Tim BURKE has the decision of a career to make, with jobs and reputations on the line inside the offices of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Burke will enter his first training camp as head coach of the Bombers and will need to make one major decision prior to his first blow of the whistle. What to do with Buck Pierce?
His choice will likely determine the course of the Bombers' 2013 season.
If the season starts out rocky, GM Joe Mack will find himself in the firing line and CEO Garth Buchko will face heat from fans and the board for his decision to stick with Mack.
If it goes well, Burke will cement his position with the organization and give Mack and Buchko new rope.
And, as we've been saying for the past four seasons, it all comes down to Buck Pierce.
"This whole decision is all about where does Buck fit in? Is he the starter or a backup? That's what you're trying to determine before you get to camp. What's Buck's role going to be in this organization? Then everybody else fights it out for the positions that are available," Burke told the Free Press Wednesday. "I'd say we're closing in on a decision but I'd rather not say what it is because it could change again. It could change radically before we even get to mini-camp."
Buchko made the decision last fall to keep Mack atop the Bombers football operations department based mostly on his GM's promise to "fix" the quarterback position in Winnipeg.
The Bombers struggled at the pivot spot all of last season, with Pierce shuttling from the field to the infirmary with uncomfortable regularity. His key understudies, Joey Elliott and Alex Brink, proved incapable of establishing themselves as starters, but Mack was unable to or elected not to make any major changes this off-season.
"Buck, Joey Elliott, Alex Brink, Justin Goltz and R.J. Archer -- those were the five guys that were with us last year, and as of right now they'll be the guys coming in," said Burke. "Mini-camp and training camp will determine the order of first quarterback, second quarterback and third quarterback. But a declaration of a starting quarterback could happen before training camp.
"Once you decide where (Buck) fits in, the other guys fight it out. If you decide he's the starter, you can make that decision anytime. If you determine he's going to be the backup, then you won't know who the starter is going to be until after training camp."
Pierce is still the most accomplished and experienced quarterback of the bunch and Burke says that makes a decision prior to camp essential.
"You can't go into camp saying everybody is equal and we'll let them fight it out and see who wins, because you know Buck's going to win. So you make the decision that he's either the starter or the backup prior to camp," said Burke.
Burke says a number of factors will go into making the decision.
"Medical reports. Where is Buck at medically. The offensive staff and myself, as we go through the schemes and Xs and Os going into the season. We have to ask 'who is going to be able to do this?' If we go into the season with Buck as the starter, we obviously can't put him in the same situations to get hit like a younger quarterback," said Burke.
"You have to make the decision on how can we protect (Buck) better and what plays can't we run. And does that hamper you so much that he'd be ineffective as a starter?"
What Burke is essentially saying is that Pierce's body can no longer be trusted to meet the demands of a complete playbook.
That statement in itself should make this decision an easy one. It's time to move on from Buck Pierce as the starting quarterback of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
The only problem with that is the Bombers don't have an answer after Pierce. Mack hasn't come up with his "fix."
So be it. The time for hand-wringing over Pierce is long past. If it means the Bombers have to struggle for a season under Justin Goltz or Alex Brink or some other quarterback yet to be signed, then that's the reality. Sooner or later the crutches have to be cast aside to see if you can walk without them. Maybe even run.
This franchise is being held hostage by a quarterback who can't stay healthy. It's time to set free the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and live with the consequences.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @garylawless