Blue Bomber Report Record: 6–6–0

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Willis Riders' problem now

Bombers GM was wise to part with erratic rush end

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Joe MACK could have spent the day on Thursday saying, "I told you so."

After a month of taking heat from Winnipeg Blue Bombers fans for trading CFL sack leader Odell Willis to the Saskatchewan Roughriders for draft picks, it would have been hard to blame the Bombers GM if he'd used the announcement of Willis's arrest on drunk driving charges to point out to his detractors it was precisely this kind of erratic behaviour by Willis that led the Bombers to trade the vocal defensive end in the first place.

But that's not the style of Mack, who is old school to the core, always the gentleman. On the day the Riders announced their grand hopes for a pass rush this coming season had been arrested last Sunday in Atlanta on driving under the influence charges, Mack was taking a drive himself -- on the high road and sober as a judge.

"I hate to see anybody have any hardships," Mack said. "I only wish Odell the best and I only hope he has the ability and the chance to perform well for the Roughriders this year... I wish him nothing but the best."

According to the Regina Leader-Post, Willis was arrested at 3:44 a.m. in the Atlanta suburb of Dunwoody. He was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol and failing to maintain his lane. He was released from jail after posting bail and has a court appearance on May 22.

In a statement issued Thursday morning by the Riders, GM Brendan Taman said the team had been in contact with Willis and was gathering facts about the incident.

"Odell and the Roughrider organzation are taking this matter very seriously," said Taman, "and we won't comment any further until the legal process has run its course."

What -- if any -- impact this has on Willis's future with the Riders remains to be seen, of course. And it bears repeating Willis has only been charged, not convicted.

But the larger point stands -- Willis had become a big distraction in Winnipeg. Before he's played a down in green, he's the same thing in Regina.

Whatever happens, one thing is already crystal clear: Mack's decision last month to trade Willis and a conditional fifth-rounder to Saskatchewan in exchange for the eighth and 23rd overall picks in next month's CFL draft just tilted in Winnipeg's favour.

While no one on the Bombers wanted to say it publicly at the time of the trade, the fact is the Bombers had grown weary of Willis and his antics. While he was the co-leader in CFL sacks last season, he had become a bit of a locker-room cancer after the club cut his playing time in the second half of the season because of his inability -- or unwillingness -- to cover the run.

Tweets from his account during Grey Cup week expressing his preference to have been at home in the U.S. instead of in Vancouver made things worse. His bizarre demands in the off-season to be released from his contract so he could pursue an NFL tryout finally became the last straw.

But instead of hanging Willis out to dry at the time of the trade, Mack let him off gently, telling reporters he just didn't think Willis was going to be happy returning to Winnipeg in 2012.

Without the relevant background, fans were left to wonder -- and many to howl -- that Mack had gotten fleeced by the Riders, giving up the best pass rusher in the league for a couple of Canadian picks that might or might not turn out to be something.

Mack explained Thursday he's OK sometimes taking criticism that might not be fully informed. "Philosophically, there are times I'd rather expose myself to potential criticism, knowing that I did what was best for the football team," Mack said.

"And at the same time, I would also never defame someone else or publicly ridicule or downgrade a player. I just won't do that. And so there will be times where -- just to be prudent and maybe to show a little compassion -- I won't maybe go into everything that went into a decision on a player."

That kind of discretion can also make for good football. Because if the Riders didn't know before this week just how unpredictable Willis can be, they certainly know now.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2012 C4

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