Blue Bomber Report Record: 5–1–0

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Different strokes

Blue, Esks take opposite paths to success

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Joe Mack used a scalpel in Winnipeg, Eric Tillman used a sledgehammer in Edmonton.

But the net result has been virtually identical -- two woeful football teams in 2010 are suddenly the class of the CFL six weeks into the 2011 season as Mack's delicate touch with the Blue Bombers and Tillman's housecleaning of the Eskimos has yielded immediate and spectacular results.

And so it is that two teams that won a total of 11 games last season -- Edmonton went 7-11 and Winnipeg went 4-14 -- head into tonight's Week 6 first-place showdown at Canad Inns Stadium with just one loss so far between them and standing as monuments to how quickly things can change in the Canadian game.

"If you asked people about this going into the off-season, I'm sure not a lot of people would have picked this to happen," said Edmonton quarterback Ricky Ray Thursday. "You're kind of seeing two different teams. Winnipeg (has) the same coach and a lot of the same players. Us -- we had a complete turnover.

"So it's two different ways to get to this point and the good thing is we're both playing well."

The different approaches are reflected in the numbers: For their first regular-season game this season, the Bombers returned 20 of 24 starters from last season. In contrast, Edmonton returned just 11 starters this year to an almost completely revamped team that has eight new starters on defence and five new starters on offence, plus a new kicker.

And yet despite the starkly different approaches, the results have been nearly identical, with Winnipeg holding down first place in the East Division with a 4-1 record heading into tonight, while Edmonton holds down first in the West Division with a 5-0 record.

While Edmonton was the team that made the most changes during the off-season -- they also brought in a new head coach in former Bombers defensive co-ordinator Kavis Reed -- you could argue that it was actually Winnipeg who had the more bold approach last winter, precisely because they made so few changes.

There were more than a few eyebrows raised around the league when the Bombers responded to a 4-14 season with what amounted to a stand-pat approach, as Mack staked the club's 2011 season on his conviction that last year's team was much better than their record suggested and another season together would bear results.

It was a bold proposition last winter, but six weeks into the regular season Mack is starting to look like a genius. "I wouldn't go that far," Mack protested Thursday. "I think what we've seen so far is a credit to the players and coaches. I think they believed in each other and what we're seeing is the players are really believing in themselves now.

"You're seeing a camaraderie and a confidence in each other this season that's really making a difference. And I think by staying the course the way we did showed a confidence in them and sent a message to them that we thought they were really close."

Reed said the Bombers management should be commended for the courage of their convictions.

"I think if it's any indication it's that when you're patient and do things in a deliberate fashion, good things will happen," said Reed. "This (Winnipeg) franchise, and I was a part of it last year, took its time, went through the growing pains and they're reaping the benefits of that. That's great leadership."

Reed knows about leadership, having overseen an Eskimos turnaround this season that has been nothing short of remarkable given the sheer breadth of the changes.

But for all the personnel changes, Ray singled out a change in attitude that Reed has brought to the Eskimos organization as perhaps the biggest single difference from last season to this one.

"He's done a great job of just making guys realize what it means playing in Edmonton, just changing the culture. He's brought in ex-players to talk to us, he's been in that locker-room before so he brings credibility with that. He's just done a good job of challenging the guys."

Tonight, the challenge will be the other guys on a Bombers team who took a very different route to the same place and who, having already separated themselves from the rest of the East, are hungry to separate themselves from the rest of the league with a win over the league's other reclamation project this season.

"They've been playing well, we've been playing and we have a chance to get them in our house and get them early in the season," said Winnipeg quarterback Buck Pierce. "We can set a tone here early..."

Two teams with two approaches, looking for only one result tonight.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

bomber game day C2-3

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 5, 2011 C1

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