HAMILTON - Winnipeg’s playoff hopes finally — mercifully — came to an end in the cold and the rain on a dreary Saturday afternoon at Ivor Wynne Stadium.
Thanks to a 28-18 loss to the host Hamilton Tiger-Cats, the Bombers have now missed the playoffs in three of the last four seasons. They are 19-34 under general manager Joe Mack.
The way Saturday’s setback happened was a microcosm of the 2012 season that will go down as yet another bad one in an era full of them.
Buck Pierce got hurt, they had a terrible first quarter, they turned the ball over five times, they took a bunch of penalties, and the young team just didn’t have the fire required for a must-win game. The bottom line is it was ugly, despite the lipstick they slapped on the pig with a decent second half.
The Bombers fell to 5-12 and became the first team eliminated from post-season contention, while the Ticats improved to 6-11 and kept their hopes alive. When the Bombers close out Canad Inns Stadium on Saturday in a meaningless game against Montreal, they will have gone 28 games without managing a winning streak.
If you weren’t aware of the situation going into the Bomber locker-room after the game, you wouldn’t have known they had just been eliminated from playoff contention. Players were still buzzing over Deon Beasley’s big fourth-quarter hit on Bakari Grant, and others were chatting and laughing away.
“Maybe that’s part of the problem,” one unimpressed veteran said.
The Pierce discussion will no doubt dominate fan websites for a while, but if you’re going to get rid of Pierce because he can’t stay healthy, then you should look at a lot of other players who didn’t show up on Saturday for the team’s most important game of the season.
This tilt was going to tell us a lot about this team. What it told us is it’s not good enough. There is talent in places on the roster, but they are 5-12 for a reason.
Beasley’s pass interference penalty allowed a Hamilton drive to continue in the first quarter, and the possession ended in Henry Burris’ 20-yard touchdown pass to Chris Williams that opened the scoring.
Pierce then fumbled the ball on his own 20-yard line when he tried to bring it down instead of attempting a pass. The pigskin rolled to the one-yard line, and Ticats defensive end Greg Peach scooped it up to put the hosts up 14-0.
It’s likely Pierce got hurt on the hit from Brandon Boudreaux. Pierce returned for one series but left for good after that. The Ticats went up 22-0 in the second quarter thanks to Bryant Turner’s offside penalty that extended another Hamilton drive that had stalled.
Those kind of mistakes simply sum up 2012.
There is the thinking that interim head coach Tim Burke gets a pass to return next year because he took over a tough situation, but it must not be forgotten that the Bombers started awfully in five of six losses since he replaced the fired Paul LaPolice.
The notable ones were the 52-0 loss to Saskatchewan, and the 44-3 setback against Calgary. Saturday wasn’t pretty, either. That needs to be looked at closely in the off-season.
No one in the Bomber locker-room thought there was a lack of effort early in the game when they fell behind 15-0, but what are they going to say? This team needs major change, and their job losses could be part of the makeover.
“No, I don’t think it was effort,” Burke said. “I know defensively we got some different plays than we had seen before and we didn’t handle those real well. After that we played pretty good. Offensively, I don’t think Buck got off to a very good start. He made some poor decisions where he should have gone with the ball. Then he got hurt.”
Pierce has now left 24 of 62 career starts due to injury, including four of seven this year. He has missed 10 other games this season entirely. The conundrum is he still represents their best chance to win, but can’t stay healthy for more than a few games. Just add that problem to the list.
Saturday’s game was Winnipeg’s glorious chance to show it was a team on the right track, that its strong play over the last month was a sign of hope, of promise, and that everything should be kept together going into brand new Investors Group Field in 2013.
They failed miserably, just as they have for most of the season. And in the end it doesn’t matter if it was a lack of effort or simply getting beat by a better team. Fans don’t care why the Bombers lose. All they care about is that they lose. And that’s what will continue to happen unless big changes are made.
Burke, however, believes there are solid pieces in place.
“Our defence played pretty well today,” he said. “When you look at our skill players, they’re pretty good players. We just have to have better quarterback play for us to win games.”
That much is true, but the problems with this team run much deeper than that.