Jan. 22, 2010.
The day the Winnipeg Football Club board of directors introduced Joe Mack as the new vice-president and general manager. At the time, reaction to the hire was mixed.
Mack's reputation was that of a football architect, a person who was well versed in how to overhaul a roster. His straight-ahead, quiet approach was a selling point to the board. Mack would be the polar opposite to the Lyle Bauer/Mike Kelly experience, with board chairman Ken Hildahl using the terms "character" and "integrity" to describe the club's newest football ops mastermind.
Forget about Mack being 23 years removed from his last CFL position, they said. He was the steady hand the organization needed, the team insisted.
And while everyone had an opinion on Mack and what he could or couldn't do, his mandate was clear: Find a quarterback, improve the Canadian content and get the Bombers back to respectability.
How's he done? Well, he has a 15-27 record as the Winnipeg GM through two-and-a-third seasons. Missed the playoffs his first season, reached the Grey Cup the next. The quarterback position is still under review, and he has had difficulty landing all-star-calibre talent from both sides of the border.
You read that correctly: Despite a reputation for unearthing import players, Mack has yet to bring in a body who's qualified as a division all-star, let alone earned a league-wide mention.
Opinions on what pains this current Bombers lot (1-5 and last in the CFL) are endless, but most attitudes sit on the common denominator that this is Mack's team, therefore it's Mack's mess to clean up.
Question: How long does it take to rebuild a CFL program?
Winnipeg is currently in Year 3 of its renovation. The Grey Cup appearance is a distant memory already, and there is little to no indication of the Bombers being a consistent winner anytime soon.
Another question: How would you grade the job Mack has done to this point?
Let's take look at some of the major moves under his administration:
2010: Season 1
FEB. 5 -- Paul LaPolice is hired as head coach. The one-time Bombers offensive co-ordintaor (2002-03) was brought in to help spark a Winnipeg attack that went dormant over the last few years.
FEB. 23 -- Quarterback Michael Bishop, one of the lightning rods of the 2009 season, is released to make way for the enigmatic Steven Jyles, who is signed as a free agent. At best, it was a lateral move.
APRIL 12 -- Free-agent pivot Buck Pierce joins the club. Injury fears around him quickly turn into reality; he makes only five starts in 2010.
MAY 11 -- Alex Brink is signed. Mack's quarterback foundation is set when Joey Elliott arrives two months later.
AUG. 2 -- Veteran linebacker Ike Charlton is cut, continuing a needed makeover of the Winnipeg defence. Names like Lenny Walls, Siddeeq Shabazz, Barrin Simpson and Gavin Walls are gone, replaced by the younger faces of Marcellus Bowman, Deon Beasley, Alex Suber and Clint Kent, to name a few. Hard to argue with Mack's game plan here, as the defence was getting creaky.
OCT. 20 -- After some dropped passes and the arrival of Greg Carr, receiver Adarius Bowman is released. Bowman signs with Edmonton and puts in a 1,000-yard effort the next season. Whoops.
NOV. 5 -- Winnipeg suffers a 35-32 loss to Calgary, its season record ending with a 4-14 thud.
2011: Season 2
JAN. 18 -- After Kavis Reed leaves for Edmonton, Winnipeg adds former Montreal defensive co-ordinator Tim Burke to the coaching staff. Note: Burke remains Mack's only free-agent signing with significant CFL experience.
MARCH 30 -- Mack goes all-in with Pierce, who is coming off a serious elbow injury, and trades Jyles to Toronto for the fourth overall pick in the draft, which is used to take receiver Jade Etienne.
AUG. 26 -- Following a win versus Hamilton, Winnipeg improves its record to 7-1. They finish at 10-8, win the East Division and make it all the way to the Grey Cup. It's an incredible turnaround, and the future looks bright.
NOV. 30 -- Three days after the 34-23 loss in the big game, offensive co-ordinator Jamie Barresi is sent packing -- an unflattering decision by the Bombers, considering LaPolice was calling the offence.
DEC. 20 -- Mack re-signs Canadian safety Ian Logan. The GM retains two starting O-linemen, two non-import depth players and all three quarterbacks prior to the free-agency deadline. More bright future.
