Blue Bomber Report Record: 3–15–0

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'W' gives Burke breathing room

But his future still very much up in air

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If the season had ended Sunday, Tim Burke likely would have been fired. But at least he would be going out with a smile on his face.

"I'd like to get used to this," said Burke, grinning, moments after his Winnipeg Blue Bombers hung a 25-13 beatdown on the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Banjo Bowl.

So would the rest of the province and the rest of the Bombers organization.

"We really needed this," said board of directors chairman Brock Bullock, offering up the understatement of the season in a chance hallway meeting following the game.

Burke, maybe more than anyone else, needed this too. And will need more to keep his job.

He hasn't had much luck as the head coach of the Bombers, starting with being hamstrung by Joe Mack, one of the worst GMs this league has seen in a long time.

The inestimable Don Matthews used to say, "great players make great coaches." The opposite has been true in Burke's time in Winnipeg where, "terrible players have made terrible coaches."

That assertion has not been lost on Mack's replacement, Kyle Walters, who has made move after move, the latest being Sunday's shocker that sent Buck Pierce to the B.C. Lions, to try and improve this roster.

Burke deserved more of this. More talent and more effort from the GM's office. But pro sports is cruel and doesn't take into account the coulda, shoulda and woulda. Just the final score.

And right now, Burke's 6-14 record over parts of two seasons isn't a winner. He needs to add to that front number and keep the backside from gaining much more weight if he hopes to coach into a third season.

Certainly, Burke has cooked up some of his own bad luck, making a number of curious decisions and remarks along the way.

But the underpinning of his win-loss record has been the lack of talent on the field. Burke has had too few good players to produce consistent winning football.

That reality might prove too difficult to overcome, but this week, culminating with Sunday's win, he did a fine job. He prepared his team mentally and then pulled the levers at the right time. Burke has taken lots of blames after losses, so he deserves credit after a win.

The future is murky for Burke. Word is Wade Miller likes him and we know Walters does. But right now he'd be a tough sell to the public as head coach for next season.

Making football decisions based on what a fan base wants is often a disastrous approach, but the Bombers' lengthy record of futility has backed them into a corner where they must listen to the voices from the stands.

Ticket sales and corporate sponsorship could prove to be shaky this off-season and Miller will need to gauge which way the wind is blowing and then follow it. He can't afford to further disenfranchise the fan base.

Burke's best chance at retention is a whole lot more of what we saw Sunday.

"Why should he pay for the sins of the front office?" said veteran offensive lineman Glenn January. "There's been some transition in the front office and we seem to be turning over a new leaf. Who knows if he will be held accountable for the mistakes of others. If you ask everyone in this locker room they will tell you he's been fair and a good coach with us. We know where we stand with him. I would be very upset if he wasn't here."

January says the appointment of offensive co-ordinator Marcel Bellefeuille has finally given Burke a decent chance to succeed.

"Pinball Clemons was my coach in my first year and he had little to do with the game planning and the game calling. That's the job of the co-ordinators, and a head coach is only as good as his co-ordinators," said January. "Now we have two guys with CFL experience and you saw what they did this week. They drew up solid plans, made adjustments and we, as players, were able to execute."

Indeed, at times on Sunday, the Bombers looked like an actual pro football team. Yes, the offence struggled mightily, but the defence compensated and in the end they both did enough to combine for more points than the opposition. Every team will take that every week.

The win comes at a perfect time for Burke and his cr ew, as they have the equally-challenged Edmonton Eskimos the next two weeks. Not to mention it ends a seven-game skid.

There's no sugar-coating this and there is no grey area. It's win or else down the stretch for Burke. Running the table might be a bit much to ask, but Edmonton presents an opportunity for him to find some firmer footing.

"I love playing for coach Burke," said middle linebacker Henoc Muamba. "He has lots of attributes, but best about him is his candour. Players know where they stand. Most of what's gone wrong around here has been about the players. Our mistakes. But he keeps coaching us. This win is so great. I'm so happy we got it for him."

This storyline doesn't end today. If it did it would be bittersweet for Burke.

But there's movement in this franchise and it once again looks and feels to be alive. Can Burke ride this wave of change into 2014?

It's too early to tell. But the Bombers are swimming again -- not just another drowning statistic.

Let's see how much life this pumps into Burke's future. Or not.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 9, 2013 C1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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