Despite Winnipeg’s mistakes, no wrath from Khan

The news that long-time CFL centre Obby Khan is coming out of retirement less than four months after he initially hung up his cleats is surprising, but what's even more unusual is that he's joining the Calgary Stampeders. After a brief stint with the Ottawa Renegades from 2004-05, Khan came to Winnipeg and became one of the most recognizable faces and one of the most important contributors to the Bombers, so it's going to be quite weird to see him in another team's jersey. However, former Bomber Doug Brown writes in his Winnipeg Free Press column that Khan's departure from Winnipeg is all on the team. That raises significant questions about general manager Joe Mack's decisions, and it might just add to the chorus of those calling for his head. Here's the key part of what Brown wrote:

Obby retired from this football team less than four months ago because he was going to be released. Khan, 32, after training in the off-season to try and build off the successes of the 2011 team, was told by the head coach that the Blue and Gold wanted to go in a different direction and get younger at the spot he manned for six years. He was not the first professional athlete to be blindsided by management's decision to replace him, and he won't be the last, but the thing that is different is how Obby remained loyal to a football team that had no further use for him.

Even though he was preparing to play at least one more season, and thought himself physically fit and primed to do so, he decided to instead announce he was retiring and focus on his restaurant development rather than shop himself around and leave a city he had come to love. After a candid discussion with Milt Stegall though, Obby decided to not sign his official retirement papers and asked for his release instead, simply to keep his options open if things changed in the future -- and change they did indeed. ...

Though he signed with the Stampeders, and is anxious to help that franchise and team in any way he can, Obby did something that is quite telling about how he still feels about the team that released him, and the community that invested in him, which is really the impetus for this column.

Once he decided that he had both the time and appetite to re-engage himself in professional football, the first team he had his agent call, in spite of everything that had recently happened to him, was the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Sometimes you just have to go with what your heart tells you, no matter how your brain may disagree.

That's a frankly amazing move from Khan given how the Bombers apparently pushed him into retirement, and it's Mack's decisions first to force Khan out and second to not pick him up again that really deserve Winnipeg fans' wrath here. The Bombers have been by far the worst team in the league this year, putting up a 1-5 record, and they've been the only team that's really stood out from the pack; everyone else has at least three wins. They're also last in points scored (127, 21.2 per game) and points allowed (199, 33.2 per game). The defence's issues are a whole story on their own, but the offence's struggles have been thanks to much more than just injuries to Buck Pierce and Chris Garrett; the interior of the offensive line has been a particular issue in the absence of Khan and Brendon LaBatte (who left for Saskatchewan in free agency). When it looked like Khan had elected to retire rather than continue playing, that was understandable; the centre can be the most difficult position to replace given his scheme-calling and leadership responsibilities, and it's not surprising that Chris Kowalczuk and Justin Sorensen have had some early struggles fitting in there. However, Brown's revelation that the breakup was instigated and continued from Mack's side suggests that the Bombers' issues at centre are of their own making.

This isn't a tale of a team electing to get rid of some washed-up player in favour of youth. Khan's only 31, and he could have plenty of good years left. He's also shone over his CFL career, including nabbing the Bombers' nomination for the league's Outstanding Lineman award in 2006 (tough, considering that said honour often goes to a tackle), and his experience at centre could have proved vital this year. After the Bombers tried to push him to the sidelines last year, starting LaBatte at centre for the final three regular-season games, Khan came back strong in the playoffs and started at centre all the way through the Grey Cup game, doing an excellent job along the way. Playing centre's as much about understanding your fellow linemen and their capabilities and predicting what defences will do as it is about raw physical skill, and Khan's 118 games and eight CFL seasons of experience give him a significant edge over players like Kowalczuk and Sorensen. If Mack can't see that, that's a real problem. One might suggest he start screaming, but Khan doesn't appear to be the villain of this story.