Blue Bomber Report Record: 7–11–0

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Time to cut Mack some slack?

Naysayers may want to reserve comment

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HE'S gone from being an idiot to a genius and now all the way back to being an idiot -- in the span of 12 months.

Everyone who wants Joe Mack's job, raise your hand. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Mack is, of course, the vice-president and general manager of a little outfit known locally as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and he's been taking a savage cyberspace beating in recent months -- among Bombers fans and detractors alike -- for his handling of the club's off-season fortunes.

Now, if all this sounds familiar, it should. Because it was precisely at this same time last year that Mack was also getting beaten up for his handling of the Bombers' off-season. The problem last winter, as many fans saw it, was Mack was not only refusing to make the wholesale changes they felt were necessary after a 4-14 season in 2010, he was hardly making any personnel changes at all.

Of course, those same fans calling for Mack's head in March 2011 were calling him a genius six months later for standing pat and allowing that motley crew in 2010 to morph into what looked like a juggernaut midway through the 2011 campaign, as the Bombers won seven of their first nine regular-season games.

Although their performance tailed off in the second half of the 2011 season, the club still won the East and played in the Grey Cup and it was hard to conclude by season's end that Mack's conservative approach the previous winter had been anything other than entirely vindicated.

Except that here we go all over again. This winter, of course, the criticism hasn't been that Mack hasn't made enough personnel changes to a bad team, but has instead allowed too many changes to be made to a good team.

Folks are angry he allowed import receiver Greg Carr to slip through his fingers to Edmonton and even more upset all-star guard Brendon LaBatte got away -- and to the hated Riders in Regina, no less.

They're angry it took so long to find a new offensive co-ordinator, angry he didn't give Jovon Johnson -- the CFL's most outstanding defensive player in 2011 -- the contract extension he wanted sooner, and angry Mack let non-import defensive lineman Don Oramasionwu simply walk away.

And then there's last week's trade that sent Odell Willis -- the CFL's co-leader in sacks in 2011 -- to those same hated Riders for a couple of draft picks.

Toss in some public criticisms of Mack from some Bombers players and then play it out against an off-season backdrop that has seen East Division rivals in Toronto and Hamilton make some serious upgrades and one thing's been clear: Bomber Nation is not happy.

So what's the man in the crosshairs got to say for himself?

"It's a double-edged sword in this job," Mack said this week. "You get intense scrutiny but then again, it's great you have fans and media who feel you're important to follow."

While Mack cites the departure of LaBatte and Carr as disappointments, he's not sure either was preventable. The Bombers thought they had a deal with Carr, until Edmonton threw a bunch more money at him at the last moment.

And LaBatte? "I don't think we ever had a chance with Brendon," says Mack.

As late as Grey Cup week, LaBatte was telling the Free Press he had no interest in leaving Winnipeg and even less in going to a Saskatchewan team that will be rebuilding this season. But then life intervened, as LaBatte's girlfriend got pregnant this winter and suddenly it made a lot more sense for him to be playing in Regina, closer to his family and hers.

Aside from those two player losses, Mack says the Bombers are in a "pretty good place right now."

For starters, Mack says signing all three of last year's quarterbacks -- starter Buck Pierce and backups Joey Elliott and Alex Brink -- speaks volumes about the direction of the club.

"Signing all three quarterbacks was huge. That's where stability comes from on a football team," said Mack. "I think it also says something positive about the club that all three quarterbacks -- and I had inquiries on them when they were free agents -- chose to come back here."

Mack says the hiring of offensive co-ordinator Gary Crowton -- who has an impeccable resumé as a fine offensive mind -- will also bring a much-needed new approach to an offence that struggled in 2011 and that will be back in 2012 more or less intact personnel-wise.

"There's no doubt about it -- we can't stay where we were (offensively)," said Mack. "We have to find a way to get better on offence. Absolutely that's true."

While the departure of Willis and retirement of tackle Doug Brown leaves a gaping hole on the defensive line, Mack says he's close to signing some new import talent that he thinks will fill in nicely -- although that still leaves the problem that Brown filled a Canadian starting spot. "There's no doubt that's a hole," said Mack, "and we may have to look at filling that spot with an American and making some import changes somewhere else."

Throw in some exciting young Canadian talent that should only get better this season -- receivers Kito Poblah and Cory Watson got extensions this week for a reason and big things are expected out of linebacker Henoc Muamba -- and things might not be as bleak in Bomber nation as they first appear.

If nothing else, the evolution of the Bombers from a 4-14 team in 2010 to a Grey Cup club in 2011 should at least earn Mack and his incremental approach the benefit of the doubt.

It is, after all, still only March.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 31, 2012 C1

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