Forward progress

Test

For the second year in a row, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers failed to qualify for the CFL playoffs, increasing their Grey Cup drought to twenty years. In Paul LaPolice’s first year as a CFL head coach, he led the Bomber to a deceptive 4-14 regular season record.

I call it a “deceptive” season because, on paper, things just don’t seem to add up, especially when comparing it to the 7-11 season the 2009 Blue Bomber squad had under head coach Mike Kelly. On paper, 4-11 is a worse record and one might make the logical connection that the 2010 Blue Bombers team must have gotten worse as their win-loss record indicates. Looking at the team’s stats and individual performers, though, the Blue Bombers don’t seem to have reverted at all.

Consider the points for/points against differential from the past two years. In 2009, the Bombers had 328 PF and 502 PA, for a point differential of -120. In 2010, however, the Blue and Gold had 464 PF and 485 PA, for a differential of -20. From this, it’s fair to suggest that the 2010 Bomber team was a more efficient team, especially on offence, than Mike Kelly’s 2009 squad.

This year, running back Fred Reid led the CFL in rushing yards, Phillip Hunt led the league in sacks (with the equally hard-hitting Odell Willis finishing third) and Terrence Edwards had the best season in his career, hauling in a career-high 12 touchdown passes. In 2009, while Reid was the second best rusher in the league, the best Blue Bomber receiver, slotback Adarius Bowman, wasn’t even among the CFL top ten receivers.

What I’m trying to illustrate here is how close this team might just be to achieving greatness. The team set a CFL record for losing the most games by four or less points (nine), and with so many losses coming down to one or two key plays, a couple lucky breaks or bounces in the Bombers’ direction could have turned a 4-14 record into an 8-10 record, and potentially a playoff berth.

So let’s take a look at what went wrong in 2010:

Injuries

Every team suffers injuries over the course of a season, but the Bombers suffered arguably the most significant injuries of the 2010 season, all at the worst possible times. Pre-season injuries to DB Keyuo Craver, OL Glenn January, LS Chris Cvetkovic caused personnel issues for each phase of the team that hindered any early progression of the team as a whole. After cementing himself as an early CFL Rookie of the Year candidate, WR Terence Jeffers-Harris suffered a high ankle sprain that kept him out of the lineup for several weeks. The most significant injuries, though, were suffered at the quarterback position.

Heading into the season, the Bombers announced Buck Pierce as their starting quarterback. Through Buck’s time playing with the BC Lions, he garnered the dubious distinction of being a “glass quarterback” due to his history of shoulder injuries and suspected concussions. The most cynical Bomber fans figured that he wouldn’t last more than four games.

In a Week 3 loss to Hamilton, Pierce suffered a serious knee injury that kept him out of action for most of the season when a defender rolled onto the back of his leg. In his second game back, Buck suffered another fluke injury which ended his season, as he awkwardly fell backwards and dislocated his elbow. While the cynics would love to say “I told you so,” the fact that these injuries had nothing in common with Pierce’s injury history indicates to me that they had less to do with Pierce being a fragile quarterback and more to do with him having shit luck this year.

Second-string quarterback Steven Jyles filled in for Pierce through most of the season and almost led the Bombers to a late season surge for a playoff berth. Unbelievably, both Jyles and third string QB Alex Brink would be injured in the same game, leaving the Bombers scrambling to sign replacements with only QB Joey Elliott remaining on the roster.

One can only wonder how the season might have played itself out without all the miserable injury issues that prevented a very young group of players from gelling as a team.

Inconsistency from players

Ultimately, one of the biggest reasons why the Bombers struggled in 2010 was because of inconsistent play from players that were relied upon to make the big plays. In my mind, there were three starters who held the Bombers back from winning more games and, fortunately, two of them have already since been released.

Placekicker Alexis Serna was projected to be one of the team’s most consistent players heading into the new season after posting promising numbers in 2009, hitting 81.6 per cent of his FGs. After coach LaPolice gifted Serna with the placekicking position uncontested, Serna stunk it up in games early, going eight for 14 for a 57.1 per cent average through the first six games of the season. With the field goal coverage teams screwing the pooch on a couple missed field goal returns for touchdowns, the call was made to release Serna on Aug. 10 of this year.

Adarius Bowman was another player the Bombers expected to lean on after a breakout year in 2009. While he did put up decent numbers (50 catches for 691 yards and three TDs) and was an effective downfield blocker, he was also responsible for some of the most shocking dropped passes of the year. You could count on Bowman dropping one or two easy catches per game, including several that could have been game winning or tying scores. Bowman was released from the team on Oct. 20.

Slotback Brock Ralph is only on the team because of his birth certificate (he’s Canadian). He’s an unreliable receiver who shies away from contact and suffers from the same case of butterfingers as Bowman. You can expect Ralph to be shown the door when Bomber GM Joe Mack finds a suitable non-import WR to replace him during the offseason.

Inconsistency from referees

If I were to give the CFL officials a grade for their officiating in 2010, it would be a D. Tom Higgins, the head of officiating for the CFL, apologized three times this year for inexcusably horrible calls that went against the Blue Bombers, calls that completely shifted the momentum of their game.

On top of those glaring screw ups, CFL refs love to hand out phantom pass interference calls and only seem to call holding calls when they feel like it. It might be beneficial for the CFL to mandate weekly vision checkups for all officiating staff next year. Tom Higgins needs to better prepare his officials before the CFL is finally forced to make long overdue changes.

Rookie coaching mistakes

To say that there have been some growing pains in LaPolice’s first year as head coach would be a vast understatement. There were several instances where coaching mistakes such as questionable play calls and horrible clock management directly hurt the Bombers chances of winning games.

LaPolice also employed a bizarre style of motivation techniques, including heartfelt sharing circles, introspective philosophical musings and spent film time metaphorically comparing the team to old footage of heavyweight boxers and slasher films.

Beyond those puzzling moments, LaPolice and company fielded a competitive team that other teams had to respect. Bomber fans should have faith that LaPolice and Mack will make the necessary changes in scheme and personnel that will build off of the successful aspects of this season. Of specific importance for the team moving forward is finding better non-import talent and improving the methods with which he keeps his team motivated and focused on the task of winning games.

Given that he’s the third Blue Bomber head coach in as many years, LaPolice should be granted a free pass this year for good behaviour, but things must improve. Blame it on injuries, blame it on inconsistency, blame it on the mess he inherited, or simply blame it on bad luck. Whatever’s holding this team back from winning must get fixed over the offseason or there may be more coaching changes coming to Maroons Road.