Blue Bomber Report Record: 3–1–0

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Coach Burke slowly building case for self

Might just remove 'interim' from title

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TORONTO -- So, how do you like Tim Burke now?

With a 44-32 win Friday over the Toronto Argonauts, the interim Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach improved his record as field boss to 3-5 since taking over for Paul LaPolice in late August.

What's more, Burke's Bombers are 3-2 in their last five and, after losing their first six road games in a row, have now authored huge upsets in their last two road games -- the Thanksgiving Miracle in Montreal followed by Friday's surprise.

The playoffs remained a long shot, albeit a tantalizing one -- particularly until Saturday when it was still possible Winnipeg would end up actually hosting the East semifinal.

Now, you can argue that no team in any league with a credible playoff format should ever end up hosting a playoff game with a 7-11 regular-season record, but that's a column for another day.

Our discussion today is instead about a Bombers team that has clearly bought into what Burke has been selling over the past five weeks.

Sure, it took awhile -- the Bombers lost their first three games after Burke took over -- but that's what happens when you take over a 2-6 team that LaPolice left in a shambles.

Yet, for all the good things Burke has done for this team -- he's turned the tough trick of making it more accountable and more fun at the same time -- perhaps the best thing Burke has done is actually what he hasn't done.

What Burke hasn't done is meddle in offensive co-ordinator Gary Crowton's offence the way players say LaPolice was doing when he was still running the show.

With the mixed messages gone now that LaPolice is gone, Burke has given Crowton almost total autonomy and the results have been striking.

Consider:

-- In the first 11 games of the season -- the first eight of which were under LaPolice -- Winnipeg's offence averaged just 18 first downs and 306 yards per game;

-- And in the last five games, the production has soared to an average of 25 first downs and 412 yards per game.

That first set of numbers is a recipe for a disastrous season. And the second set of numbers? You can build something on that, if not this year then next.

Indeed, when you consider Crowton's offence has put up those numbers the past five weeks despite a revolving door at starting quarterback, it makes you wonder what they would be capable of when -- or maybe 'if' is the better question in these parts -- they ever got a reliable starter under centre.

Has Burke made mistakes? Colossal ones, beginning with his decision to punt instead of attempting a game-winning field goal in the Banjo Bowl. A successful three-pointer would have given him a 4-4 record as head coach at the moment, instead of 3-5.

And there are also legitimate questions to be asked about what effect giving Burke the head coaching duties on top of the defensive co-ordinator job is having on his defence and -- in particular -- his pride and joy, the Bombers secondary.

For all the improvements in the offence the past five weeks, the secondary has looked extraordinarily shaky recently -- and never more so than in the second quarter Friday as Argos QB Ricky Ray shredded them for three touchdowns and 205 yards of offence in that one quarter alone.

Jovon Johnson got beat, Jonathan Hefney got beat, Ian Logan got beat, Demond Washington got beat and Alex Suber got beat -- twice -- in a quarter that was an embarrassment to the entire unit.

So is all that on Burke too, the inevitable result of a man who is simply spread too thin right now? Even Burke isn't sure, but he was vowing Friday night to make it right.

"I can't say enough about the offence and what the offensive staff did," said Burke. "Now, if we can just get the defence to play a little better, we might just win a game before the last three minutes."

On top of that, there is also the continuing and maddening failure of this team to win games in consecutive weeks, something they will attempt to do Saturday in Hamilton for the first time since August, 2011.

Put it all together and the critical question for the Bombers brain trust when this season ends, will be: Has Burke done enough to keep the head coach job for next season?

The answer will depend on how they want to frame the analysis and, of course, on what happens these final two regular-season games.

But if the ballot box question on Burke's future comes down to a simple -- "Are you better off today than you were a half-season ago?" -- the answer is an emphatic "Yes."

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 21, 2012 B2

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