Burris-type money and a heck of an investment in a quarterback with seven career starts.

If COVID-19 never happens, there’s no mandate from ownership to cut costs and no need to rework Arbuckle’s deal because he would have had a full season of games under his belt. Although, that is not the reality the Redblacks found themselves in.

If you take a look around the league, seven quarterbacks reworked or signed new deals — Mike Reilly, Bo Levi-Mitchell, Trevor Harris, Cody Fajardo, Zach Collaros, Vernon Adams and Jeremiah Masoli. The two that failed or chose not to — it takes two to tango, after all — both wound up being released and interestingly, found their way to the teams they were rumoured to be heading to last off-season.

From listening to the TSN 1200 radio interview given by Desjardins, the decision to release Arbuckle was a conscious one as much as it was a consequence of failing to redo his deal. The Redblacks were asking for a significant pay cut and to extend his deal for another year; Arbuckle apparently refused.

When Nichols hit the market, another year removed from his injury, it seems the Redblacks preferred to sign a now-healthy Nichols and invest in a proven veteran who is familiar with the coaching staff and has won 45 games in 73 career starts.

The fact that Nichols has spent so much time working with head coach Paul LaPolice cannot be overlooked. Over the course of four seasons and 60 games in LaPolice’s offensive system, Nichols has thrown for 13,220 yards, 79 touchdowns and 38 interceptions. Even if he’s had some recent injury issues — Nichols was limited to just nine games in 2019 — he’s a proven performer in LaPolice’s system.

Another thing worth taking into consideration that Desjardins mentioned in his interview is that as of this season, each CFL team must always field three veteran Americans. Thanks to his time in the CFL, Nichols carries that designation and Arbuckle does not. In theory, that provides the Redblacks with a bit more flexibility when it comes to setting their game day rosters.

Although some in R-Nation will struggle to accept the decision to replace Arbuckle with Nichols, given the league’s new financial landscape, the fact that Nichols was available, and now healthy, and that they couldn’t extend Arbuckle’s deal for an addition season, the change was inevitable.

In a perfect world, Arbuckle would have been the face of the franchise for years to come. Surely the plan wasn’t to spend a year marketing him and having him move to the nation’s capital with his family only for him to leave before taking a snap.

However, just as COVID-19 has changed so many plans, it led to an audible under centre for the Redblacks.

Santino Filoso is originally from Ottawa and has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know).