Blue Bomber Report Record: 6–3–0

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

DIGGIN' OUT: What Bombers need to do

It didn't initially look like a hole, but the Bombers fell to rock bottom; Escaping the pit will take sharp tools, good guides and hard work; the current crew claims there's a map to get out

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A dejected Winnipeg Blue Bombers' quarterback Buck Pierce (4) sits on the bench during the second half of their CFL game against the Toronto Argonauts.

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A dejected Winnipeg Blue Bombers' quarterback Buck Pierce (4) sits on the bench during the second half of their CFL game against the Toronto Argonauts.

There is blood on the turf, lots of it. And, frankly, so much of the red stuff has come courtesy a series of gruesome self-inflicted wounds that many in the Canadian Football League now wonder if the Winnipeg Blue Bombers organizational blueprint goes something like this:

1. Firmly place two hands on sturdy chunk of lumber.

2. Slam lumber into own frontal lobe over and over and over again.

Yes, despite moving into a spectacular new football facility that is the envy of the CFL and backed by a loyal fan base that continues to support a team that last won a Grey Cup a generation ago (1990), the 2013 season could hardly be described as a return to glory for the Bombers.

The team is an embarrassing 1-7 and, before even reaching the halfway mark of the campaign, has already dumped its CEO, general manager and offensive co-ordinator and started three different quarterbacks.

As well, the transition into Investors Group Field -- particularly with the parking and transportation issues that plagued the first game -- has also taken some serious shine off what should have been hailed a historic and triumphant occasion for the 80-plus year-old franchise.

All of this, not surprisingly, means the Bombers are an easy target right now. And when things get this gory the bloodthirsty mob screaming for more heads to roll -- from the board of directors right on down through the roster -- is seldom placated.

Some hard questions are being asked, beginning with whether the current ownership model is an antiquated approach to running a professional sports franchise.

But this isn't a story that will further fuel the public vs. private ownership debate. That's an angle that has been hammered into a pulp in recent weeks/years. And for all the current problems and faults, it must be noted the new stadium -- with all its accompanying bells and whistles that are piling up revenue for the club -- was built under the current board's watch.

(Let's not forget, too, that the private owners in the league have hardly wrapped themselves in glory over the last, oh, three decades or so).

What follows is instead an attempt to answer the question that is eating away at the stomach lining of every Bomber fan, especially with the Labour Day Classic against the arch-rival Saskatchewan Roughriders upon us:

How did it all come to this?

The answer, it turns out, has more to do with one bad hire than anything else...

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It seemed like a decent idea at the time. Oh sure, Joe Mack had been out of football for almost a decade, but he was Bomber alumni -- having served as the club's director of player personnel from 1984-87 -- and he came recommended by two of the club's most-respected board members.

Minus a CEO, as Lyle Bauer had resigned to take on a similar gig with the Calgary Stampeders, the board conscripted two hall of famers among themselves, Paul Robson -- the man responsible for hiring Cal Murphy back in 1983 -- and Joe Poplawski, to head a search committee.

It was on Jan. 22, 2010 when Mack was introduced as the new vice president and general manager of football operations, winning out over two other candidates: Jim Barker, currently the GM of the Grey-Cup champion Toronto Argonauts and former Bomber GM Brendan Taman, now the boss of the 7-1 Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Internally, questions were quietly asked about his absence from pro football -- he had been working as a 'independent sports consultant' -- but the board liked Mack's old-school, buttoned-down approach to doing business. He was a gentleman with good credentials and was seen as the perfect opposite of the man most recently run out of office, Mike Kelly.

The results were far from immediate but Mack and the head coach he hand-picked, rookie boss Paul LaPolice, did provide enough of a belief the Bombers' fortunes could be turning. Steven Jyles and Buck Pierce, both quarterbacks with CFL experience, were signed in the winter of 2010 and despite a 4-14 finish, nine of the defeats were by four points or less. Optimism didn't rule, but there was hope and it bled into 2011 when the team rocketed to a 7-1 start, then struggled mightily with a 3-7 finish, yet still won the East final before falling in the Grey Cup.

But there were also some concerns being raised and some disturbing trends emerging. And it's here, during the winter of 2012, when it unofficially began to unravel.

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The word most commonly used is 'disconnect.' Ask around those in the CFL fraternity and they'll describe Mack as friendly, but aloof. Some saw it as arrogance. The correct term doesn't matter now, but in a close-knit fraternity -- even among rivals -- it was unusual for a GM to be so stand-off-ish.

That was an approach also becoming more commonplace within the walls of the Bombers organization. Not surprisingly, since Mack's firing earlier this month more and more details of the inner workings are now becoming public.

Consider this for what it's worth, but sources say when former Edmonton Eskimos GM Eric Tillman was shopping QB Ricky Ray -- he was eventually shipped to the Argos and last year led them to a championship -- one of his first calls was to Mack, who passed because he thought the QB, now 33, was too old. Ditto for Henry Burris, who was shipped from Calgary to Hamilton in 2012.

This past winter, after vowing to former CEO Garth Buchko that he would upgrade the most critical position on the field, Mack refused to pull the trigger on a deal -- offered more than once -- that would have brought Kevin Glenn back to Winnipeg from the Calgary Stampeders. Meanwhile, the B.C. Lions also had Mike Reilly on the trade market but when Mack was not granted permission to speak to the quarterback -- he was becoming a free agent -- to get a feel for whether he would sign a long-term deal, he backed away. The Eskimos, apparently under the same circumstances, pulled the trigger on the deal with a division archrival.