2012: Season 3
JAN. 31 -- After an offensive co-ordinator with no CFL experience is hired (Gary Crowton), Pierce re-ups with the club. Days later, Mack retains Brink and Elliott. Quarterback depth is deemed to be a strength on the club.
FEB. 2 -- The WFC board of directors inks Mack to a two-year extension. He signs LaPolice to a similar contract the next month.
FEB. 16 -- Mack watches Canadian guard Brendon LaBatte and import receiver Greg Carr depart via free agency. Strangely, he chooses not to retain non-import defensive lineman Don Oramasionwu. Two young Canadian players lost for nothing. The inaction is met with Twitter disapproval from current players (Beasley, Jovon Johnson, Jonathan Hefney), about which Mack does nothing outside of publicly expressing his disappointment. He even signs one of the players (Johnson) to an extension after the criticism. It's a bizarre week in Mack's tenure.
MARCH 21 -- Veteran defensive tackle Doug Brown retires.
MARCH 22 -- Mack trades defensive end Odell Willis to Saskatchewan for draft picks, but fails to get a first-rounder for one of the CFL's sack kings. Some players are unhappy. A month later, centre Obby Khan hangs 'em up, leaving Mack with a serious experience shortfall.
MAY 4 -- Middle linebacker Joe Lobendahn, who could never stay on the field in his four years as a Bomber, is released. Mack elects to try inexperienced Canadians in his old spot.
JUNE 22 -- Kent and defensive lineman Dorian Smith are released. More CFL experience walks out the door.
AUG. 3 -- Bombers lose to Montreal 36-26 and fall to 1-5 this season. Pierce is fighting injury again, the offence and defence are out of sync, plus the team is struggling to overcome the self-inflicted experience gap and the lack of Canadian depth.
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The Canadian way
PART of Joe Mack's mandate when he took over in January 2010 was to improve the Canadian content on the club.
With Winnipeg's bizarre strategy of ignoring veteran non-imports in free agency, that leaves only the draft to stock the Maple Leaf shelves, and at first glance, Mack's batting average through the drafts looks pretty decent. Sixteen players selected, with 12 associated with the club in one way (active roster) or another (taxi squad or injured).
Not too shabby, eh?
Closer inspection, though, reveals more quantity than quality, and a noticeable absence of non-import selections at arguably the most important Canuck position. Let's begin with three points of interest:
-- Three draftees are current starters. Both receiver Cory Watson (9th overall) and left guard Chris Greaves (45th overall) were taken in the 2010 draft; receiver Kito Poblah was taken in the 2011 supplemental draft (costing the club its No. 1 pick in 2012).
-- Contributing non-starters are linebacker Henoc Muamba (top pick in 2011), offensive lineman Paul Swiston (24th overall in 2011) and defensive lineman Jake Thomas, who was Winnipeg's last pick (29th overall) this past May.
-- Tailbacks Anthony Woodson (29th overall, 2010) and Carl Volny (32nd overall, 2011), plus linebacker Rene Stephan (24th overall, 2012) have run into injury problems.
Now consider the three Top 5 picks in the last two drafts.
Muamba, receiver Jade Etienne (4th overall, 2011) and offensive lineman Tyson Pencer (3rd overall, 2012) may turn out to be nice players, but for a club that needed an influx of Canadian talent yesterday, long-term projects are a tough sell.
Muamba appears to be on his way, though the process is slow. Etienne was a huge off-the-board gamble and has yet to catch a ball in 23 games. With receivers Nate Coehoorn (5th overall, Edmonton) and Marco Iannuzzi (6th overall, B.C.) already paying dividends for those teams, the Etienne pick is wide open for criticism.
Pencer had surgeries on both shoulders before the draft and is currently out for the season recovering from -- you guessed it -- shoulder surgery. Yes, there is no bigger project than the 6-8, 330-pound lineman.
Pencer is one of only three hogs taken by the Bombers in the last three drafts, joining Swiston and Brendan Dunn (17th overall, 2011) on that list.
Finally, a fun fact to underline this draft autopsy: Greaves, the top O-line prospect taken during the Mack regime, was drafted as a defensive lineman.