June 26, 2011
Continuing our Zeroth Down preview series, here's a look at the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Despite the NHL's return to town, they're still doing well off the field—the question is if they can improve on last year's dismal 4-14 record on the field.
Back To The Future: Quarterback Tom Clements had found some CFL success before he came to Winnipeg in 1983, but it was his time with the Blue Bombers that really made him memorable. After a great career at Notre Dame, where he led the Fighting Irish to the 1973 national championship, Clements headed to Ottawa to join the Rough Riders. He earned the league's rookie of the year award in his first season and led the team to the 1975 Grey Cup, but split time with Condredge Holloway throughout his four years in Ottawa. He then headed to Saskatchewan in 1979, but things didn't work out for him there, and only a mid-season trade to Hamilton revitalized his career.
Clements wound up leading the CFL in passing yards in 1979, briefly joined Marv Levy's Kansas City Chiefs in 1980, then returned to Hamilton the next year and had good seasons with the Tiger-Cats in 1981 and 1982. They opted to trade him for veteran Winnipeg quarterback Dieter Brock before the 1983 season, though, and that move would come back to haunt them; Clements led the Blue Bombers to victory over the Tiger-Cats in the 1984 Grey Cup and had four more successful seasons with them, while Brock left for the NFL's Los Angeles Rams after the 1983 season.
Clements' story strikes a chord with this current Winnipeg team, and particularly with the man set to be their starting quarterback when their season kicks off on Canada Day against Hamilton. Like Clements, Buck Pierce (pictured above in Thursday's preseason tilt) has found CFL success, putting up impressive numbers in his time with the B.C. Lions from 2005-2009. Also like Clements, he's hit bumps along the way; Pierce had to battle with the likes of Dave Dickenson, Casey Printers and Jarious Jackson for playing time, and often wound up getting injured along the way.
Pierce joined the Blue Bombers as a free agent in 2010, and although he wasn't uniformly well-received at first thanks to his injury history (again like Clements, who entered town as a replacement for long-time franchise face Brock), he turned in a superb performance in several games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. The team clearly still believes in Pierce, though, and their offseason trade of Steven Jyles demonstrates that (although Jyles' own injury issues, which have kept him sidelined in Toronto, may also have played a role there). We'll see if he can go on to repeat the success Clements found in Winnipeg.
Offence: When healthy, Pierce can be very effective. Before he got hurt last season, Pierce's 66.7 per cent completion percentage was second only to Anthony Calvillo among starting quarterbacks, and his quarterback rating of 97.9 was quite solid as well. His touchdown-to-interception ratio of six to four could use some improvement, but that comes with the caveat of small sample size. However, even the best quarterback isn't much without receivers and an offensive line. Winnipeg's top receiving options aren't bad, including Terrence Edwards (pictured at right making a spectacular 2010 touchdown catch), Terrence Jeffers-Harris and Greg Carr. (Funnily enough, the Bombers' second-leading receiver last year in total yardage was Adarius Bowman, cut in October after dropping too many passes.) There are questions about the cast beyond that, though, and those questions are especially prominent on the Canadian front. Cory Watson looked good in limited playing time last year, and there are promising rookies like Kito Poblah and Jade Etienne, but none of those guys have consistently performed at this level thus far.
The offensive line was a pretty decent unit last year, and the interior core of Brendon LaBatte, Obby Khan and Steve Morley seems likely to be back. One interesting change on the line is at right tackle, where Glenn January has made his way back from a torn pectoral muscle he suffered at the start of the season last year to win the job from Kelly Butler. We'll see how he does there. A strong performance from the line may be essential, as the Bombers' hopes are heavily reliant on Pierce staying healthy.
The running game is perhaps the most promising part of the Winnipeg offence, though. Fred Reid won the CFL's rushing title last year, picking up 1,396 yards and six touchdowns. He was very efficient, too, doing so on just 213 carries for an average of 6.6 yards per carry. He'll be backed up by fifth-round Canadian draft pick Carl Volny, who had a solid career at Central Michigan. If Reid can stay healthy and Volny can contribute, the ground game could be a crucial part of Winnipeg's attack.
