Is Tim Burke ducking responsibility for the Bombers’ struggles, or is he right?

One of the most interesting CFL stories this week comes from south of the border, as The Gazette (the one from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, not the Montreal one) ran a lengthy profile on embattled Winnipeg Blue Bombers coach Tim Burke. Much of it's a reflection on how Burke started his football journey in Iowa and how he made it to his current post, but there are also some particularly notable responses from Burke about his coaching beliefs and his team's struggles this year. Here's what he said:

From his first assistant coach job at the University of Minnesota in 1977, through stops as an assistant at Purdue University and the University of Kansas, a pair of Grey Cup wins as the defensive coordinator of the Montreal Alouettes, and on to his first head coaching job in Winnipeg, Burke’s message has stayed the same.

“I really believe, obviously I believe in a disciplined program,” Burke said. “Every player is accountable for his performance and his actions. And the coach is accountable for what he coaches.” ...

His old-school style of coaching has shown through in Winnipeg. Burke took over the Blue Bombers midseason last year, after then-head coach Paul LaPolice was fired, and despite the continued struggles of the team — Winnipeg is 1-5 so far this season and just fired general manager Joe Mack and president and CEO Garth Buchko — Burke still holds to a notion he heard legendary Alabama Coach Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant say, that ‘Nobody has ever won the Kentucky Derby with a mule.’

“You have to have talent to make your dreams come true,” Burke said. “I think coaching, good coaching, can affect the team and bring them up a few notches from where their talent is. And bad coaching can take them the other way. If you’ve got top-flight talent, no matter how bad of a coach you are, you’re probably not going to be at the bottom. If you’ve got the worst talent in the world, as a coach, you might be able to elevate them a couple of notches from the bottom, but that’s going to be about it.”

At first glance, there seems to be a dichotomy there. On the one hand, Burke's demanding accountability, but on the other hand, he seems to be saying that he can't do much with the talent he has (which seems to be a shot at the recently-fired Mack). He does have a bit of a point, though. The Bombers' record of talent acquisition and retention under Mack was extremely questionable, and Burke's right that the greatest coach in the world can't turn a team with no talent into a champion. Burke should be evaluated on what he's able to do within the restrictions he's operating under, not on merely how the team does overall; there are a lot of factors there that he isn't able to control.

That doesn't mean that Burke gets a free pass for his own decisions because bad decisions were also made higher up, though. While he's right that he can only work with the talent he's given, he doesn't seem to have maximized that talent all that well thus far. Consider the Winnipeg defence, Burke's own speciality, which is getting shredded through the air: the Bombers have allowed a league-high 73.6 per cent of opposing passes to be completed, they're giving up 291.3 passing yards per game (second-worst in the CFL) and they're conceding 9.1 yards per pass on average (tied for second-worst league-wide). That's despite a league-high 24 sacks: Winnipeg has the talent to get to the quarterback, but they haven't been able to do anything else against the pass, and that would seem to be on coaching as much as raw talent (especially considering that successful defensive coverage is often about intelligent schemes and reads, not just raw physical skill). Overall, too, the Bombers are giving up 28.8 points per game, second-worst in the league.

Those are just the areas that Burke takes responsibility for, though. Despite his preaching about accountability and his role as the team's head coach, he's generally refused to take ownership of anything involving the morbid offence. He even went so far as to say this week that he left the potentially-disastrous decision to start CFL rookie Max Hall completely up to offensive coordinator Gary Crowton and his staff:

Head coach Tim Burke was grilled Monday about the decision on Hall. He said the choice was left to the offensive coaches and co-ordinator Gary Crowton.

"One of the things we wanted to make sure of was that we weren't mandating to the offensive coaches who was going to play at quarterback," Burke said. "This was totally the decision of the offensive staff. Gary and the coaching staff on offence unanimously and passionately chose Max to be the quarterback.

"There was no pressure from anybody to make that decision."

Regardless of if Burke is making those decisions himself or not, he should still be accountable for them. As a certain band would tell us, if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice. Burke's quite right that he isn't responsible for the talent on the roster. However, he is responsible for how he employs it, and good coaches have the ability to transform players who might be mediocre in one system into superstars in a system that fits their strengths. (See Bill Walsh's work with Virgil Carter and Ken Anderson, for example.) Burke hasn't demonstrated much of an ability to do that thus far. He should absolutely be judged independently of Mack, but at the moment, that judgement doesn't look great for him either.