Winnipeg Blue Bombers GM Joe Mack finally faced the music Thursday, opening his set with a message to the frustrated football fans.
"I understand that you’re disappointed -- so am I, and um… frustrated, so am I," Mack told a large media gathering at the Blue and Gold club.
"That’s not something I can control, and I really don’t worry about that to be honest with you."
Thursday’s press conference was the first time Mack addressed the media since his club lost 52-0 to the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Labour Day Classic last Sunday. It was the fourth-worst defeat in franchise history and the second time the Bombers lost by 30-plus points this season. It was also the first time the Bombers had been shut out since 1969.
Mack has been under heavy fire over the last two weeks, a heat that traces back to the firing of former head coach Paul LaPolice. While the move to dismiss LaPolice can be justified (he shared the same overall record as Mack), the timing of the decision came under severe scrutiny, as the Bombers were playing their best football after a slow start to the summer.
LaPolice was fired and replaced by defensive co-ordinator Tim Burke Aug. 25 after the club nearly beat the defending Grey Cup champion B.C. Lions, losing that game on a last-second field goal by Lions kicker Paul McCallum.
"I don’t know if that says anything about my command of the situation," said Mack when asked what the results of the move – a coaching change designed to get the players' attention – says about the respect level for him inside the locker room.
Mack talked about how well the Bombers played before LaPolice’s firing, but then was tripped up when asked why he made the move to change coaches if the club had appeared to turn the corner. "I don’t think it’s constructive to revisit why that decision was made," he said, deflecting the subject.
Mack, who is already the target of a Facebook petition page called "Fire Joe Mack" (the page had over 4,200 "likes" Thursday morning) and a similarly named Twitter feed, has a regular season record of 16-29 in his two-plus seasons in Winnipeg.
His team missed the playoffs in 2010, only to bounce back and be a Grey Cup finalist in 2011. Things were believed to be looking up, but after an inactive free agency period and some questionable personnel moves that saw the club get rid of experienced talent, things have gone south in 2012.
"I'm the general manager, it's going to fall on me," he said. "If we don't get better, obviously the (board of directors) will have to make some decisions. I'm the general manager, so I have to take responsibility for it."
The GM drifted in and out of damage control mode Thursday, praising his bosses (the board), complimenting the fans for their patience, and pointing to the positive things that have occurred (East Division title, sellouts, organizational profits) since taking over in 2010. He mentioned the Bombers’ youth and talent several times in the 22-minute press conference, defending his roster moves and draft choices. Mack said something was missing in his club during training camp, but couldn’t get specific when asked what he did to rectify that feeling he had.
"That’s an organic thing," he said, telling the room he hoped the missing ingredient would evolve on its own. "I don’t know if much could have been done, to be honest. It’s just the dynamic of the whole group of players evolving."
Mack referenced last year’s death of Richard Harris, believing there was still some hangover from that emotional time during his tenure with the club -- the same team that made it all the way to the Grey Cup a year ago.
"We’ve had a fairly rough year for the psyche of the team. I think it started with the death of Richard Harris. I knew that would have a big impact on our players. As I reflect back on a number of different things that occurred, I think it had a much bigger impact on the psyche of the team than I even realized."
Mack believed the LDC was "cathartic" for his team, and hoped the players would be able to turn the page on the last year within the organization moving forward.
With nine games left, Winnipeg has just two wins in nine games and is facing a tough road to even qualify for the post season once again.
Should the Bombers fail to qualify, it would mark the third time in four seasons the club has missed the playoffs.
Does this team have to make the playoffs for Mack to save his job?
"That’s beyond my control," he said. "I really think everybody should have every confidence that this board will do whatever they think is necessary for the betterment of the club. They are very, very passionate about this team.
"They’ll take a distinctive overview of what’s best for the club."
The Bombers next see action Sunday, when they welcome the Roughriders (4-6) in the annual Banjo Bowl at Canad Inns Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for noon (TSN, CJOB).