February 19, 2011
CFL teams looking for veteran Canadian help on the offensive line might have been tempted to channel William Shatner Friday after the news came out that Winnipeg centre Obby Khan had elected to remain with the team for two more seasons instead of testing the free-agency waters. For the Bombers, though, the more appropriate analogy for bringing back Khan and linebacker Joe Lobendahn comes from another cinematic source, featuring a group of Blues who try to get the band back together. General manager Joe Mack (pictured above) and head coach Paul LaPolice (pictured, below right) aren't likely to be mistaken for the Blues Brothers any time soon even when decked out in suits, but their 2010 offseason approach shares many similarities to the famed 1980 film.
When Jake and Elwood first learn of the threat to the orphanage where they grew up, their plan to raise $5,000 to save it by getting their band back together and doing a reunion concert seems rather crazy. Similarly, it would be easy to write off Winnipeg's offseason plan so far. According to the CFL's free agent tracker, the Blue Bombers have added a total of one player in free agency, Canadian defensive end Shawn Mayne from Montreal. His signing isn't exactly likely to appease those demanding a infusion of new talent, either; in five CFL seasons, Mayne has recorded 18 defensive tackles, nine special-teams tackles and two sacks. He didn't put up a single statistic last season, thanks to injuries and being buried on the depth chart,and he wasn't incredibly productive in the years he spent in Winnipeg either.
Mayne is also 30, so it's not like he's an unproven rookie. There's a chance he could turn into a solid contributor for the Bombers, but he hasn't done much statistically to prove himself thus far. At the moment, the acquisition of Mayne looks like the equivalent of taking a gig at Bob's Country Bunker; it's something, but it might wind up costing you more than you get back.
Moreover, Winnipeg's also seen a couple of losses in free agency. Import running back Yvenson Bernard left for Montreal, and Hamilton picked up Canadian fullback/running back Daryl Stephenson. Neither player was a huge contributor for the Bombers in 2010, but both had plenty of potential and could perhaps have been effective if utilized more frequently. A successful team's a lot like a good band; in addition to flashy frontmen like the Blues (pictured at right) and talented guitarists like Matt Murphy, you also need a good rhythm section if you're going to get anywhere. Bernard and Stephenson weren't the biggest names on the roster, but they both did their part, and they won't necessarily be easy to replace.
The Bombers' muted approach to free agency may reflect Mack's style, but it doesn't necessarily replicate what the fans want to see. After all, Winnipeg finished 2010 with a 4-14 record, by far the worst in the CFL. They were probably better than that record suggests, but they were a long ways from the CFL's elite. Tough times often lead to changes, and they certainly at least tempt people to try and shake things up. Jake and Elwood didn't have to try and hunt down all their old bandmates, and things clearly didn't go well enough the first time around to keep Jake from turning to armed robbery. With the likes of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and John Lee Hooker floating around the film, some undoubtedly would have called for them to try and make a splash in the free-agent market.
However, football teams and bands are both about more than the sum of their individual talents, and adding new talent can go awfully wrong. Chemistry, cohesion and continuity all come into play for both, and that may favour Mack's focus on bringing back his own players over trying to land guys from other teams. Khan's veteran presence at centre should anchor the Bombers' offensive line, and Lobendahn has improved every year with the team. Both players are reasonably young, too (Khan's 30, Lobendahn just turned 28), so they should be able to continue to develop. It's not like Winnipeg's lacking in the talent department, either; despite losing Phillip Hunt to the NFL, they've managed to hang on to players like Buck Pierce, Steven Jyles, Terrence Edwards, Fred Reid, Terrence Jeffers-Harris and Doug Brown (who recently signed a new contract of his own with the team). That's a roster with plenty of star power, similar to the band the Blues assembled. We'll have to wait and see if their team-building plan results in angry mobs storming their offices, a triumphant concert conclusion, or both.