CFL Camp Countdown: Bombers seem to be going with Pierce, but look to develop new QBs
Continuing our CFL Camp Countdown series of season previews, here's a look at the Winnipeg Blue Bombers based on last week's conference call with president and CEO Garth Buchko, general manager Joe Mack, head coach Tim Burke and quarterback Buck Pierce. The Bombers finished tied for last in 2012 with a 6-12 record and are looking for improvement this year. However, they still have many of the same faces involved. Will it work out better this year?
One of the biggest stories with the Bombers over the last few years has been their quarterback position. Pierce has played reasonably well when healthy, and he was a key part of the team's run to the Grey Cup game in 2011. He's suffered plenty of injuries, though, including concussions, and many around the league have wondered if he can or should keep playing. However, the team's offseason decision to release veterans Joey Elliott and Alex Brink and bring in CFL rookies Max Hall and Chase Clement to join Justin Goltz seems like an endorsement of Pierce for at least the immediate future. Adapting to the 12-a-side, three-down, bigger-field CFL game usually takes quite a while for quarterbacks, as the Bombers should know well by now. Pierce himself said it wasn't easy for him to adjust to football in Canada.
"You can't be thrown in the fire right away," he said. "You have to be able to rise to the challenge. It's a big learning curve for a young guy."
Pierce said he thinks the biggest challenge for quarterbacks is adapting to the three downs, which puts an extra premium on completing passes, but also can cause some quarterbacks to get too aggressive and turn the ball over.
"For quarterbacks, your main job is to manage the football game," he said. "You have to understand that sometimes field position is a bigger thing. You don't want to force the ball."
He said the CFL's variety of differences aren't easy to pick up on quickly.
"It's just understanding the little intricacies of the CFL," Pierce said. "It takes time."
Pierce credits his success in the CFL to the men he learned from with the B.C. Lions.
"I had smart teachers," he said. "I had Dave Dickenson in front of me, Wally Buono and Jacques Chapdelaine out there."
He said new quarterbacks have to be ready to adjust to the Canadian game, not set in their ways.
"I think it takes time," Pierce said. "You have to come in and be open-minded. When you do get your opportunities, you have to be successful."
Pierce said he thinks Hall and Clement will fit in well in Winnipeg, as both have professional experience (in the NFL and UFL respectively).
"It's nice to have some guys coming in that have pro experience," he said. "They know how to approach this as a job and take it seriously. They're new to the CFL, but they do have that pro experience."
Mack said the experience Hall and Clement bring to the table has already been evident.
"They have some pro experience, and they picked up things really quickly," he said.
Mack's also counting on Goltz to improve. He's been with the Bombers since 2010, so he's somewhat adjusted to the CFL, but he's only thrown seven career passes.
"Justin's a really good athlete," Mack said. "He's a hard worker, he's a quality young man. We think Justin has a chance to really step up this year."
Pierce seems like the obvious bet to be under centre when the Bombers start their season, but Burke said there will be a competition in camp, which he thinks will help boost all the quarterbacks.
"Competition is always a good thing; it brings out the best in everybody," Burke said.
Given Pierce's CFL experience, he'd seem a safe bet to win that competition. However, with his injury history, it makes sense to develop others behind him. We'll see if Goltz can step up and/or if Hall and Clement can adapt to the Canadian game.
—This will be Burke's first full season as head coach, as he took over in the middle of last year following the firing of Paul LaPolice. Burke said he thinks the Bombers are in a better spot now than they were last season, and he's happy to have a full camp to implement his own philosophies.
"I think we're in much better shape as a team than we were when I took over as interim head coach," he said. "Certainly I feel a lot more ready to be a head coach this year than last year."
—Burke said one big change will be to the team's practices, where he wants to up the intensity.
"We try to make it more chaotic than an actual game."
—A big offseason addition for the Bombers was Canadian safety Cauchy Muamba, signed as a free agent from the B.C. Lions. Burke said he expects Muamba to give them more from the safety position than released veteran Ian Logan.
"He's an upgrade," Burke said. "I feel he's a little more athletic than Ian."
—Muamba is the brother of Henoc Muamba, the Winnipeg linebacker who was the first overall draft pick in 2011. Mack said he's been thrilled with Henoc's progress so ar.
"We're really happy with the progress Henoc made last year," Mack said. "He has a lot of upside potential."
—The Bombers are finally moving into the new Investors Group Field this year. Buchko said demand for tickets in the new stadium has been strong.
"We're over 23,000 season-ticket holders, closing in on 24,000, which is a record for the Winnipeg Football Club," he said.
—Mack said he's thrilled with the stadium.
"There are great sightlines for the fans; it's really just outstanding," he said. "I think it measures up to every stadium of its size in North America."
—Burke said the stadium's also designed to maximize fan noise, which could give the team an on-field boost.
"It's going to be exceptionally loud in there," he said. "If we give the fans something to cheer about, it will be a definite home-field advantage."