Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/5/2016 (1949 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
At the end of the 2015 CFL season, after the Winnipeg Blue Bombers had won just five of their 18 regular-season games, general manager Kyle Walters spoke for more than 27 minutes.
In what his longest news conference with the media all season, topics ranged from individual performance, including his own; who, if any, of the number of pending free agents would be offered a new contract; to whether the Bombers, who had spent big dollars in free agency for the second straight season, had fallen below the league’s salary cap — which they did.
But through all the back-and-forth, one particular sentence could be used to capture the entirety of the annual post-partum meet-up, one that perfectly summed up the single overarching problem for the Bombers that year, who despite having the highest of expectations were unable to reach even the most modest of results.
"The simple answer to that question is we didn’t win enough football games, so the roster isn’t good enough," Walters said at the time, his hands gripped to a podium located just a short walk from where the 103rd Grey Cup game would be hosted weeks later at Investors Group Field.
Simple, in hindsight, damning in reality.
Tuesday, a few of those same themes lingered as Walters, alongside head coach Mike O’Shea and president and CEO Wade Miller, all took questions in a conference call with local and national media.
But it was a focus on the future that eventually took over, offering new questions about what could be done in the short term — breaking a current four-year playoff curse — while also brightening the bigger picture, one clouded by a Grey Cup drought lasting a quarter-century.
Needless to say, expectations remain high.
"We believe in trying to win the Grey Cup every single year," said O’Shea, now in his third season with the Bombers. "That’s never going to change."
Also unchanged is O’Shea’s belief he’s got the team to win, even if his record suggests otherwise. Despite the Bombers winning just half as many games as they’ve lost — the Bombers are a combined 12-24 the past two seasons — with him on the sidelines, O’Shea has never wavered in his assessment of his players, at least not publicly.
Not everything, however, has stayed quite as consistent.
"It’s a work in progress. We started this over," said Walters, who noted comparing the team’s current depth chart from that of two seasons ago, when he first took over in 2014, reveals evidence of a major overhaul. "We’ve been building for a couple years, and we’ve been gradually getting our roster better."
Along with a massive turnover, said Walters, the road to improvement has included stockpiling Canadian talent through the annual draft and taking time to develop those younger players, scouting players down south and filling key holes through free agency.
"Our roster is stronger now than it was two years ago, and it’s stronger now than it was last year because of the process," Walters said.
The process has also garnered its fair share of criticism. Losses aside, the kind of numbers the Bombers have put up in recent years, particularly last season, doesn’t exactly warrant positive publicity.
Winnipeg owned the league’s worst offence, finishing last in the CFL in total points (309, 17.2 avg.), net offence (5,238 yards, 291.0 avg.), first downs (326), first-down passes (174) and completion percentage (62.8). The Bombers were second-last in time of possession, average gain per rush attempt, passing yards, pass completions, passer rating and sacks allowed.
To be fair, Drew Willy, the team’s No. 1 pivot, was lost to a season-ending knee injury in Week 7. Besides losing their best arm, it also exposed just how thin the Bombers’ depth at quarterback really was.
"It’s becoming more evident now you’ve got to keep your quarterback fairly healthy," Walters said.
On defence, a unit that showed steady improvement as the season went on, the Bombers still finished the year ranked in the bottom half of the league in almost every category; among these, the Bombers allowed the most net offence to opposing teams, surrendering an average of more than 367 yards per game, league statistics show.
But it was the offence in need of the greatest improvement, and that’s why the team opened its chequebook this off-season, signing a number of coveted free agents. The result from the winter spending spree: on paper, the Bombers’ current regime has never had a deeper team to work with.
With some stability at the quarterback position, led by a healthy Willy, a receivers group granted instant credibility with the signings of Weston Dressler and Ryan Smith and a versatile, Canadian running back in Andrew Harris, another off-season acquisition, providing a legitimate threat in the backfield, this season will be playoffs or bust for Walters & Co.
"It’s a critical year for the whole organization," said O’Shea.
Luckily for them, of all the professional sports leagues around the world, the Canadian Football League offers one of the quickest paths to redemption.
With only nine teams in the CFL, and a .500 record — sometimes even lower — often enough to make it to the post-season, the chance for a quick turnaround is never really far from reach, even if the Bombers have tested that theory in recent years.
In 2013, the Edmonton Eskimos fumbled to a 4-14 record, last place in the Western Division. Two years later, they posted a league-best 14-and-4 mark, finishing as 2015 Grey Cup champions.
Their opponents in the final, the Ottawa Redblacks, paced the East with a record of 12-6 in what was just their second season in the CFL after joining the league as an expansion team in 2014.
"You look at the Edmonton model, and they were a really good football team that year before they got things turned around, they had some losses, but they were really close," said Walters.
Of the Bombers’ 13 losses last season, seven were within seven points, four of which were lost by three points or less. Walters knows if a few of those games go the other way, his team is in the playoffs and anything can happen.
"You got to win the close games," he said.
It’s a lesson he’s had to learn the hard way.
He hopes to be around long enough to feel what it’s like to be on the other side. The contracts of both Walters and O’Shea are set to expire by season’s end, meaning the pressure to succeed is even higher. Another failed season, and the questions around this team will only continue to pile up.
"I don’t need to put any pressure on them because they put enough pressure on themselves," said Miller.
A simple answer, in no uncertain terms.
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.