Blue Bomber Report Record: 4–1–0

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bombers can't win when it comes to quarterback

Grey Cup drought direct result of team's failure to field a proven performer

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IT has been 22 years since the Winnipeg Blue Bombers won a Grey Cup.

They have had 26 different starting quarterbacks -- and 41 quarterbacks in total -- during that period.

Any further questions?

If you are looking for the one single overriding factor to explain the beguiling mystery of why, in an eight-team league, the Bombers have been unable to win a championship since 1990, you need look no further than the failure of the club's front office -- year after merciless year -- to either fork over the dough necessary to land an elite CFL quarterback or to develop one on their own.

The problem can be easily summarized in one sentence: In a town that loves a bargain, the front office of the Winnipeg Football Club has wasted over two decades in a fruitless search to find a cut-rate quarterback capable of leading them to a championship.

Want to know why Joey Elliott -- who will start his fourth consecutive game in the Banjo Bowl on Sunday against the Saskatchewan Roughriders -- is the third starting quarterback for Winnipeg this season?

It's because the Bombers decided to make a bargain-basement reclamation project of Buck Pierce, who the B.C. Lions gave up on years ago because, get this, they found out he gets injured a lot. And then the club compounded the problem when they decided to stick with Pierce last winter, even after the likes of the vastly more reliable Ricky Ray, Henry Burris and Kevin Glenn became available.

If it seems like Winnipeg has had more quarterbacks try -- and fail -- to lead their offence than other CFL teams over the years, that's because they have. Only the Toronto Argos have had more quarterbacks on their roster since the start of the 1991 season -- 45 -- and only the Argos and Hamilton Tiger-Cats have had more quarterbacks start a game in that period, at 30 and 31, respectively.

In contrast, Montreal has had just 22 different quarterbacks and 12 different starters while B.C. has had 28 different quarterbacks and 18 different starters.

The result in Winnipeg has been a been a lack of continuity at the most important position on the field. Khari Jones had 74 starts in a Bombers uniform and Kevin Glenn had 72 starts in Winnipeg. But after that, you have to go all the way back to Matt Dunigan for the third most starts for Winnipeg since 1990 at 39, followed by Pierce at 24 and Kerwin Bell at 23. No one else has more than 16 starts.

Sure, the Bombers have had some good quarterbacks put up some very good years since that 1990 Grey Cup -- Jones in 2001 and Glenn in 2007 led the CFL in passing in those seasons. Jones also set a club record in 2002 with 46 TD passes, a mark only Doug Flutie has eclipsed in CFL history.

Alas, Jones and Glenn are also the only Winnipeg quarterbacks to lead the CFL in passing since Tom Burgess did it in that 1990 Grey Cup season.

But the last time you can say the Bombers had a truly elite-level quarterback -- the kind of guy who costs big bucks but also delivers big numbers, the kind of guy every other team seems to have had -- was way back in 1992, 1993 and 1994 when Dunigan was one of the highest-paid athletes in town.

Dunigan also had reliability issues and failed to win Winnipeg a championship -- proving you can't simply buy your way to the Grey Cup with an expensive quarterback. But more importantly, Dunigan at least gave the team a chance to win every season he played in Blue and Gold -- and they did play in the Grey Cup game in two of the three injury-riddled seasons he was here.

While Dunigan will always be best remembered for the miles of yards he threw for in Winnipeg (4,682 in 1993 alone, 713 in a single game in 1994), it was his touchdown-to-interception ratio that the Winnipeg front office -- and every other CFL team -- was really paying for.

A 2:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio is universally considered the gold standard for quarterbacks , the magic number you need to be an elite QB in the CFL -- or NFL for that matter. And Dunigan had it in 1993 (36 TDs, 18 INTs) and was one TD away from doing it again in 1994 (31 TDs, 16 INTs).

The only Bombers starter with any significant number of starts to hit the magic ratio in the intervening years since Dunigan was Steven Jyles, who actually exceeded it -- 19 TDs, seven INTs -- in his brief stint in Winnipeg in 2010. The Bombers front office responded by promptly trading Jyles after that season, using one of the draft picks they got for Jyles to select receiver Jade Etienne fourth overall in the 2011 CFL Draft. They used the other pick to select WR/DB Giovanni Aprile in 2012.

Etienne has literally done absolutely nothing since being drafted, failing to record a single catch or even a special-teams tackle despite dressing in 26 regular-season games. Jyles, on the other hand, was the starting QB in Edmonton this season and he has more completions (109) for more yards (1,497) and a higher efficiency rating (84.9) than any of the three starters Winnipeg has used this season.

The cruel irony for Bombers fans about Dunigan is that the one time the Winnipeg front office decided to cough up big bucks for a QB was at precisely the same time they probably shouldn't have because they had some outstanding talent already in the fold.

Burgess, the man who led Winnipeg to that 1990 Grey Cup and led the CFL in passing that season, still had lost of miles left on his engine. After he was punted aside in favour of Dunigan, Burgess went on to lead the CFL in passing two more times -- in 1993 and 1994 -- as the quarterback for the Ottawa Rough Riders.

And then there's Danny McManus, who broke into the CFL in 1990 with Winnipeg. The Bombers let McManus walk as a free agent after the 1992 season, only to watch as he led the B.C. Lions to a Grey Cup in 1994. And then McManus won another with Hamilton in 1999, capping a remarkable season in which he also led the CFL in passing during the regular season and was named the league's Most Outstanding Player and Grey Cup MVP.

McManus is now in the CFL Hall of Fame. Oops.

Pierce has been OK the past three seasons -- but only when he's been healthy, which, with the exception of 2011, has been almost never. Even then, Pierce's touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2011 -- his most productive year by far -- was 14:18.

And after that? Well, the list of Bombers starting quarterbacks since 1991 is full of names who'd be a great answer to a board game titled, 'Who is the most forgettable player in Bombers history?' Brian Ah Yat, Pat Barnes, Ryan Dinwiddie, Troy Kopp, Stefan Lefors, Tee Martin, Keithen McCant, Kevin McDougal, Shawn Moore, Mike Quinn, T.J. Rubley, Reggie Slack, Chris Vargas... and so on.

And so on. And so on.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 8, 2012 C2

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