Blue Bomber Report Record: 6–6–0

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Willy or won't he?

Is Drew a legitimate No. 1 QB? And several other critical questions the Big Blue must answer

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It's no simple task trying to restore the shine on something that has been so badly neglected for so long.

And so when Kyle Walters, Mike O'Shea & Co. rolled up their sleeves this winter and got to really addressing the mess that is the Winnipeg Blue Bombers -- not slapping Band-aids on festering wounds, as was often the case late last season -- the challenge must have seemed, at times, almost overwhelming.

After all, when a jalopy rolls into the shop in a cloud of blue smoke, leaking oil and making a horrific grinding noise, two questions often arise:

1. Where to begin with this nightmare?

2. Is it worth the time and effort to fix the thing, or just sell what's salvageable for parts?

Bomber management and their fans are a long way from seeing tangible results just yet -- especially with a labour stoppage looming -- but with training camp scheduled to open Sunday we thought we'd serve up eight juicy questions/issues that scream out for answers:

1. Just how quick can the fix be?

Before we look ahead here, it's important to take one more peek in the rear-view mirror -- as painful as that might be for the club's faithful. Since starting the 2011 season 7-1, the Bombers have gone 12-34 over the last 21/2 years. Of course, it's worth noting the end of the '11 season included an East Final win and a berth in the Grey Cup, but the deterioration was showing well before then.

The Bombers were 6-12 in 2012, firing Paul LaPolice halfway through that campaign. The promptly followed that up by going 3-15 last season, a year that included a record number of sacks -- management sacks.

It's difficult to compare one ugly stretch to another, but what unfolded in the last two years looks, smells and feels a lot like 1997-98 when the club went 7-29 under Jeff Reinebold. When Dave Ritchie and Brendan Taman took over in 1999 they brought in veteran QB Kerwin Bell as a stop gap and then handed the ball to an unproven Khari Jones midway through 2000. The Bombers were 6-12 in '99, 7-10-1 and in the East Final in 2000 and by 2001 were 14-4. It can be done. Then again, those squads also featured Milt Stegall, Charles Roberts, Doug Brown, Juran Bolden and Dave Mudge, among others.

Worth noting: The greatest Bomber turnaround in their history happened over the 1964-65 seasons when the club went from 1-14-1 to 11-5-0 and a Grey Cup berth in '65.

 

2. Is Drew Willy the answer at QB?

The Bombers have been desperately searching for the answer at QB for years. Now they'd simply settle for some stability and consistency at the position. Willy comes over from Saskatchewan and while management is bullish on his upside, he has just four career CFL starts (1-3) and 147 career passes thrown under his belt.

And there aren't exactly a swack of veteran arms warming up in the bullpen, either, what with Max Hall (283 passes), Brian Brohm and Robert Marve (both at 0) listed behind Willy on the depth chart. The Bombers passed on a chance to trade for veteran QB Kevin Glenn -- the B.C. Lions sent their first pick in the draft (fifth overall) to Ottawa to grab their insurance to Travis Lulay -- choosing instead to hitch their wagon to some unproven horses.

Right now passing on a sure thing looks like a huge risk. By midseason the Bombers should have a feel whether the decision was the right one. But remember this: Winnipeg had only 13 passing touchdowns last season, the lowest team total since 1970.

3. Mike O'Shea: is he the CFL's next great coach?

Ask around the league and the consensus is O'Shea is going to make this thing work here, given some time. He's been seen as a future head coach dating back to his days as a player and already the reviews are positive from those that have been around him.

"With coach O'Shea, I love what he brings to the table," said Bomber QB Max Hall this week. "He's an enthusiastic guy and a guy, I can already tell, that you'd want to play for. He brings excitement to this team. He's a guy I feel can lead. He's a guy I will follow."

That's been a common sentiment through three days of rookie camp. But there's also this: the Bombers have had five head coaches since 2004 and only one of them -- Doug Berry, who was 27-26-1 -- exited the team with a winning record.

 

4. The Canadian content concern

The issue that just won't go away for this franchise and one that has been an issue for more than a decade. The basics: every team needs to dress 20 Canadians and start seven of them. That hasn't been easy, given this organization's gawd-awful draft history and especially so now with Henoc Muamba in the Indianapolis Colts camp.

The championship-calibre teams like the Riders, Montreal Alouettes, Calgary Stampeders, Toronto Argonauts and B.C. Lions have always had the Canadian flexibility to start more than seven and move people around if there is an injury.

Expect the Bombers to start three Canadians on the offensive line -- likely Chris Greaves, Patrick Neufeld and Steve Morley/Matthias Goossen -- two Canucks at receiver in Cory Watson and Rory Kohlert, a Canadian at defensive tackle in Ryan Lucas or Jake Thomas and a Canadian at wide-side corner with Donovan Alexander the leading candidate.

But as much as finding seven capable Canadians to start has been tricky for the Bombers, securing the depth has been just as touch and go. That must change if there is to be a turnaround.

 

5. Hog help

It's difficult not to get nostalgic when looking at the revolving door of names that have taken up space on the Bomber O-line in the last few years, but it is hardly a throwback to the days of Chris Walby, Miles Gorrell, Lyle Bauer, Brett MacNeil, David Black, Dave Vankoughnett and the guys from the late '80s and early '90s. The Bombers will go with the three Canadians up front in the trenches and that leaves the other two spots to be filled by Americans -- Glenn January and Jarvis Jones are both listed at left tackle, although one could move inside and there are four other imports battling for work.


6. How much gas left in the E.J. Kuale and Korey Banks tanks?

Two of the most-intriguing acquisitions for the Bombers this offseason were Kuale and Banks, the veteran linebackers. Both bring a level of experience and physicality to the Bomber defence -- an area that was lacking last year -- and there's also this: Both have a championship pedigree. And introducing that kind of winning experience into this neighbourhood can't but help.

 

7. Too many holes in the air defence?

There has been a significant makeover in the Bomber secondary already, what with Jovon Johnson, Brandon Stewart and Cauchy Muamba all gonzo alonzo from last year's crew. Johnny Sears is now listed at safety, Chris Randle came over in a trade with Calgary, Demond Washington and Alex Suber are the halfbacks and, as listed above, the other corner spot will be reserved for a Canadian. Change isn't necessarily a bad thing, given last year's bunch gave up close to 300 yards passing per game and a league-worst 68.1 per cent completion percentage.

 

8. A battle in the backfield?

Of all the camp positional storylines to follow, this might be the most compelling. Ex-Detroit Lion Kevin Smith has looked solid through three days of rookie camp, as have Nic Grigsby and Paris Cotton. Translation: Will Ford will have some serious contenders after his starting gig.

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 31, 2014 C1

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