One bust of a summer

JIM BENDER -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 2:22 PM ET

First, let's look at the bright side of the 2004 Winnipeg Blue Bombers season Let's see ... umm ... oh yeah, kick returner Keith Stokes was named the CFL's Most Outstanding Special Teams Player of the Year, and he was smart enough not to take a stack of magazines to the podium with him.

Then there was, hmm ... oh yeah, scatback Charles Roberts had another great year ... slotback Milt Stegall showed he's still got it in the last half of the season ... and defensive end Tom Canada was in the running for top rookie.

And the Bombers did win the inaugural Banjo Bowl versus Saskatchewan. (Wonder if the Roughriders will introduce a Dung Bowl the next time they host B.C.?)

After that, it gets dark pretty fast.

Winnipeg's demise actually began after the end of the 2003 campaign. The club had failed to meet expectations yet again and the powers-that-be then started debating whether to keep head coach/director of football operations Dave Ritchie for the last year of his contract or eat that pact and hire a new mentor. But first, Bomber CEO/president Lyle Bauer had to keep director of player personnel Brendan Taman from Calgary's clutches.

After watching The Sun's daily Ritchie Watch for too long, Bauer and his board finally made their move. They promoted Taman -- the man Ritchie had hired -- to GM to become Ritchie's boss, then stripped Ritchie of his director of football operations title. To make matters worse, Ritchie was forced to fire his friend, secondary coach Gene Gaines, to make room for Jim Daley, who became the defensive line/special teams coach.

It did not take long for Winnipeg to lose fullback Mike Sellers (Washington) and offensive/defensive lineman Eric Wilson (Miami) to the NFL, and neither one was ever really replaced.

'Trader Taman' then made the first of his many deals over the next 12 months. He acquired Stokes from Montreal for some draft picks. Good move. Taman then acquired fullback Randy Bowles and OL Cory Annett from Toronto but neither earned starting spots here. Then, on the eve of training camp, Taman acquired quarterback Kevin Glenn from Toronto (via Saskatchewan).

Meanwhile, the Bombers rid themselves of defensive end Inoke Breckterfield, defensive backs Harold Nash Jr. and Marvin Coleman, safety Tom Europe, receiver Chad Plummer, quarterback Joe Barnes and made little effort to re-sign DE Daved Benefield, who joined Saskatchewan. Calgary also out-bid the Bombers for linebacker Brian Clark and DB Milo Lewis.

Taman did sign cornerback Eric Carter and WR/SB Kamau Peterson, both free agents, and recruited Canada. Then he added veteran DE Elfrid Payton three games into the season.

But disaster ensued. It was common knowledge that the ravaged defence would take time to come around so, the offence was expected to carry the squad until the defence got its jam together. It just never happened. The secondary was deplorable most of the season and the pass rush was poor. The offence was a disappointment, particularly the protection up front in the early going. Roberts at least did what was expected of him but the veteran receivers started to show their age. QB Khari Jones was off to his worst start. In fact, the Bombers had signed Jones to a multi-year pact worth about $1 million but kept waiting for him to get tracked before announcing it. They finally gave up the ghost and made it official.

When Winnipeg started losing by too much too often, Ritchie began to expend more energy discussing his shaky future than on getting the club turned around. It cost him and it was his friend, Taman, who had to pull the trigger. Ritchie then underwent triple bypass surgery.

Daley replaced Ritchie after a 2-5 start and immediately addressed the most immediate concerns -- the quarterbacking, O-line and air defence. Daley's attention to details paid immediate dividends to the O-line and Jones's play improved. But Jones then suffered a mysterious shoulder ailment that affected his throwing -- but not his golf swing -- and Glenn took the controls. After NFL QB Tee Martin agreed to join the Bombers, trade rumours with Calgary heated up with Jones involved as trade bait. Then, in one of the strangest trade scenarios ever seen, a cloak-and-dagger deal was done shortly after the Bombers were blown out in Montreal. Jones, Bowles and a draft pick were sent to Calgary for Fleming, S Wes Lysack and FB Scott Regimbald. But they failed to help Winnipeg get into the playoffs and the Bombers missed post-season action for the first time since 1999.

If all that was not enough, Bauer started taking treatment for throat cancer in early December.

Now, Daley has re-signed and convinced both Fleming and Regimbald to return. But there are still too many questions left to be answered before we can ponder whether the Bombers will become legitimate Grey Cup contenders next season. Who will be the offensive co-ordinator? Defensive co-ordinator? Starting quarterback? Will they have a legitimate deep threat to complement Stegall? Will the O-line be upgraded? What about the pathetic secondary? Can they find another Moe Kelly at linebacker? Will fans start coming back?

And will we have another crappy summer, just like the Bombers did?

The offence was expected to carry the squad until the defence got its jam together. It just never happened.


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