IF there was growing hope this week that the Winnipeg Blue Bombers' offence might start looking pretty, all it took was an ugly practice play to trash that plan, leave coaches seething and a top receiver on the shelf.
On Wednesday, in the final play of the final practice of the week, the football flew to Bombers receiver Cory Watson, who clutched it close and held out a stiff arm to ward off charging safety Dan West. But West, caught up in the action, responded with a shove. Watson fell to the ground and, at first, he didn't get up. Finally he hobbled off the field, arm slung over a trainer's shoulder, face twisted into a rictus of pain.
Thirty minutes later, Bombers head coach Tim Burke stood in front of the cameras and announced that his most potent receiver probably won't be suiting up for Friday's game against the Toronto Argonauts. Hamstring injury, it is. As for West, the less the coach said about him, the heavier the silence weighed.
"I'm gonna not answer anything about that, because I might say something I'll regret," he said, but underlined that point with four razor words about where to draw the line on practising at game speed: "Hurting your own teammates."
There is, right now, nobody on the Bombers roster that can shoulder all of Watson's slack. Three games into the season, he leads the team in catches with 15 and receiving yards with 215. He is also a crucial blocker in co-ordinator Gary Crowton's offensive schemes, and Burke didn't argue the idea that Watson might be more important to the offence than any player who isn't a pivot.
"That's why you don't hurt your own teammates on the last play of the last practice of the week," Burke said. "Now, the role that Cory had going into the game, now you gotta rework your game plan with no practice. We might have to use a fullback, or a tight end, or..."
At that point, a reporter let out a bewildered laugh, and Burke let that thought trail past with a headshake and a sigh. "Yeah, no kidding," he said.
Now, what Burke has on his hands is a certified offensive mess, made worse by Watson's injury but not started by it. Wideout Chris Matthews and slotback Terrence Edwards are also likely on the shelf for Friday's tilt, there's not much help on the practice roster and the offensive engine was sputtering to begin with. Injured slotback Kito Poblah doesn't seem any closer to being ready, and Watson is a Canadian, so ratio concerns are also in play.
Strange how these things work out: On Tuesday, Burke hinted there'd be roster changes coming, likely a plan to swap veteran wide receiver Clarence Denmark for lanky backup Doug Pierce.
Well, now Burke's got roster changes, though they weren't the ones he wanted: Pierce will come in for Matthews if the latter can't play. Twenty-year-old Winnipeg Rifles receiver Brett Carter, who has been practising with the team but not signed to a contract, may get a shot.
After that, who knows.
Burke planned an emergency personnel meeting Wednesday afternoon to sort out who will go. At any rate, somehow, the coach and his crew will put together an offence. They don't really have a choice.
"I'll be honest with you, it was a downer at the end of practice," Burke said. "That's not something you want. But we gotta regroup. There's no excuses. We gotta plan, and play as hard as we can play."
In another wrinkle, long snapper Chris Cvetkovic is out with a back injury. His duties will likely fall to rookie linebacker Ian Wild (who is slated to fill in for the injured Terrell Parker), who Burke described as a fine long snapper. Fullback Carl Fitzgerald will come off the practice roster to fill in Cvetkovic's spot.