The questions you get from the media during training camp are generally of the softball variety, as both players and scribes are optimistic for the season and have some rust to shake off.
These inquiries are lobbed up, underhand style, have a high, graceful arc and are designed for anyone to make contact with and get on base. Subsequently, if one phase of the football team struggled the previous year, the prevailing theme will be focused on how that unit will improve or get better (i.e., new offensive co-ordinator Gary Crowton). Conversely, if one phase of the football team was dominant, they want to know how it will manage to stay the same.
So naturally this year, due to the overall performance and statistical prowess of the Winnipeg defence of 2011, the question that has surfaced in many different formats, is how will the defenders of 2012 go about winning a third consecutive sack title and handle their business as usual amidst a host of changes?
Traded away was one of the 2011 CFL sack leaders, Odell Willis, to the Saskatchewan Roughriders for a number of draft picks. Released was the Bomber's hands-on-favourite to win the 2011 defensive player of the year award, Joe Lobendahn, until he blew out his knee and was finished for the year. And lost, due to retirement and free agency, were Don Oramasionwu and yours truly, a Canadian tandem of interior defensive linemen, ratio breakers and nose tackles.
These are noteworthy losses to be measured and accounted for on any team, but it says here the biggest change the holdovers from the 2011 defensive crew will have to address going forward has nothing to do with a player traded, retired, released or lost. It has everything to do with two men that led them.
The first coach I'm talking about is going into his eighth year of coaching in the CFL -- just like Tim Burke -- and spent five of those years coaching alongside, guess who -- Tim Burke. Casey Creehan, the new defensive co-ordinator for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, is a coach who not only took on larger responsibilities in 2011 during a crisis most assistants couldn't even contemplate, much less coach in, but managed to tweak the front seven into something even more hostile than what it had been.
While Burke oversaw the entire unit, the defensive backs, and called the shots and the plays, Creehan pretty much ran the entire front seven as he added the defensive line to the responsibilities he already had along with mentoring rookie coach Markus Howell and the linebackers. Even though the regular season was already well underway, he altered the philosophies, techniques, tempo and personnel of an already excelling defence, for as he told me last year, he didn't know how to coach any other way.
While Creehan will never be accused of being a warm and fuzzy players' coach, as parts of his personality resemble a de-humanized Stanley Kubrick movie (in particular, Full Metal Jacket), he had success taking raw prospects, force-feeding them into his system and producing specialized pieces for his front-seven chess board. Whether you liked it or not, agreed with it or not, it worked -- and that is the logic that prevails in professional football.
In four out of the five years Creehan and Burke worked together, Creehan handled the defensive line and, I'm assuming, had a high degree of influence over the stylizing of the entire front seven, like he ended up doing here, which as we all know is the foundation of success for any defence. While Burke had success working without Creehan in Montreal before, you cannot discount how well these two work together and how well their styles complement one another in a defensive framework.
The other void the defence will have to absorb this year if it wishes to duplicate its success of the last several years is obviously the loss of the most charismatic and respected coach in Blue and Gold over the last decade, namely Richard Harris. While Creehan somehow navigated out of an almost untenable situation and made his mark on a number of players, it would be naive to presume his charges weren't also physically and emotionally fuelled by the tutelage and teachings of a man who was far more than just another coach. To a player on last year's defence, the moment Richard Harris left us was the time the season became larger than any single player's ambitions, and the efforts and focus to pay a coach the ultimate respect and tribute was as urgent as you will see on a football field.
The defence of 2012 will be different to be sure, as the continual addition and subtraction of players reverberates in ways that no one can assuredly predict. Yet whether it is better or worse will be largely determined by the performance of the coaches who fill the vacancies of two men who left different, but indelible impressions.
Doug Brown, once a hard-hitting defensive lineman and frequently a hard-hitting columnist, appears Tuesdays in the Free Press.