Despite a 5-12 record and the dousing of their playoff hopes, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers announced Thursday they were removing the "interim" tag from head coach Tim Burke, who's set to be their head coach heading into next season. (They say he'll be their coach for the next year, but they've already proven quite ready and willing to fire coaches mid-season.) Burke's extension itself seems a little premature, but it isn't necessarily a bad move. The other moves the team announced at the press conference, retaining general manager Joe Mack and offensive coordinator Gary Crowton, are far more surprising and more questionable, though. If they'd retained Burke and made other changes, the Bombers would have said "the problem isn't the head coach," and that's a defensible stance. Keeping this whole staff says "there isn't a problem," though, and that's a rather remarkable position to take following a calendar year where the team went from Grey Cup finalists to the last-place team in the league.
Let's start with the chief problem here: retaining Mack. The vast majority of the blame for this season can be laid at the general manager's doorstep. His offseason moves (axing Fred Reid, letting Brendon LaBatte and Greg Carr leave, getting rid of Obby Khan and Odell Willis, not acquiring significant help anywhere) they were bashed by his own players, and he made a complete muddle of the 2012 draft, trading his eighth and 13th-overall picks for the third-overall pick, which he then used on incredibly-raw offensive line prospect Tyson Pencer. Pencer hasn't yet played a CFL game. Meanwhile, the players Hamilton took with those 8th and 13th picks, Courtney Stephen and Carson Rockhill, also haven't played yet, but they're still in school; Pencer has been with the Bombers, but made a minimal impact in camp and has been on the nine-game injured list for much of the year. In fact, the Bombers took three guys with substantial injury histories over the last two years, and all were done for this season by the end of June. They also took Queen's receiver Giovanni Aprile with the bizarre plan of converting him to safety; he's back in the CIS ranks playing receiver again this year. Their other picks? Christo Bilukidi's in the NFL, and while Jake Thomas is on the Bombers' roster, he has one regular tackle and two special-teams tackles this season. That's hardly an impressive draft, and when you throw in previous swings and misses by Mack (Jade Etienne!), his record of player acquisition doesn't look great.
Other problems that can be laid at Mack's feet? How about the quarterback situation? Mack's the guy who decided Buck Pierce's injury history was worth the risk, and while Pierce has been effective at times when healthy, he's never really dazzled and he's only rarely been healthy. Mack put his faith in Alex Brink and Joey Elliott, and neither's shown he deserves a starting job despite numerous opportunities. Who's going to be the Bombers' starting quarterback next year? Burke referred to the quarterback situation as "the elephant in the room" Thursday, and that seems about right. There doesn't seem to be a good answer on the roster, and acquiring one from elsewhere is anything but easy. Furthermore, Mack's track record hardly speaks well for his ability to evaluate quarterbacks, so can he really be trusted to get this crucial decision right?
As odd as the Mack move may seem, there are ways to defend it. Mack did put together a roster that made the 2011 Grey Cup, after all, even if he oversaw its dismantling afterwards. What's more curious is the decision to keep Crowton, who Burke called "one of the brightest minds in football" Thursday. Burke is quite likely the only person who'd say that. Crowton's offence has been historically awful this year, and is currently last in points, touchdowns, gain per pass, net passing yards, pass completion percentage, fumbles lost, interceptions thrown and more. Some of that's on the players and on Mack for not finding better players, and it's tough to do much with Winnipeg's quarterbacks, but still, Crowton has done less than nothing to inspire confidence. He also doesn't have the great track record many writers claim he does. Yes, he's worked in the NFL and at some solid NCAA programs, but his record there isn't all that good, many who have covered him were less than impressed and his stock was declining sharply before he came to Canada (a move from LSU's OC to Maryland's OC definitely suggests your stock is falling). Based on what Crowton's done so far, there's little to suggest he's going to improve.
Extending Burke's contract itself is more equivocal. Yes, what he's done so far isn't all that much better than what LaPolice was fired for (and in terms of margin of victory/defeat, it's actually worse). However, there are some impressive signs that the team's responding to him, and he has an impressive previous record as a defensive coordinator in Montreal and Winnipeg. It's a risky move, especially before their final game, but it's a defensible one; the problem in Winnipeg really wasn't either head coach. Bringing back both Mack and Crowton as well suggests the Bombers are going ahead with a full "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" strategy, though, and that's problematic. Given their season, something is definitely broken, so deciding not to make any radical fixes may not change things around all that much.