So remember how last year at this time, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers front office bought up some billboards in Regina on the eve of the annual Labour Day Weekend Classic to taunt Saskatchewan Roughriders fans for being a bit "backwards", seeing as how the 1-7 Riders at the time had exactly the opposite record of the 7-1 Bombers?
Yeah, that didn’t work out so good.
For starters, the 1-7 Riders — fresh off a coaching change — promptly handed the Bombers back-to-back losses in the 2011 Labour Day Weekend game and the following week’s Banjo Bowl. And for another, it’s this year’s Bombers team at 2-6 heading into Regina at 2-6 who are the ones who have now almost reversed that 7-1 record (although Saskatchewan is not much better at 3-5).
In fact, if you’re looking for the exact moment when the long downhill skid that led to last weekend’s firing of Bombers head coach Paul LaPolice began, it was right about the time those billboards were going up.
Consider: Since this day last year, the Bombers are an abysmal 6-14 (4-8, including playoffs, to finish last season and 2-6 to start this one).
Now, yes, one of those wins last year was in the 2011 East Final and it propelled Winnipeg into the Grey Cup game. But any way you look at it, the cold hard reality of wins and losses would suggest that what was a pretty good football team became a pretty lousy football team right about this time last year.
Now, in firing LaPolice, general manager Joe Mack put a lot of the blame for the team’s failings this season on a struggling offence. But when you take apart the numbers and statistically compare this team right now to this team at this exact same point last season, what emerges is a more complicated truth that points the finger of blame at least as much at the failings of Winnipeg’s defence this season as what the offence has failed to do.
Indeed, in some ways — and surprisingly so, given the club’s record right now — Winnipeg’s offence is actually marginally better at this point this season, throwing for more yards through eight games this year (2,225 vs. 1,943) and also averaging a few more yards total offence every game (348.9 vs. 331.2).
But while those numbers might look better, Bombers guard Steve Morley said Friday that any small improvement has come only in the last couple weeks. "I do think we have taken some steps lately with (QB) Joey (Elliott) to get some positive yards," said Morley. "And we’ve gotten better, too, as an O-line at running the ball."
Now, it bears pointing out that some of the improvement this season came in the form of late "garbage yards" that the Winnipeg offence accumulated when they were being blown out, notably in games in Edmonton and at home against Montreal.
And it also bears pointing out that last year’s offence, even when the team was 7-1, was lousy and the source of much wringing of hands, so it’s not like they’ve improved on much this year.
And finally, none of the small improvements excuses the failings of the offence in other important ways this season — beginning with turnovers, where Winnipeg has gone from being the very best in the CFL at this point last season, coughing the ball up just 10 times in eight games, to the very worst this season, with a leagueleading 21 giveaways.
Not surprisingly, that’s directly led both to Winnipeg scoring less points this season as compared to last (178 vs. 212) and also giving up a lot more points (244 vs. 157).
But while some of the points against this season can be explained away by offensive turnovers and the failure of the offence to put together sustained drives to give the defence a rest, the statistical portrait that emerges also shows clearly that Winnipeg’s defence — guided by the man who Mack has entrusted as LaPolice’s replacement, Tim Burke — has had, by far, the more precipitous decline year over year.
Burke’s defence has given up a startling number more yards so far this season (408.8, on average, as compared to 301.7 in 2011); they’ve given up almost twice as many touchdowns (23 vs. 13), a shocking number of those through the air (a league-worst 18 this season, as compared to league-best seven last season); and they’ve forced a lot less turnovers, (21 vs. 33).
No excuses, says Jovon Johnson, whose inconsistent play this year after a historic CFL Most Outstanding Defensive Player award in 2011 in some ways embodies the defensive decline in 2012.
"More than anything this season, we’ve made more mental mistakes," said Johnson. "When you’re in the wrong place, when you’re in blown coverages, that’s where the problems happen.
"That’s why we’re 2-6 right now and last year we were 7-1... There are no excuses. The stats are what they are." And one former Bombers player — current Saskatchewan defensive end Odell Willis, who was leading the CFL in sacks with nine for Winnipeg at this point last season — says the stats are what they are because of what the Bombers front office did and didn’t do in the off-season.
"When you get rid of all of your marquee players and don’t bring anyone in, the results show," Willis told Regina Leader-Post beat writer Murray Mc-Cormick on Friday.
"I’m not saying anything bad on the organization or talking bad about them. In this business or the NFL or hockey … when you let your marquee and core players on your team go and not have anyone to replace them, it’s hard to put wins together.’’