The CFL is conducting a series of team preview conference call over the next two weeks. Today, the Bombers. Tomorrow, the Montreal Alouettes.
TURNING over a quarter of the roster isn't what teams fresh off of a Grey Cup appearance usually do, but that's the approach the Bombers took this past winter.
It wasn't change for the sake of change, either.
This retooling strategy was one of the takeaways after a Q and A with GM Joe Mack, head coach Paul LaPolice and CEO Garth Buchko when discussing the organizational alterations made this off-season. The three were a part of a national conference call with reporters Tuesday, the first of eight state of the off-season addresses given by CFL teams this month.
"We had some obvious ones, some we couldn't control," Mack said of the lineup moves Tuesday, referencing the retirement of defensive tackle Doug Brown and the departure of free agent offensive lineman Brendon LaBatte. "We had to make a couple of other changes because of just the circumstances on the roster. It's always good to have a little new blood in. I think it keeps the competition level high."
Prior to the 2011 title game, Winnipeg last went to the Grey Cup in 2007. Following that loss, former GM Brendan Taman retained nearly everyone for the 2008 season -- sympathetic to the wishes of the fanbase -- only to see the magic leave and the club finish with a sub-.500 record. Things can get stale in a hurry, Mack believes.
When you look at the seven experienced starters who departed this past winter -- Brown, LaBatte, centre Obby Khan, defensive end Odell Willis, linebacker Joe Lobendahn, wide receiver Greg Carr, and running back Fred Reid -- the turnover seems drastic when measured against Mack's transaction record one off-season ago.
After the 2010 campaign, the Bombers didn't lift a finger during the winter, but knowing he couldn't go two off-seasons without seeing some change Mack began loading up on young Canadian offensive linemen, projecting where he might need to plug in a non-import or two this season.
For those who aren't familiar with the Mack system of roster renewal, it goes something like this: Retain free agents of need (at the right price, of course), promote talent internally and trust in the player procurement network.
Will be able to find the right mix again? That remains to be seen.
"We have a strategy of how we want to go forward," said Mack, who is counting on sophomore linebacker Henoc Muamba and the recently drafted offensive lineman Tyson Pencer to compete for prominent roles.
"Hopefully, we did some things to execute that properly in the off-season. We'll see in a month or so whether we succeeded."
Other points of interest from Tuesday's call:
-- As mentioned, the brass expects top draft choice Pencer to compete for a roster spot, but stopped short of anointing him a starter on the offensive line. Right now, the plan is to let the former Washington State behemoth get his feet wet in the pro game on the inside, before working him out at tackle -- where the club would love to see him play.
"We'll see how he does once we get into training camp," LaPolice said. "We won't push any agendas (or) push him too early. He hasn't played a lot of football in the last two years but we do love him athletically."
-- The quarterback depth chart behind starter Buck Pierce is even-steven, LaPolice said, with Alex Brink and Joey Elliott competing for the No. 2 spot. Brink will get a few more reps early, just to give Elliott's knee a chance to ease into the competition. Justin Goltz is the fourth QB on the roster.
-- The club anticipates running back Carl Volny (who is rehabbing an ACL injury) to be in training camp, though his participation might be limited to a one day on, one day off schedule.
-- Winnipeg inked LB Dustin Doe to a contract extension and signed OL Sam Nemis to a deal Tuesday. Nemis is a former Manitoba Bison lineman, who won the Vanier Cup with the Herd in 2007.
The off-season in Bomberland was an eventful one, a winter wind of change that swept through all areas of the organization. Too many roster moves, coaching hires, and stadium questions over the last five months to recount in this space, so we've whittled down the items of interest to a short list. In no particular order:
-- 1. Despite the delays, the No. 1 upgrade for the Bombers is the new stadium. However, the benefits of Investors Group Field won't be realized until September, so the mid-season relocation puts this year in a blender of sorts. Or is it a blunder? Did we mention how the four road games to open the season in July, dates the club requested to give provide some extra time for construction, are an unwanted hurdle now that Canad Inns Stadium remains open for at least five more games?
-- 2. With apologies to Doug Brown and Obby Khan -- both experienced Canadian anchors on the line of scrimmage -- watching Brendon LaBatte move on was the big off-season story, roster-wise. While it's true the Bombers never had a chance to re-sign the Saskatchewan native once free agency opened, that acceptance doesn't absolve the current reality: Gone is a versatile all-star and a respected leader in the locker-room, a player who figures to be an elite Canadian lineman for the next decade.
-- 3. Though he has no CFL experience, new offensive co-ordinator Gary Crowton is expected to provide some consistent jump to an attack that went stale at times last season. The Bombers are gambling the longtime NCAA play-caller can convert his four-down playbook into a three-down paperback. Early returns on his system were positive during spring camp. Real evaluation starts in July.