WINNIPEG -- Are the Winnipeg Blue Bombers the best 3-9 football team?
This year? Absolutely.
In the last 10 years? Quite possibly.
In the history of the CFL? Not yet, but they could be if they keep it up.
One national newspaper this week asked if the Bombers were "The best worst team ever?" It's a legitimate query considering the Blue and Gold have lost five games by four points or fewer and another by a touchdown.
One of their veteran leaders, defensive tackle Doug Brown, buys into the notion that the Bombers aren't a bad football team.
"I've been on some really good teams here in Winnipeg and some piss-poor ones, and this isn't one that reflects its record," Brown said. "People say it's excuses, but it's the reality of the situation. We're better than our record shows. We just haven't been able to capitalize on opportunities."
It's a unique situation this year in that not only are the Bombers considered a good 3-9 team, but they are doing it in a year when two other teams are wallowing along with them.
That means they could make the playoffs despite their dismal record. Perhaps the football gods are orchestrating the whole thing, trying to get the Bombers into the playoffs as a reward for their not-so-terrible play.
Word has it there are even a few players on playoff-bound teams who don't want to face the Bombers in the post-season.
Rookie head coach Paul LaPolice can't stand this kind of chatter, all the sunshine and lollipop talk around his 3-9 squad. He just can't see that when he lies awake at night trying to figure out how to score more points than the opponent.
"I spoke about that to our team today. It's not about that," LaPolice said on Thursday for the umpteenth time this season. "They're not going to have an asterisk at the end of the year saying, 'Hey, after 12 games they were 3-9, but it was a great 3-9.'
"That's not what we're measured on, that's not what our players believe in and not what we believe in, so we have to prove it on the field."
While that may be true, LaPolice can't deny that the statistics indicate he has a good football team on his hands. The coach noted you can bend, twist, pick and choose certain statistics to back up any argument, but the Bombers rank too high in too many categories when compared with other bad teams in recent seasons (see box).
Winnipeg is in the top half of many key categories, including points scored, offensive yards, rushing yards, average gain per pass, average gain per rush, yards allowed, fewest giveaways and quarterback efficiency. The Bombers have scored only three fewer points than they've allowed.
On the other hand, the Bombers are in the bottom half of the league when it comes to takeaways, interceptions, points allowed and sacks allowed. They have taken the most penalties, and they can't win on the road.
So is it the best 3-9 team in CFL history? League statistician and historian Steve Daniel says the Bombers are up there.
"Yes, they are a good team," Daniel said this week from Vancouver. "Statistically speaking, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, if you add it all up, should be much better than 3-9."
They have some competition, however, as the "best worst team." The 1966 B.C. Lions lost eight games by seven points or fewer -- in a 16-game season, no less -- and finished with a 5-11 mark.
Daniel said the '66 Lions are similar to this year's Bombers in more ways than simply losing close contests.
"They were only two years out from a Grey Cup appearance (and victory) in 1964," Daniel said. "Joe Kapp, Willie Fleming and the core of their talent was still there, but it was getting older and there were some issues.
"... That year they were 5-11 and got outscored by only 15 points."
This year's version of the Bombers, meanwhile, is three years removed from a Grey Cup appearance, and there are still a few veteran members like Brown and Terrence Edwards kicking around. This year, however, the new Blue and Gold regime, led by GM Joe Mack, kicked off a youth movement.
And that right there is why Brown -- and even Daniel, in his humble opinion -- believes the Bombers can't win the close ones.
"I'm not a guy that puts a shiny face on something that's not a good situation, but I think they've got a good nucleus and a great foundation for the future," Brown said. "There's been a lot of improvements in a ton of areas throughout the season.
"There's a lot of promise, a lot to look forward to with Winnipeg Blue Bomber football. Had we had the maturation or the experience in those close games, our record would probably be different."
But it's not. Inexperienced quarterback Steven Jyles has gone deep late in games when he should have looked for the check-down guy (23-20 loss in Calgary), LaPolice has made some questionable decisions in his first year as the big boss (17-13 loss in Toronto and 29-22 loss in Hamilton), and sometimes they've lost to a better team (44-40 loss against Montreal).
"When we lost last year we got hammered. We got hammered. This year we're a very competitive team," Brown said. "But it doesn't make me feel any better at the end of the day."