Defensive co-ordinator Tim Burke was appointed the 29th head coach in Winnipeg Blue Bombers franchise history on Saturday after the club sacked former field boss Paul LaPolice.
Burke takes over a 2-6 team that has the worst record and least-productive offence in the CFL. But the Bombers club Burke inherits is also, miraculously, just two points behind third-place Hamilton for a playoff spot in the East Division. And they also face a Saskatchewan Roughriders team this Sunday and next that comes into the annual home-and-home series having lost their last five games.
Burke will have a desk piled high, in other words, with both formidable challenges and delicious opportunities. Here's a look at some of the files he'll find on his desk:
The quarterbacks: There's a very good chance Buck Pierce will be proclaimed fit and ready to play this week and that gives Burke a difficult -- but enviable -- decision to make at starting quarterback.
Joey Elliott has shown in the past two weeks that he is clearly a legitimate alternative to Pierce. Elliott wasn't nearly as effective in a 20-17 loss to the Lions Friday night as he was in a 32-25 win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats Aug. 16, but then no quarterback lately has been particularly effective against the league-leading Lions defence.
The question facing Burke is, has Elliott earned one more chance this Sunday against the Roughriders to prove the Hamilton game was no fluke? Or does he simply hand the ball back to Pierce, who, despite all his injuries, has statistically demonstrated over the past three seasons that he gives the Bombers their best chance to win?
Either way, Burke at least knows he will have someone at the controls in Regina who will give him a chance to win his head-coaching debut. And he has the comfort of having more depth at the QB position now that Elliott has shown himself to be a viable alternative than at any time since Pierce first limped into town. That's a big improvement.
The defensive line: The Bombers defensive line was the biggest question mark coming into this season after the off-season trade of Odell Willis and retirement of Doug Brown. And it has now also become the most pleasant surprise for the Bombers.
CFL rookie Alex Hall has quickly morphed into one of the most dominant rush ends in the league. He's got three sacks in the last three games -- and has just missed at least that many more. Add tackle Bryant Turner's five sacks and effective contributions from Jason Vega, Brandon Collier, Jake Thomas and Kenny Mainor and the Bombers are getting the kind of pass rush they need right now to make Burke's aggressive defence work.
The Aerial Trio: CFL rookie wide receiver Chris Matthews has already had four 100-plus yard games this season, including the last two, and is shaping up to be one of the most dominant receivers we've had in these parts since, dare we say it, that Turtle guy.
Throw in another strong season so far from all-star slotback Terrence Edwards and the highly effective underneath threat posed by Cory Watson and the Bombers have a trio of very talented aerial weapons for their quarterbacks to work with.
What needs work
The secondary: They were the very best part of the Bombers in an East Division championship season in 2011, but they have too often been part of the problem rather than the solution this season.
Late fourth-quarter secondary collapses cost the Bombers wins in Toronto and against B.C. Friday and could very well have also cost them the only two games they did win, a victory over Edmonton preserved by a late Steven Jyles fumble and a victory over Hamilton salvaged by a late touchdown drive by Joey Elliott.
Is it a conditioning thing? A focus thing? Either way, the secondary is Burke's specialty and that fix will be at the very top of his list this week.
Poblah and Denmark: Wide receiver Kito Poblah caught four passes for 54 yards against B.C. in what was, by far, his best performance of the season.
But the highly-touted non-import continues to drop way too many easy catches and seems to never make the big catch in traffic that a pro needs to come down with, at least occasionally. Poblah's better than he's shown and might be the perfect candidate for some tough love from Burke.
Ditto Clarence Denmark, who's also had a few key drops this season. After an excellent rookie season in 2011, Denmark was expected to continue to improve this year, but instead presently finds himself with fewer catches (24 vs. 26) for less yards (306 vs. 371) and fewer TDs (1 vs. 2) than at this point last season.
Understand, neither man has played terribly. But they both are capable of much better and it's the job of an effective head coach to bring out a player's best. Paul LaPolice failed in that regard -- and not just with these two. We'll now see what Burke can do.
Henoc Muamba in the middle: Muamba won the starting middle linebacker job a couple of weeks ago from Pierre-Luc Labbe and he's played inspired ever since -- both on defence and on special teams. Muamba's forced three fumbles in the last two games, but he's also been burned on some one-on-ones as other teams isolate him against their running backs -- which is exactly what happened last Friday on Andrew Harris's first touchdown.
Muamba is starting to show the makings of someone who could be a game-changer in this town for years to come, but he's still young and needs coaching. The good news is he hits hard and he's smart. The best news is he's also very coachable and now has one of the very best in the three-down defensive game as his new head coach.
What has to go immediately
The Yuk-yuks: The laughing, jiving and pranking that has gone on in the locker-room, at practice and even during games in what has been a disastrous season that has now cost a man his job is suggestive of a team that does not understand the central and important role the Blue Bombers have in this community.
This team's performance has been a civic embarrassment at times and it is unacceptable to see players laughing it off like none of it matters. Burke talked in his opening news conference about restoring pride to the Bombers' brand. That needs to begin with a very serious attitude adjustment.
Selfish penalties: LaPolice coddled this team and the ridiculously selfish penalties that were particularly on display in the loss to B.C. were the direct result.
Burke said Saturday he will have zero tolerance for stupidity and selfishness, saying by way of example that any player who jumps offside during practice will be immediately sat down.
Sounds like a start.
Five-yard passes on SECOnd and 10: Seriously, this is simple -- just because a receiver is open five yards down the field on second and long doesn't mean you should throw to him. The defence does that on purpose. You know that, right?