Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bombers have accomplished almost nothing this off-season, but no signs of concern from Mack

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Look, this is football we're talking about, not horse racing. And even if it was horse racing, the race is to the finish line, not the starting line.

But even against that as a backdrop -- that it matters how you finish, not how you start -- the deafening silence that is continuing to emerge this off-season from the front office of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers is growing from a mild curiousity to a serious concern.

In an off-season that has seen an extraordinary amount of activity across the CFL with the hiring of four new head coaches and a pair of blockbuster trades involving four starting quarterbacks, the Bombers have barely made a ripple.

Consider: The sum total of Winnipeg's activity since they lost the Grey Cup to B.C. at the end of November has been re-signing their long snapper Chris Cvetkovic, re-signing all-star safety Ian Logan, locking down some practice roster guys and, this week, picking up a kick returner who didn't even play in 2011.

The inactivity is striking on several fronts. For starters, the Bombers lead the CFL this winter with 17 players who could become free agents on Feb. 16, so you'd think that if anyone would have been busy the past six weeks it would have been Bombers GM Joe Mack.

What's more, among that long list of free agents are some critical players -- starting quarterback Buck Pierce and both his backups, Alex Brink and Joey Elliott; and four of the five starters on the offensive line, including CFL all-star Brendan LaBatte.

On top of all that, the Bombers inactivity has come at precisely the same time as two of their East Division rivals -- the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts -- have made sweeping changes the Bombers brain trust has already publicly conceded will make the East Division a much tougher place to play in 2012.

A couple of moves by the Argos -- hiring former Montreal offensive coordinator Scott Milanovich as their new field boss and trading for all-star QB Ricky Ray -- gives Toronto instant credibility.

Hamilton, meantime, lured a man with four Grey Cup rings in George Cortez away from the NFL and then paired him up with Henry Burris, who was the most outstanding player in the CFL in 2010 and won a Grey Cup in Calgary with Cortez in 2008.

And the Bombers? Again, they have their all-star safety locked down. And don't forget their long-snapper.

Now, in his only extended comments to the media this winter, Mack sounded on Jan. 11 like Alfred E. Neumann in reassuring reporters that there was no reason to worry. He was confident the club would re-sign Pierce and LaBatte, he said. And once those marquee guys were locked down, the salary cap picture would be clearer and the rest of the negotiations would quickly follow.

Well, 10 days later, we're all still waiting. A deal to re-sign Pierce was all but complete last week but was scuttled at the last moment by Mack, Pierce's agent says. And the latest update from Brian Cox is there is no update.

"No word from them yet," Cox told Free Press columnist Gary Lawless on Friday. "Last we heard from them was last Thursday or Friday."

And LaBatte? Well, LaBatte has made clear to the people around him that his first wish is to return to Winnipeg. The problem is sources said this week that LaBatte is also seeking a deal that would pay him in the near vicinity of $200,000 a season.

Finding a way to make both those things happen this off-season will be a juggling act worthy of the boardwalk in Atlantic City.

So what's Mack saying now? The Bombers GM did not respond to repeated requests for an interview through the club's media relations office this week.

But others are starting to talk. Defensive back Jovon Johnson has gone public with his frustrations with Bombers management and their refusal to even discuss a contract extension with the league's most valuable defensive player in 2011.

And on Friday, agent Darren Gill said that "there hasn't been much progress" in contract talks involving the Bombers and three of his clients -- OL Steve Morley, DL Don Oramasionwu and WR Aaron Hargreaves. Gill said that "at this point," Morley and Oramasionwu intend to test the free agent waters.

Now, on top of all that, there are also all the three coaching vacancies that remain for the Bombers after the firing of offensive coordinator Jamie Barresi and the defections of linebackers coach Casey Creehan to Hamilton and receivers coach Chris Wiesehan to the University of Hawaii.

Almost two months after firing Barresi, the Bombers have yet to replace him. And it's now possible the Argos -- who hired Jonathan Himebauch away from Montreal as their new offensive coordinator last month only to have him abruptly leave this week for a college job -- could hire two offensive coordinators this winter before the Bombers hire one.

True, it should be noted that the Bombers have been very busy this winter on the business side of things. They've hired a new CEO in Garth Buchko in a move that has been roundly applauded.

They've also awarded naming rights to the new stadium and announced that despite some high winds in December, the stadium project is proceeding on budget and -- more or less -- on schedule.

Why more or less? Well, sources indicated this week that while the club remains hopeful that the new stadium will be in operation in time for the pre-season in late June, they have indicated to the league that, just to be on the safe side, they would like the schedule-maker to make their first two regular season games in 2012 -- and maybe more -- on the road.

Regardless, construction on the stadium will be completed, sooner or later. But construction of the 2012 team? Well, sooner has already come and gone, leaving only later. And the clock's ticking on that one, too.

 

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 21, 2012 0

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