While it's probably still too pre-mature to make bold statements about this year's edition of the Winnipeg Football Club, it seems pretty fair to say -- 11 games into the season -- the 2006 version of the Bombers will be remembered for their exploits on defence more than anything else.
That, of course, is notwithstanding last week's brutal effort in the Labour Day Classic against Saskatchewan. Problem is, the offence was even worse.
Things were going along fairly smoothly for the Bombers offence earlier this year. Sure, they weren't blowing a lot of teams out but they were doing enough to win. That changed dramatically when the team lost (among others) quarterback Kevin Glenn and slotback Milt Stegall to injuries.
"This is a quarterback-driven and playmaker league," said Mike Gibson, the
offensive co-ordinator and offensive line coach of the Bombers, after losing two of his key players.
"So it's time for the others guys to step up. The best thing is, this is an 18-game season. (The Bombers of) 2001 (come) along very seldom."
Remember 2001? That was the year the Bombers went 14-4 and went all the way to the Grey Cup. Gibson was the offensive line coach back then before leaving for a couple of years to coach the line at the University of Louisiana. He returned last season and helped Charles Roberts win the CFL rushing title and improved the offence significantly. It's not the same record-breaking Bombers offence with Khari Jones in his prime, but they had at least been improving last season. That's why coach Doug Berry decided to keep Gibson entering this year.
"I was fortunate when Doug got the job because our paths had crossed before," said Gibson. "He was the coach at the University of Massachusetts when I was at Boston University."
Gibson grew up in the suburbs of D.C. playing all types of sports. He played centre on his high school and college football teams. He graduated with a BA in political science and education from Western Maryland in 1978 and thought he might try law school.
"I learned I didn't want to do that," said Gibson.
So he ended up coaching. He began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Western Maryland. In 1995, Dave Ritchie, then head coach of the B.C. Lions, contacted Gibson to be a guest coach at Lions camp.
"It was the year after they had won the Grey Cup," said Gibson. "I liked it, I liked the athletes I was dealing with but the timing just wasn't right (to stick around). I had a really good college job (as special teams and safety coach at Rutgers University)."
Before the 2001 season, Ritchie (who at that time was coaching of the Bombers) again asked Gibson to make his way up north.
"The timing worked itself out and I really enjoyed it," said Gibson. "We won 14 games and went to the Grey Cup."
Ritchie, now the defensive co-ordinator of the Lions, has an easy answer when describing why he was so adamant in recruiting Gibson.
"I think a lot of him, he's a good offensive line coach," said Ritchie. "OL coaches in Canada are at a premium, they're always good to have around. I wish him success as long as he does it against other people and not us."
While Gibson has had to deal with injuries and having his players (particularly the backup quarterbacks) acclimate themselves to the CFL game, Stegall says he's doing a good job.
"As a whole I think he's a good offensive co-ordinator," said Stegall. "He relates well to the players. I remember when he first got up here in 2001, coming from college, it was a little bit difficult because he had to understand he was dealing with professionals. This is not college, and you just can't scream at everybody.
"He can still scream at his offensive linemen, but overall he's able to relate to everybody, and that's difficult for a lot of coaches to do because you're dealing with so many different generation gaps and different personalities, but he's able to relate with everybody, and I think that's a great attribute to what he's doing for this offence."
Gibson's general strategy on offence has been to get the ball to his big guns, like Stegall.
"We want to spread the ball around and put it in playmakers' hands," said Gibson. "It's a big field and we want to have the matchups to our advantage. I think offensive coaches at every level are always trying to look for those mismatches."
Those mismatches haven't been happening as often as the Bombers would like and Gibson's taken a lot of criticism in recent weeks for the Bombers' lacklustre offensive performances.
"I don't think he'll handle it bad," said Ritchie of the pressure that comes along with being a coach on the hot seat.
"I'm disappointed today," Gibson said after Winnipeg's 32-5 loss to B.C. back on Aug. 10. "But at the same time, and Doug and I were just talking about this, Montreal was 4-5 a year ago at the half. They went 6-3 the last nine games, made it into the playoffs and had a chance to win the Grey Cup."
Winnipeg will have to have a similar turnaround, especially offensively, if they wish to be playing at home on Nov. 19.