BRADENTON, Fla. -- The curtain will rise here this weekend on a new era of Winnipeg Blue Bombers football, giving Bombers fans their first indication of whether the 2014 production is going to be a hit, or just the latest in a long line of flops.
The Bombers are holding their annual spring mini-training camp just south of Tampa on Florida's Gulf Coast, beginning on Sunday.
While the locale is new to the Bombers, Winnipeg's decision to hold their rookie camp here is hardly revolutionary -- other CFL teams, notably the Saskatchewan Roughriders, have been holding their spring camps here for years.
The weather is obviously better and more reliable; it's cheaper to fly mostly U.S.-based players here than to Canada; and if you want to hold a surreptitious workout of an unsigned player on the side, well, hey, it's not like there will be many people watching down here, right?
But what will be new and dramatic and -- long-suffering Bombers fans are hoping -- revolutionary at the IMG Football Academy is this will be the first unveiling of what the rookie triumvirate of CEO Wade Miller, GM Kyle Walters and head coach Mike O'Shea have in mind for the Bombers this season.
While Miller and Walters took over midway through the 2013 season, they inherited a mess of a club and its former head coach, Tim Burke, and were forced to make the best of it in what were at the time interim roles.
But Miller and Walters had those interim tags lifted over the winter and the 2014 Bombers are going to be entirely their handiwork, beginning with the new head coach they hired in O'Shea, who -- like his GM and CEO -- is also new to the job description and learning on the fly.
It is unusual and a bit risky to operate a football team with rookies in the three key jobs of CEO, GM and head coach. But Walters says he sees Winnipeg's lack of experience at the top as a strength rather than a weakness.
"The biggest advantage the three of us have," Walters mused earlier this month, "is that we're all smart enough to know that we're all relatively new to this. And so we lean on each other mentally. There's no hidden agendas, there's no one saying, 'I have to have my way because that's the way I've always done it.'
"We're very good at closing the door and throwing ideas around. It's a fantastic dialect when the three of us get together to discuss issues. We vet the problems, everyone has input and that's the biggest advantage -- there's no one saying this is the way we've always done things, blah, blah, blah.
"That's so common in some workplaces. But with three fresh people with no egos, there's been none of that. It's been great."
While that sounds good, talk is cheap and Walters is the first to agree the actual result of all that feel-good back and forth in the Bombers offices this winter will be determined on the field, not behind closed doors.
After beefing up their scouting department over the winter and holding what's believed to be an unprecedented number of free-agent camps -- 12, as compared to 3-4 in recent years -- the Bombers invited 48 players (at last count) to Florida, where the team will hold two-a-days on Sunday and Monday and one more practice on Tuesday morning before everyone flies home.
The invitees include the four quarterbacks the Bombers expect to take to main training camp in Winnipeg later this spring -- Max Hall and newcomers Drew Willy, Brian Brohm and Robert Marve. The rest of the list is made up of mostly CFL rookies signed over the winter, as well as a handful of free agents and negotiation-list players the club wants to get a closer look at before deciding whether to bring them up for main camp in Winnipeg.
"We want to find the players that are going to come in and challenge our guys," O'Shea said recently about his goals for mini-camp. "And we want to teach them the Canadian game, so they're not caught off-guard. We want guys to have an understanding in terms of the football expectations when they come to the main camp...
"I've got high expectations."
Miller says while the club embarked this winter upon a major rebuilding, he expects some of the changes already put in place, particularly in the scouting department, to have an immediate positive effect that should already be evident on the field down here.
"We're going to see some results for sure. We've been working hard towards that," said Miller. "We're going to compete hard this year. We want to win and we want to win now -- there's no question about that.
"Is this going to take some time? Of course it is. Anytime you have change in an organization -- and a football team especially -- it's going to take some time to get adjusted... but we know what our mandate is and what we need to do."
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