Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Man with no plan tries again

Mack's back against the wall this season

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If Joe Mack had a plan, and there is very strong evidence to suggest he never did, it was at best ill-conceived and then poorly executed.

No, the more accurate picture to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers approach to the most important position on the field is that it has been guesswork so far and will be guesswork going forward.

As in, "we'll be OK if Buck stays healthy," followed by, "if Buck goes down, we'll be OK if one of the new guys pans out."

While that's fine in Year 1 of a GM's tenure it's not an acceptable strategy to be trotted out on a yearly basis. Surely every GM throws a dart at a board at some juncture, but from the Buck Pierce signing in 2010 on, it's been hope followed by prayer. Again and again and again and now again once more.

The bottom line is this: In Mack's fourth year of running the Bombers, the answer at quarterback is Buck Pierce and three guys with a thimble-full of CFL experience. To varying degrees, it's the same as it ever was with Mack in charge.

This latest shakeup, with Joey Elliott and Alex Brink out and Max Hall and Chase Clement in, is not the issue. The new pivots may very well be an upgrade on Brink and Elliott, who were never going to be the answer in Winnipeg.

Give head coach Tim Burke credit for having the courage to push Mack into these decisions. There is risk involved in this kind of change, but the status quo had no future. Burke isn't interested in covering his ass or being proven right. He wants players that will help him win. End of story.

There is mounting evidence that Burke's power base within the organization is growing, and that's a good thing. Mack was a bad hire as a GM. He's a personnel man and maybe even a good one, but his instincts in building a roster and its requirements in terms of experience and character are awful.

Burke, on the other hand, has quickly exemplified an understanding of team-building well beyond Mack's range. The more influence Burke has on roster decisions, the better. Let Mack scout and bring players to camp, but then lock him in his office. Paul LaPolice has time on his hands to stand guard.

Burke should have the only hands on the steering wheel now and going forward.

Mack was seduced by the shortcut Pierce provided back in the winter of 2010 and then became addicted to the promise of wins offered by a game but gimpy quarterback.

Pierce gave Mack a taste of quick success and the GM has been coming back for more ever since at the expense of the franchise.

That's why, four years into Mack's (cough) plan, there is nothing but question marks at quarterback.

Could it all work out? Sure. Pierce could stay healthy and take the Bombers to the playoffs. If the more likely scenario plays out and he goes down, one of the understudies could prove ready and capable. Hey, Travis Lulay and Anthony Calvillo needed a start too.

Justin Goltz has shown some promise and Hall and Clement have started and won games at the pro level. One of these guys will likely win some games in the CFL.

The Bombers are very likely better at quarterback today then they were at the end of last season. To what degree, however, is a guess.

A gamble at quarterback is fine at the beginning of a rebuild. But not every season. When will it end?

This bet, however, has far bigger implications than Mack's previous trips to Quarterback Casino.

Bombers CEO Garth Buchko famously walked Mack into his team's dressing room last fall and announced to the players this man would be the GM of the Blue Bombers for now and years to come. Maybe.

The other scenario would see the Bombers struggle and the board determine this was a mistake and instruct Buchko to make a change.

Don't be fooled by the grip-and-grins at season's end. Buchko came very close to moving Mack out and bringing in a new GM and there was plenty of support for this course at the board level. Duane Forde was approached by the CEO in midsummer, but the zeal for change cooled and Mack and his plan were given more time.

Which brings us to 2013 and Buck Pierce once again starting under centre. Mack has a 20-34 record for a .370 winning percentage during his time running the club. It can't and won't be allowed to dip much lower.

This is all about to play out one way or another with some finality. Twitter: @garylawless


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 9, 2013 D5

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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
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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