The names, the dates, and the scenarios in which it unfolds may change, but the storyline remains the same for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 2013. Entering Week 5 of the CFL season, this team is, once again, waiting to learn the injury status of their starting quarterback.
It's a new ailment (abdominal), the backups are different (Justin Goltz and Max Hall instead of Alex Brink or Joey Elliott), but the decision-making process the team is faced with this week is old hat. I could resurrect a column I wrote from a year ago, change a few names, dates and injury classifications, and it would fit perfectly into the scenario that has unfolded yet again.
Fresh off a comeback win against the Alouettes, the Stampeders are galloping to town Thursday for a Friday-night contest against the Bombers. Initially, Tim Burke said if Buck doesn't practise today, he won't play Friday. Since then, he has waffled a little bit on his timeline, saying he hopes they won't have to wait until Wednesday to make that determination. Historians advise us if we don't learn from our past, we are doomed to repeat it and make the same mistakes. Unfortunately, this appears to be a familiar path the team is walking down.
As I'm sure I wrote at least once last season, when you are uncertain about the availability of the most important player on your team -- the quarterback -- it has an impeding trickle-down effect on the readiness of everyone else. For most regular-season games, the players essentially have three days of physical preparation and four days of mental readiness. With kickoff set for Friday, Monday is Day 1 of physical and mental prep, Tuesday and Wednesday are Days 2 and 3, and Thursday is a mental-only day, with little to no physical work outside of a walk-thru.
If you have to wait until Tuesday or Wednesday to make a final determination on a player, it impedes the work week for both the incumbent and the one that may be replacing him. If Buck doesn't practise at all on Monday or Tuesday and then they decide he can play and start practice on Wednesday, will he be ready for Friday? No. If he practises in some capacity on Day 1 and Day 2, and then the decision is made that he can't play on Friday, will Justin Goltz be ready? No. And if Buck doesn't practise at all this week, and Justin Goltz takes all the reps but doesn't find out until Wednesday or Thursday that he is the guy, will he be mentally prepared? No. A lot of players at a lot of positions can play without a full week of practice and a full vote of confidence from the coaching staff. I don't recommend doing it at the QB spot.
Backup players are always told they need to practise and prepare like they are going to start, because they never know when someone will go down and they will be thrust into the starter's role. Yet it is one thing to say it, and another thing to do it. You can say you were preparing all week to be the starter, and even expected it, but if you don't know where you stand and realize they don't necessarily want you there, the difficulty of the task is compounded.
Whether a player admits it publicly or not, when there is ambiguity over the extent you will be playing on a weekly basis, it affects you and your preparation. When the incumbent takes the majority of reps during the week and doesn't make it through the game, or takes half the reps and doesn't even play, you are left in a very compromising situation. No other position on the field requires as much preparation, vis-a-vis familiarity with the timing, habits and strengths and weaknesses of the weapons at their disposal, than the pivot spot. When Goltz ended up playing half the football game last week, he wouldn't have taken anywhere near the same number of reps in practice or have been anywhere near as prepared as the starter.
The longer the starter situation remains murky and undetermined, the harder it is for any player coming in relief to have success.
If you don't put a player in a position to succeed by declaring him the QB from the outset, committing all the repetitions to him in practice and creating a game plan to accentuate his skill set, you can't be surprised if he doesn't live up to your expectations on short notice.
Doug Brown, once a hard-hitting defensive lineman and frequently a hard-hitting columnist, appears Tuesdays and the days following game days in the Free Press.