Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Bombers GM has had to sow plenty of seeds and right now they're reaping wins
Lots of teams win early and fade late to join the heap forever known as non-playoff qualifiers.
So, of course, common sense suggests Winnipeg Blue Bombers fans should temper their enthusiasm. But that's unlikely if Kyle Walters has anything to say about it.
"Hell, no," said Walters, during a Tuesday morning phone call, just minutes after he'd completed a trade, grabbing quarterback Josh Portis from the Toronto Argonauts in exchange for a conditional draft pick.
"Be excited. We've won some games. That's what the fans want, and that's what the fans deserve. The place was rocking against Ottawa and if we can get them rolling again this week against Edmonton, it's an advantage for this team.
"Winnipeg has always had such a home-field advantage. We need to get that back. This is a Bombers team fans can get behind."
Walters took over the worst football team in the nation last August and got busy rebuilding. He didn't fire the janitors. But not too many others involved in the football end of this team are still around from last season.
Now, he's not going to stay undefeated forever, but 3-0 equals last season's win total and is a very tidy start for a rookie GM. Walters says he's not surprised.
"You never want to say you're surprised. Mike (O'Shea), Wade (Miller) and myself say, 'Don't be afraid to say the word win.' You're expected to win, we want to win and we go into it every week trying to win," said Walters. "We prep like we're going to win. The coaches expect it, and the players expect it. Winning every game has to be our mindset and so far we have."
Handing the keys to a first-time GM or coach or any post is a risk. They have thoughts and ideas about how they want to do things, but these are untested theories. Winnipeg Jets assistant GM Craig Heisinger hired a rookie coach named Scott Arniel to run the Manitoba Moose bench back in the day. While it ended up being an excellent choice, there were growing pains early on. Heisinger scrunched up his face and thought for a second when asked about Arniel's progress around Christmas of that first season.
"He thought he had the answers, but he found he didn't even know the questions," said Heisinger.
For Walters, it's all worked out so far, but he understands he's really done diddly in the grand scheme of things.
"We know we're 3-0, but a couple of those games were coin flips whether we win or lose. If we're 1-2, which we very well could be, are we a different team? It's a fine line between winning and losing. To start thinking you're doing things right or wrong from such a small sample size, I don't think that's a good idea," said Walters.
"But we're encouraged with the guys we have and the way things are going. We want to win now and build for the future, which I think we are doing. We have a vision. Let's do things the right way. Let's do things proper and let the results follow. That's what I'm most proud of so far."
The Bombers were a joke last season and not only did fans, media and other teams know it, so did players in Winnipeg and around the league. There was no substance to any of the platitudes hung on the walls. Everything about the Bombers was hollow including the principles set down from the top.
Walters and head coach O'Shea didn't spend much time talking about changing this way of thinking. They just changed it. For the first time in a long time in Bomberland, actions actually speak louder than words.
"When Korey Banks said he didn't want to accept the role we set out for him and said he didn't want to be part of this team, essentially, our mindset -- Mike's and mine -- was to politely say, 'That's fine with us. You don't want to be here, you don't have to be here.' That was it. As simple a thought process as that," said Walters.
"The mindset is, if you don't want to be part of what we're doing, if you don't want to buy in, if you don't want to be part of the Winnipeg Football Club, then we don't want you here. I'll support Mike fully in that mindset."
Getting to 3-0 is nice and all, but they don't give out trophies in the first month of the season. Quietly and behind closed doors, Walters and his staff believe they have a good football team. But they know they're not contenders. Not yet. There's lots of work to be done. And some of it might be impossible this season. The two major weaknesses in Winnipeg, Canadian talent and the offensive line, are hard to fix mid-season.
"You have to count on the draft and overspend in free agency to get better Canadians. You can't do it in July," said Walters.
Walters said a team must continually look to improve and that's what he charges his staff with on a daily basis.
"If we have an injury to one of the guys playing, are we happy with the guys we have in-house and can we not skip a beat with our replacement? That's the question we ask every day and then work at being in that position," said Walters.
"In years past, we'd just rely on the practice roster and bring in young guys with no experience. That's not good enough. I want veteran backup guys with CFL experience, so if injuries happen or performance is poor, you're plugging in a guy with experience. You still have your practice roster guys developing, but you have some vets hanging around too.
"The flipside of that is the coaches have to manage the egos of guys that aren't playing and are probably good enough to be playing. Guys are going to be pissed off. That's not a bad thing, but there's an issue of managing everyone and the coaches have to handle it. Korey Banks is an example of this. Mike handled it."
Are the Bombers legitimate Grey Cup contenders? No one knows, but Kyle Walters has a plan to get there plus the moxie and work ethic to get there. That's something Bombers fans can count on.
And that's the biggest change of all around here.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @garylawless
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 16, 2014 D1
Updated on Wednesday, July 16, 2014 at 6:42 AM CDT: Replaces photo, formats sidebar
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About Gary Lawless
Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.
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