Winnipeg Blue Bombers general manager Joe Mack promoted Tim Burke to head coach a couple of weeks ago in large part because Mack felt the no-nonsense defensive co-ordinator would do a much better job than former head coach Paul LaPolice in instilling discipline on a team sorely lacking in it.
The opposite appears to have occurred.
The Bombers followed up a 52-0 thrashing in Regina on Labour Day Weekend with a 25-24 loss in the Banjo Bowl at Canad Inns Stadium Sunday afternoon in a game in which the margin of defeat was narrower but the utter bankruptcy it exposed in the very heart of this 2012 Bombers team was actually starker.
The margin of error on this afternoon was, literally, a lack of discipline. A 30-yard third-quarter roughing/no yards penalty on special teams player James Green and a fourth-quarter roughing penalty on defensive lineman Kenny Mainor — both of them as blatant as they were selfish — led to a pair of Roughriders singles that proved to be the difference between victory and loss.
The Bombers were also burned by a costly in-game decision by Burke. With the Bombers leading 23-22 late in the fourth quarter, Burke elected not to attempt a 43-yard field goal that could have put his team up by four points with about 30 seconds to play, and force the Roughriders to drive the length of the field to score a touchdown to win.
Burke elected instead to punt and Mike Renaud’s attempt to pin the Riders deep in their own end wasn’t even close, trickling out the back of the end zone for a single point and giving the Riders the ball back on their own 35, trailing by two.
Four plays later, Riders kicker Sandro DeAngelis nailed a 40-yard field goal with no time remaining to seal a Riders victory that came with rookie QB Drew Willy at the controls for most of the game after starter Darian Durant suffered a hip-flexor injury in the first quarter.
To his credit, Burke didn’t try to justify his mistake.
"I will be honest with you — in retrospect, I should have kicked the field goal," Burke told reporters. "It was 43 yards with the wind — I should have just kicked it. I played it too conservative."
The abject lack of team discipline on Sunday, which also included a costly second-quarter roughing penalty on offensive lineman Shannon Boatman against Riders rush end Odell Willis, didn’t end with the game, either. It extended into the Bombers locker-room after the game where cornerback Brandon Stewart, who had a strong game and an interception on the field, chose to make a fool of himself off of it.
First, Stewart spent the moments immediately following one of the most devastating losses in recent franchise memory attempting to marshall his fellow players to not speak to a Winnipeg Sun columnist, who some players felt had acted unethically last week. Then, Stewart had a tantrum when other reporters crowded around Jovon Johnson’s locker — which is adjacent to his. And finally, to complete his hat trick of childishness, Stewart tried to have a Free Press reporter ejected from the locker-room for having the temerity to suggest to a nearby Bombers media relations staff member that Stewart was exacerbating a volatile situation in an already tense locker-room and that they might wish to rein him in before things got even worse.
It was a stunningly selfish display on a day so full of selfishness that it almost overshadowed the fact the loss to Saskatchewan also dropped the Bombers to 2-8. And there is no immediate relief on the horizon, either, as a Joey Elliott-led team that hasn’t scored an offensive touchdown in two games — the scoring on Sunday consisted of five field goals, two singles and an 82-yard Demond Washington punt-return touchdown — must now travel to Calgary to face a Stampeders team on Friday that they have not beaten at McMahon Stadium since 2002.
Burke was exasperated after the game with the lack of discipline his team showed before an overflow crowd of 30,077 at Canad Inns Stadium.
"We had some very dumb penalties," said Burke. "All you can do is preach it and not tolerate it in practice and fine them for doing it in games...
"I don’t know what else I can do. That’s all I can do that I know of. Either that or put them on a rack and torture them."
To his credit, Green offered no excuse for mindlessly drilling Riders punt returner Jock Sanders on a full run, prompting a no-yards penalty and a roughing penalty, totalling 30 yards.
"Obviously, it’s a disciplinary thing. I shouldn’t have done it, we gave up the yards and obviously it hurt us in the end," said Green.
Mainor, on the other hand, offered the excuse that he hadn’t heard a whistle because of crowd noise when he decided to throw Willy to the ground after dragging him 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage for a sack.
"It was really loud out there," Mainor said.
The late collapse — again — spoiled what was otherwise a decent defensive performance by Winnipeg, who held the Riders to just 296 yards of total offence while forcing two turnovers and registering six sacks.
"If this one don’t hurt," offered Johnson, who had five tackles and a knockdown in his pro debut at linebacker, "then you don’t need to be here."