Rating: Four games of Duck, Duck Goose.
Defence: This side of the ball carries more questions, as the 485 points the Bombers conceded in 2010 were the third-highest total in the league (behind Saskatchewan and Edmonton). The defensive line was a force last year, but much of that was thanks to Phillip Hunt's league-leading 16 sacks; Hunt left for the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles in the offseason. Doug Brown is still playing at a high level and can provide veteran leadership, and Odell Willis has potential, but Dorian Smith hasn't made too many waves as a starter and Hunt's replacement Jason Vega still has to prove himself in game action.
Linebackers Clint Kent, Joe Lobendahn and Marcellus Bowman have potential, but none have really established themselves as dominant CFL forces yet; we'll see if any of them are able to make that leap this year. Kent may have the most potential; he showed plenty of promise last year from his strong-side spot. Top overall pick Henoc Muamba could also perhaps win a job here once he returns from injury. The secondary is also a bit of a work in progress. Jovon Johnson led the team last year with just four interceptions, and no other Bomber had more than two. The Bombers were decent in the cover game, but not outstanding; they'll have to improve there if they want to see better results in the standings.
Rating: Three celebratory cannons.
Special teams: The special teams weren't really bad last year, but they weren't really great, either. Canadian rookie kicker Justin Palardy was a bright spot last year, hitting 26 of 30 field goal attempts for a success rate of 86.7 per cent (second only to Paul McCallum's league-leading 88.5 per cent), and he's still around; if he continues at that pace, field goals shouldn't be a problem. Palardy also punted at one point last year after the release of Louie Sakoda, but with less success, averaging just 42.1 yards per punt. Mike Renaud handled most of the punting workload last year and did a reasonable job, but his average of 42.9 yards wasn't ideal and his directional punting could use some work as well; the Bombers would like to see him continue to improve.
The cover teams could also use some help. DB Johnny Sears may be a nice addition there based on what he showed in the preseason, but he's on the nine-game injured list at the moment. In the meantime, Jason Nugent has been called back in. The return game was an area of concern last year, and the team will be hoping rookie returner Perry Floyd can turn that around. It's tough to place much faith in him before we see what he can do in the regular season, though.
Rating: Three miked-up missteps.
Totals: 10 points out of 15.
Greatest strength: The ground game. Fred Reid has the consistency to regularly pick up solid yardage and the explosive ability to make spectacular plays, and if the line can give him the kind of blocking they did last year, he should have another stellar season. Volny is a talented backup, too, and the Bombers may be wise to get him involved from time to time to keep Reid fresh.
Potential weakness: The secondary. This unit didn't look all that great last year, and I'm not sure they have a huge amount of upside. The physical dimensions are worrying as well; every Bomber who recorded two or more interceptions last season is listed as 5'9'' or 5'10'' on the CFL's website, which puts them in a disadvantage in a league that's increasingly going towards bigger and taller receivers. We saw this on the opening drive of Thursday's pre-season game, when Cleo Lemon chucked a 47-yard touchdown bomb to Brandon Rideau; the 6'3'' Rideau easily went up to nab the ball away from the 5'9'' Johnson. It's not that shorter defensive backs are doomed to fail, but an entire secondary of them seems to have potential issues.
Season prediction: The Bombers were quite unlucky last year, and were better than their 4-14 record indicated; without quarterback injuries and multiple miscues in close games, they definitely could have picked up a few more wins. Even with luck, though, there were notable skill voids, and I'm not sure this year's team is drastically better, particularly with the loss of one of their top players in Hunt. They'll be fun to watch, particularly for the development of young guys like Poblah, Etienne and Muamba, but I don't think they're ready to climb out of the East Division basement just yet. I think they'll go 6-12 and miss the playoffs.
Watch 55-Yard Line for a preview of the Saskatchewan Roughriders Monday, and make sure to stop by on Thursday at noon Eastern for our special season preview chat!
Note: This post originally had the dates of Clements' national championship (1973, not 1983) and Winnipeg Grey Cup (1984, not 1983) wrong. Correct dates have been added above.