For a couple of weeks now, Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Tim Burke has been making the case that maybe, just maybe, he deserves another chance to lead the Bombers in 2014.
While Burke marshalls a couple of different arguments he believes work in his favour -- "So, you think you could have done better with this team of sad-sacks?" is the most compelling one, I think -- the one he has used most commonly goes like this:
"Yeah, we're bad. Yeah, we're terrible. But despite our woeful record and almost non-existent playoff chances, these players continue to play hard. And isn't it exactly that -- motivating players to expend their best effort -- which is the most important role of a head coach?"
'... All I was thinking about out there was how big a win like this against a tough opponent, and on the road, would be for this organization'
Burke offered up a version of that argument as recently as Sunday in Montreal when the local media there prompted him to make his unlikely case to stay on in 2014.
While the Montreal reporters listened politely -- it's hard not to like Burke when you meet him -- there was more than a little eye-rolling afterward, particularly in regard to Burke's contention that his players continue to play hard.
This was a Bombers team, after all, which at that point had just finished losing their last two games -- to Calgary and B.C. -- by a combined score of 91-28 and looked nothing at all like the group of underdog warriors waging on against all odds that Burke was describing.
And then Monday happened.
In case you missed it, Burke's Bombers defeated the Montreal Alouettes 34-27 at Stade Molson on Monday afternoon with exactly the kind of grit and determination Burke maintained had been present throughout the long and tortuous debacle that is the 2013 season.
In what was an exceptionally chippy and hard-hitting game, the Bombers bought in to a man. You could see it in the way players like offensive lineman Glenn January and linebacker Ian Wild had to be helped from the field during the game, only to return later against all better judgment.
"That honestly was a war out there," January reflected in a jubilant Bombers locker-room afterward. "I can reflect back on a couple of hits that I took that, well, let's just say I don't feel too good right now. But all I was thinking about out there was how big a win like this against a tough opponent, and on the road, would be for this organization."
Burke's Bombers battled through four different lead changes in the second half, refusing to fold each time the Alouettes regained the lead and fighting on until the final gun. By game's end, the much maligned Bombers offence had put up more points than in any other game this season and generated more yards than they had in any of their previous seven games.
And the defence? Well, a Bombers defence that had just seven interceptions through the first 14 games of the season picked off four balls in this game alone. And a Bombers defensive line -- playing for the first time without CFL sack leader Alex Hall, who'd been traded the week before -- held the Alouettes to just 75 yards rushing and 295 yards in total.
Was it perfect? On the contrary -- it was a game full of mistakes. But the Bombers made less of them on this day and the difference between winning and losing appeared to be that Winnipeg -- strange as it may seem -- seemed to want this one more than Montreal, who could have clinched a playoff spot with the win.
And so how to make sense of it all? How does a team that looked so hopeless in a 53-17 loss to B.C. and 38-11 loss to Calgary put up that kind of gutsy effort against Montreal? Well, here's one theory: Maybe Burke is right.
Maybe, just maybe, the reason the Bombers got drilled by Calgary and B.C. wasn't because the Bombers had quit, it was because the Bombers were overmatched by teams with much better players.
And so when provided in Montreal on Monday with an opponent much closer to their talent level, a motivated effort coaxed out of the Bombers by their embattled head coach was enough to give even this bunch of sad-sacks an actual chance to win.
Burke didn't pick these players, they were picked for him. His job is to get the best out of them -- and he insists he has been.
Maybe he's right.
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