WINNIPEG—Perhaps the most crucial question about the Blue Bombers this year is if they'll be able to keep quarterback Buck Pierce healthy. Although this team isn't expected to do all that well this season, they showed with a close loss to Montreal Thursday that they can contend with upper-echelon teams at times. The Bombers' hopes of doing that largely depend on the oft-injured Pierce, though, as backups Justin Goltz and Max Hall have little to no CFL game experience, and it tends to take quarterbacks even more time than players at other positions to adapt to this league thanks to the bigger field, the three-down game and the 12-a-side nature of Canadian football, all of which have substantial effects on their reads and throws. Thus, Pierce and the team are both taking dramatic measures in an attempt to keep him healthy: Pierce dropped 25-plus pounds this offseason, which he said in a press conference Wednesday was in an effort to become more agile and avoid hits, while head coach Tim Burke said in his own Wednesday press conference that the team has retooled its protection schemes in an effort to keep Pierce upright.
Pierce is listed at 195 pounds this year, which is a significant change for him. He said that in previous years, his teams (the B.C. Lions and then the Blue Bombers) wanted him to be heavier, thinking that would help him take hits and stay on the field. He hasn't always agreed with that thinking, though, arguing that he'd be more mobile and more easily able to evade rushers at a lighter weight, and the Bombers are letting him try it his way this season.
"They've wanted me to be around 210-215 and above to be more durable; I've found that sometimes to hinder me," Pierce said. "I've dropped 30 to 25 pounds, really, and I feel great."
Dropping that much weight isn't easy, but Pierce said his process to do so was a simple one.
"I did a lot of cardio, I ate clean, I just didn't put anything bad into my body," he said. "I still ate a lot, I just ate good stuff."
He said the offseason goal of losing weight helped him avoid complacency and really push his body to its limits.
"The older you get, you have to continue to change up your routines, you know, workout-wise," Pierce said. "I put in all the work, all the hours, all these things, but there's always more you can do. This year, I made a conscious effort to be in the best shape I could be."
Avoiding hits is about more than just agility, though, as a lot of it has to do with the offensive lineman in front of Pierce and how well they do at stopping pass rushers. The way they block for him has been dramatically retooled this offseason, though, in a way that gives Pierce more responsibility for setting blocking schemes. He described those changes as the biggest difference in the team's offensive playbook this year.
"Over the course of the offseason, there's been a lot of studies, there's been a lot of things that we want to do better," Pierce said. "We looked at our protection schemes, that's probably the number-one thing that really jumps out. Concept-wise, we do a lot of the same stuff that other teams run, but we really wanted to look at our protection."
He said the extra responsibility placed on him in this new system's unusual for the CFL.
"It allows me to set the front, to set the protection, so it's more of a U.S. football mindset where I set the protections, I set the hots [hot routes, used to avoid blitzes], I set the sides."
Burke said that scheme change to improve Pierce's protection came from offensive coaches spending time with NFL counterparts over the offseason.
"Our offence spent some time with some NFL people, so they brought some different ideas back scheme-wise for how we're going to protect him," Burke said. "We have several ways to bring extra guys into the box to protect for him. You're probably not going to see Buck on the perimeter as much as you have, because when you get out on the perimeter, you take those vicious hits, so we're going to try and eliminate as much of that as possible."
Pierce said he still plans to work outside the pocket sometimes, though, and that approach has been endorsed by Burke despite his comments.
"I'm sure he's saying that, you know, but he wants me to be me, he wants me to be myself," Pierce said. "He maybe won't call as many plays where I'm out there by myself doing that, but in the course of the game, you're going to have to carry the football, you're going to have to run, you're going to have to make plays with your legs. He understands that and he wants me to do that. Will he put me in that situation with his own playcalls? Maybe not."
Regardless of how it's actually interpreted, the two-faceted plan to keep Pierce upright has found some successes and some setbacks so far. Pierce did look light and mobile under centre Thursday, and evaded some pressure, while the blocking schemes also did keep the Alouettes off him at times. The three sacks Montreal notched of Pierce Thursday are still more than he or the team would like, though, and while his 258 passing yards and two touchdowns were impressive, the three interceptions he threw and his 55.9 per cent completion rate were less so. Still, there was some progress here, and it's clear the team's particularly focused on trying to find ways to keep their quarterback upright. We'll see if Pierce's weight loss, the Bombers' protection schemes or both can translate into continued health for him and success for the team this season.