Ultimately, Mack's moves to upgrade the QB position included keeping Buck Pierce at No. 1, cutting Alex Brink and Joey Elliott and promoting fourth-stringer Justin Goltz while re-signing him to a new deal that included a $10,000 bonus.

Max Hall, out of football but a pivot who had been recruited by ex-offensive coordinator Gary Crowton to Brigham Young, was signed and Chase Clement, who had flamed out in a tryout with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, was also brought on board.

The disconnect didn't end there. The coaching staff, particularly head coach Tim Burke, wanted the club to pursue some proven players who had been released during the offseason -- perhaps not as long-term solutions, but stop-gap bridges until younger talent could develop. Two names that came up but were nixed by the GM were linebacker Rey Williams, now starting in Saskatchewan after being released by the Ticats, and former Argo defensive tackle Kevin Huntley.

Another disconnect that borders on disrespect was naming Kyle Walters the assistant GM and Director of Canadian Scouting and then, on draft day, completely ignoring his advice. Walters spent months prepping for the draft but when D-day came this past spring the Bombers opted to pass on some of the names on his list and select Andy Mulumba with the No. 2 pick, despite the fact he had already signed with the Green Bay Packers. In fact, sources say Walters approached Mack just hours before the draft and asked again if the club would reconsider and select the man he wanted the club to grab: safety/linebacker Mike Edem, who was plucked third overall and is now starting for the Montreal Alouettes.

When the Bombers went to make their second selection, 11th overall, Walters pushed for Laval receiver Seydou Junior Haidara, now with the Lions. Instead, Mack opted for Concordia defensive back Kris Robertson -- most CFL observers had him ranked as a fifth or sixth rounder or a player who might not be drafted at all -- who injured his knee before training camp and was lost for the season.

That disconnect -- between the GM and the coach and a CEO who had put faith in the GM -- further widened as the season progressed. Mack began demanding more and more which players should start, including elevating Goltz to the No. 1 QB position. He refused to sign any players cut adrift by other CFL teams while, strangely, bringing back players who had already been cut by the Bombers in training camp.

A question asked by more than one CFL executive spoken to by the Free Press this season: what, exactly, was Joe Mack's blueprint/vision?

CFL teams augment their rosters through free agency, by drafting and developing Canadians, by scooping up other team's castoffs who might be a better fit elsewhere and by relying on their scouts to unearth import talent down south.

The Bombers don't skimp on scouting or football operations spending, but they were non-factors in free agency -- signing only safety Cauchy Muamba and offensive lineman Mark Dewit, cut during training camp -- while other teams, most notably division rivals Hamilton, plugged some holes with familiar names.

So now the disconnect was now being further fuelled by something else entirely: mounting frustration and a real fear that 2013 was beginning to have disaster written all over it.

z z z

The axe fell twice on the same day earlier this month, with both Mack and the man who put his faith in him, Buchko, both being relieved of their duties. In stepped former Bomber and businessman Wade Miller, who made the decision to fire Mack and promote Walters to acting GM. Crowton, the offensive coordinator, was let go a week later.

What's changed?

Those behind the walls of the Bombers offices say the atmosphere, while not yet represented on the field, has altered dramatically. In his first meeting with the players Miller insisted, "None of you deserve what you are going through right now."

"Nobody deserves this," he added in an interview this week. "Not the fans, not the people that work here... nobody."

The Bomber blueprint, it's now said, isn't one man's vision but a collaborative concept that will be much more widespread: draft and develop, for sure, but also be active in free agency and turn over every stone to find talent. The goal is the same as every other CFL team, but take time to achieve: to be stacked in Canadian talent, three-deep at quarterback and forever welcoming aboard fresh new faces from south of the border.

It's not complicated, although the Bombers certainly have made it feel so over the past few years.

z z z

It's not Joe Mack's fault the opening of Investors Group Field was delayed and that traffic around the building on game day is a nightmare. But when the on-field product is lousy -- this team is 10-26 in its last 36 games -- people in his position, just like those on the board, get bulls-eyes painted on their collective backs.

Let's face it, if the Bombers were 7-1 right now -- just like the Riders -- a lot of the complaints would be glossed over completely. And if the Bombers didn't still have a size-large question mark at quarterback, an iffy offensive line and were stacked with homegrown talent, the way this franchise is operated daily wouldn't be under the microscope.

That's a lot of 'ifs.'

Instead, the Bombers -- as a franchise, not just a football team -- are in damage control mode right now. And a lot of that has to do with the lousy on-field product they have selling.

What's changed? That's still hard to tell, although a new procession of talent has been arriving almost daily. It's about small steps. It's about winning back lost customers and keeping the faith, one fan at a time.

"I've talked with everyone in the organization on and off the field and I'll say this: the building toward a winning culture started on Aug. 8," said Miller of the day he was hired. "Is it going to come in wins on the field? Not right away. But we are going to do think collaboratively and we're going to empower people to do what they need to do. There is a proper way to do this and we're on the right track now."

Miller said he will pick the next GM of this franchise through a search process, not the board of directors. He will allow people to do their jobs, but be in their face with questions if there are mistakes made.

"You have to be intuitive. You have to have your eyes and ears open," he said. "This franchise has got 100 per cent of me and more right now. I'm all in. I can tell you I'm going to make the decisions that are right for the long term and the short term. Nobody wants to win more than me, I guarantee you that. Nobody. We've got a great opportunity to get things moving in the right direction here. We now know where we're going and how we're going to get there."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 31, 2013 C4

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