The biggest challenge facing Joey Elliott when he takes the field as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Thursday won't be the Hamilton defence or the pressure to deliver the home crowd a win.
He needs to complete some passes.
Since the club was riding high with a 7-1 record after the first eight games last season, the Blue and Gold have dipped to a shameful 4-12 regular-season record -- including a 1-5 record this season. Explanations for the recent drop-off range from inexperience to injuries, but another reason for the low win frequency has been the quarterback play.
Simply put: It hasn't been good enough.
"I wouldn't say it's where we need to be to be successful," head coach Paul LaPolice said Monday. "We need to be a lot better. That's not all on the quarterbacks, that's on everybody, but we need better quarterback play."
Before twisting each quarterback on the skewer, there are a few factors to recognize.
Quality quarterback play is helped along by accuracy, a sound running game, sure-handed receivers and quality protection up front. Each of these areas has a big say in how an offence runs, true, but at the end of the day, either the guy under centre is getting it done or he isn't.
It's difficult to offer a complete player analysis in this space, so we'll narrow our focus and direct most of our attention to completion percentage, a number that often provides a good foundation of how things are going.
A high percentage means the offence is moving and typically results in points on the board. Makes sense: A handful of extra completions leads to a handful of more first downs, and could ultimately give birth to touchdowns and wins.
Where to begin? How about last season?
When the Bombers scorched out to that 7-1 start, the quarterbacks (Buck Pierce, Alex Brink, Joey Elliott) went 146-of-232 for 1,943 yards, completed 63 per cent of their passes and threw for 11 touchdowns against six INTs. On average, the Bombers went 18-of-29 for 243 yards per game, throwing three TDs every two games and getting picked off just three times every four contests.
Since that celebrated opening to 2011, things started to go south. In the final 10 games, the pivots (including Justin Goltz) kept the completion frequency up (217-of-343 for 2,551 yards), but turned the ball over a lot more than they found the end zone (nine TDs, 16 INTs).
The game average: 22-of-34 for 255 yards; four TD throws every six games with three picks every two games. More passes, more turnovers and less success (a 3-10 record in that span).
This year, the numbers have been flat out brutal across the board. Winnipeg quarterbacks are only completing 55 per cent of their passes (120-of-217 for 1,563 yards), good for last in the CFL. The league average is 64 per cent. To go with that, just seven touchdown passes in six games (Edmonton has a league-low six majors through the air) and the Bombers' nine interceptions makes them the most charitable QB group in the league.
Simply put: That's not getting it done.
So how do the Bombers turn around the air attack?
The pass protection needs to improve -- from both the offensive line and the tailbacks -- and finding more touches for the run game would be a good start, as well (Winnipeg is last in the league with 95 rushes). LaPolice insists his stable of arms is accurate enough, and the receivers have been pretty average in the dropped pass department (the CFL doesn't keep an official stat on drops).
Offensive co-ordinator Gary Crowton hinted a little more accuracy could be the solution.
"On first down, we want to be a bit more accurate in our passing game, get our pass percentage up a little bit, so we can get a better start," he offered Monday.
Quarterback was supposed to be the strong point this season. All three free agent QBs were brought back -- the veteran Pierce was healthy, while Brink and Elliott were on the way up -- putting their deep pool of talent at the position as the envy of the league.
The results of that depth have yet to be realized.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @wazoowazny
Pivotal depth chart (with apologies to Justin Goltz)
The Bombers will start a different quarterback for the third time this season when they host the Hamilton Tiger-Cats Thursday. A look at how all three have played this year, and what their immediate future holds:
Numbers: 24-of-40 for 327 yards; 60 per cent completion rate; one TD and two INTs
Next: After starting the first three, Pierce hasn't played since injuring his foot in the blowout loss in Edmonton. He's looked ready to play at practice and should be back by September.
Numbers: 85-of-159 for 1,043 yards; 53.5 per cent completion rate; five TDs and six INTs
Next: Brink appeared in all six games, making the last three starts. That audition didn't go as well as the club hoped, and he was lifted for Elliott. He's the backup for Thursday. The club insists he's still part of their plans.
Numbers: 11-of-18 for 193 yards; 61 per cent completion rate; one TD and one INT
Next: Makes his first start in two seasons and just his third CFL start overall. He'll get a good look from the coaching staff. Win or lose, he'll most likely see another chance next week versus B.C. -- provided Pierce isn't ready to go.