Blue Bomber Report Record: 3–1–0

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

New coaches, new players, new attitude for Bombers

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Derek Jones, right, hauls down Mario Urrutia during Big Blue practice at Investors Group Field. Both will be new faces this season, if they make the team.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Derek Jones, right, hauls down Mario Urrutia during Big Blue practice at Investors Group Field. Both will be new faces this season, if they make the team. Photo Store

There is finally some evidence of a foundation slowly rising from the charred crater left by the 2012-13 Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Good thing, that, because man-oh-man, do this club's long-suffering fans ever have their fingers crossed the newest edition will look absolutely nothing like the last. After all, that group had deteriorated into the Canadian Football League's laughing stock.

Consider these gruesome numbers: 3-15 last year with an average margin of defeat of 16.7 points; 9-27 over the last two seasons and -- hello -- just two winning campaigns over the last decade.

So, not surprisingly, after the mushroom cloud had cleared from last year, 2014 will soon open with a new head coach, two new assistant GMs, a new starting quarterback, new placekicker, new centre...

"There's a lot of change, a lot of good change," said Bomber defensive tackle Bryant Turner Jr. this week as the club prepared for tonight's preseason tilt against the Toronto Argonauts at Investors Group Field. "We went through so many changes last year with coaches and GMs and CEOs... everything. It's like a whole-new show.

I don't know that in the past the focus with the Winnipeg Football Club was 'team.' It was just getting the best collection of athletes on the field and let them play. Our head coach, myself and Wade (Miller), on varying levels, were all 'team' guys'

-- Bombers GM Kyle Walters

"We had two seasons that were very bad, now we're out to do whatever we have to do to win."

The Ottawa Redblacks expansion draft brought automatic change, free agency brought more. Players were politely told to look for work elsewhere, others were simply cut adrift or retired.

And when the tear-down had finished and the rebuild was on in full, GM Kyle Walters -- elevated to the gig by new president Wade Miller after Joe Mack was sacked last August -- took heed of some advice from a fellow University of Guelph graduate, Altanta Falcons GM Tom Dimitroff.

"I ran into him at the Senior Bowl and part of the advice he gave me was this: When he took over the Falcons the first thing he did, before he even worried about the on-field product, was clean up the locker-room," said Walters. "That was the benefit of me being in the (Bomber) organization and being a coach -- being able to see that team dynamic. I knew we had to clean that up, identify who the leaders are and push those guys to lead again.

"There were some tough decisions. It's the nature of our business, especially when you have back-to-back seasons like we did. But there had to be turnover. I'm sure a number of those players on other teams will have great years. Use Jovon Johnson as an example -- I bet he goes to Ottawa and has a bounceback year. I don't wish anyone ill will, it's just sometimes you need to make changes and you move on."

'There were some tough decisions... Especially when you have back-to-back seasons like we did. But there had to be turnover'

-- Walters

Of course, making change isn't always difficult. It's winning consistently that hasn't been so easy for this franchise since the turn of the millennium. The Bombers haven't posted consecutive winning seasons since going 37-17 from 2001-2003. And, prior to that, the team had gone six seasons without a winning record.

In other words, as much as there have been quick fixes in the CFL before -- the Hamilton Tiger-Cats were in the Grey Cup last November after going 6-12 in 2012 -- this is not an easy thing to turn in the right direction.

"I don't know that in the past the focus with the Winnipeg Football Club was 'team,' " said Walters. "It was just getting the best collection of athletes on the field and let them play. Our head coach, myself and Wade (Miller), on varying levels, were all 'team' guys.

"That's why I stuck around Hamilton for seven years. I was a 'glue' guy who kept things light in the locker-room. Mike was a buy-in who played all the special teams and Wade was the same way. Now, you don't want a whole team of guys like me because you're not going to win many football games. But there is an importance of having guys like that in the locker-room."

And winners, too. That's what made signing Grey Cup champs Korey Banks and Ejiro Kuale so important -- to help those left to sift through the wreckage, like Turner Jr. But the emotional and physical scars can heal quickly in sports -- especially if there is light on the horizon.

'There's a lot of change, a lot of good change... It's like a whole new show now'

-- Bombers defensive tackle Bryant Turner Jr.

"I remember last year thinking, 'Man, they can make all these changes up top, but they're making them because of what was not happening on the field,'" said Turner Jr. "So, it's the players that have to get the job done. We took that to heart.

"Since I've been with the Bombers I always felt like we had some good athletes. Right now we've got good athletes, but now we've also got some great leaders. I feel like I've been a leader the last few years, but it just seems like I have so much help right now. Sometimes it used to feel like I was a one-man band, but now in every different group we've got such great leaders I can relax and know that things will be done right.

"I still feel like I'm new to this league and this is going to be my fourth year. But you look around at the other teams and you see all these veterans, these faces that have been with the same team for awhile. That's something we're heading in the direction of now, of keeping the same people around as long as they're getting the job done.

"That way it's not like a fresh start every year."

But a fresh start this season, again, ain't such a bad thing. Turner Jr. glanced into the near-empty stands after practice earlier this week at a dozen or so huddled near the tunnel seeking autographs.

"Look at that," he said, nodding toward the diehards. "We've got the best fans in the league, hands down. They deserve wins because they've been coming to support us no matter what, especially in the last two seasons.

"It's just such a big difference when we're getting wins around here. It's like the city is better for it. I bet," he added with a grin, "even the crime rate goes down when we're winning."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 9, 2014 C2

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Updated on Monday, June 9, 2014 at 6:39 AM CDT: Changes headline, replaces photo

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