Kyle Walters wants nothing more than to run a successful football team. The general manager of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers has done just that over the past two seasons, combining for a regular-season record of 23-13, including a 12-6 mark in 2017 that ranked second best in the nine-team Canadian Football League.
But with continuing success comes greater problems. For the Bombers general manager, the issues that used to fill his plate at this time years ago are much different than they are now. Winning on the field, Walters said, often creates greater challenges off it.
"We went from being not a very good football team to being a competitive football team," Walters said Wednesday in a phone interview from Banff, where the off-season presidents and general managers meetings are taking place this week. "When we used to look and evaluate our roster it was, ‘not good enough, not good enough, not good enough.’"
When Walters took over as general manager midway through the 2013 season after the club fired Joe Mack, the team spent the next couple of years trending the wrong way as Walters looked to do a complete overhaul. In his first two full years at the helm, the Bombers went 12-24. When it came to making decisions on players, it was often a short conversation followed by a look towards free agency and which players might be available.
Now the Bombers are back on track, even if they have yet to win a playoff game under Walters, and the challenge of building a true Grey Cup contender is much more steep. It’s no longer about dumping and adding later, but rather who and how many they can afford to keep.
"When you’ve had success, the players are solid players and the expectation of solid players is they want to be paid a certain amount. The bigger challenge is making these decisions of who can stay and who can go and who you can afford," Walters said. "To get to a Grey Cup team versus a competitive team, that’s the next step and those are the more challenging, difficult decisions."
Where Walters has most of the work cut out for him is on the defensive side of the ball. He’s been busy the past few months, one of the most active general managers this off-season. But though he’s signed 10 players from last season’s roster, only two are starters on the defence. And with just more than a month to go before the free-agency period opens, the Bombers have a number of big names still without a contract.
Perhaps the biggest problem for Walters is whether he’ll be able to keep both of the all-stars patrolling the boundary side of the secondary. Cornerback Chris Randle is coming off arguably his best season in the CFL and is already making big money, upwards of $130,000 per season. The other, halfback T.J. Heath, has exhausted the two-year, team-friendly salary he signed after coming north from the NFL. He was an all-star in both his years in the CFL and will expect a similar price tag as Randle, likely close to double what he’s making now.
Then there’s Maurice Leggett, the Bombers’ strong-side linebacker and arguably their best player on defence. Leggett was having another stellar season, but enters 2018 with some concern after he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury late in the year.
"We got three guys in the secondary that are free agents that want to be paid a certain value and understandably so," Walters said. "These guys in the secondary who want to be paid a certain value, it’s going to be very difficult to get all of the players all of the money they want — it’s impossible."
Then there are others, such as veteran defensive end Jamaal Westerman, the team’s sack leader over the last two years, and defensive tackle Jake Thomas, who isn’t as flashy a name, but has evolved into a more than serviceable player. Most importantly, both Westerman and Thomas carry a Canadian passport, meaning their exits could create an issue with the team’s ratio if they are to hit the open market.
"There’s still a lot of uncertainty on that defensive side of the ball and, just based on the number of unsigned free agents, what needs to happen between now and the middle of February in who gets signed and who doesn’t and, most importantly, if these guys choose to go to free agency because financially we just can’t come to a deal, what’s our plan?" Walters said. "That’s what a lot of the time spent right now is on, these types of discussions."
Having to work around the league salary cap, which is only increasing by $50,000 in 2018, is not unique to Walters. Every GM deals with the same issues. But when weighing whether to maintain the defensive side of the ball or tweak it, Walters also realizes there is a need to improve. The defence was ranked among the worst in the CFL last season.
Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea has shuffled the deck when it comes to his defensive coaching staff. Last week he fired defensive backs coach Tony Missick and defensive line coach Todd Howard. What was perhaps most telling, however, was his decision to stick with defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall for another year — a decision Walters didn’t have an issue with.
"Mike decides who he wants his staff to be and that’s the way the business works. Mike has a strong working relationship with Richie and, obviously, Mike believes in Richie and believes that some of the issues we had last year, that everybody’s aware of, is going to be correctable," Walters said. "I believe in Mike wholeheartedly and I believe in Mike’s ability to lead not only the players but the coaching staff."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.