Only a few short years ago, garbage bag day for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers kind of summed up their season: garbage.
As the Blue and Gold cleaned out their lockers yesterday and headed for their homes all over North America, that description couldn't have been further from the truth. They lost the Grey Cup on Sunday by four points with their backup quarterback.
Considering they have only eight free agents, four of them starters, the core of the team should remain intact in 2008. Things look promising, but only if they don't make the same mistakes that were made following their 2001 Grey Cup setback to the Calgary Stampeders.
The next year they lost the West Division final. Then the West semifinal. Then they missed the playoffs two seasons in a row.
Now that they're back near the top of the CFL heap, defensive tackle Doug Brown believes the Bombers must look to their past if the future is going to be bright.
"There's lessons to be learned from 2001," Brown said. "There's a fine line between keeping a core group of players intact and not making enough improvements to progress. They say if you're not getting better, you're getting worse.
"You can't stay status quo ever, because then everyone else is getting ahead of you. It's something you just entrust to the front office."
The front office made errors following the 2001 campaign, the most notable being the retention of too many veterans who were a smidgen past their primes.
The Bombers were still strong in 2002, finishing second in the West Division with a 12-6 record, but the nosedive had already started and there was no parachute.
"You never want to lose that continuity and the lessons that players have learned playing with each other," Brown said, "but at the same time you still have to do your diligence in evaluating players and making sure that you are evolving as a football team. You can't ever stand pat.
"We didn't win the Grey Cup, and that's about the only argument you can ever take to a general manager: 'Hey, let's bring the same team in next year because we won the Grey Cup.'
"We didn't do that, so there's still obviously some pieces to the puzzle that need to be added here."
The Bombers have only three starters from Sunday's Grey Cup who will be older than 31 when the season starts next season. There will be only two if slotback Milt Stegall decides to retire.
"If I'm back or if I'm not back, this team will be an excellent team next year," Stegall said. "They'll have a great chance of winning the Grey Cup.
Head coach Doug Berry didn't get specific yesterday about what roster alterations need to be made. He did, however, seem to take great pride in restoring an attitude that was sorely lacking when he came on board 23 months ago.
"We're still moving forward," Berry said. "We're making a lot of progress in the team identity of what it takes to become a winner and consistently be a winner.
"As I told the team this morning, we passed the Cinderella stage and there are certain expectations that we all have now, whether it's the expectations we have of each other or expectations that I have of them or what the expectations are from the opponents' perspective of our football team or our fans."
"We are now an entity where we come on the field to play and we're no longer taken for granted."