Blue bombed out and depleted

At least the Bombers were able to re-sign quarterback Buck Pierce. (AL Charest/QMI Agency files)

At least the Bombers were able to re-sign quarterback Buck Pierce. (AL Charest/QMI Agency files)

Kirk Penton, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:36 AM ET

It is supposed to be a glorious time in the organization’s 82-year history. A new stadium is on the horizon, and the team is coming off an East Division crown.

However, as far as off-seasons go, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have had many better ones than what they’re experiencing this winter.

From free agent defections to player unhappiness to stadium construction woes, the last few months have been rough on the Blue and Gold. Some of it has been their doing. Some of it has not. The bottom line is they haven’t exactly continued the momentum of last November’s Grey Cup appearance.

Where has it gone wrong? Let us count the ways.

1) Stadium Fiasco

The brand new Investors Group Field was supposed to be ready for the start of the 2012 season, but windy Winnipeg weather (who knew?) has delayed the project. This impacts the team in more ways than one.

The Bombers will play their pre-season game in old Canad Inns Stadium, which has been left to rot since the East Division final was played there on Nov. 20. As a result, the Winnipeg Football Club, which is already staring at an $85-million loan for IGF, will have to pump some of their expected $2 million profit from 2011 into getting Canad Inns back up and running.

So the organization is losing money and should be red faced for telling everyone last fall they were done playing games at Canad Inns Stadium.

That’s not all.

The construction delay means the Bombers will be playing their first four games on the road, which will not be easy. They open in Vancouver against the defending Grey Cup champion B.C. Lions, and then they go to Montreal, where the Alouettes are always tough with quarterback Anthony Calvillo at the helm.

In case you’re wondering, the Bombers have never made it to the Grey Cup when they start a season 0-2.

After that, the Bombers have to play two more road games — in Edmonton and Toronto — over the course of six days.

Throw in the fact that the team will have to move all of its stuff across the city in the middle of the season. Just be glad you’re not the Bombers equipment manager. How is your year looking, Brad Fotty?

And if that’s not enough, some fans are upset with the seat allocation process for the new park.

When it rains, it pours.

2) Brendon LaBatte

The guy could have been the next Chris Walby, but instead he’s going to be the next Gene Makowsky.

Yes, LaBatte was only a guard, but he was a guard who never made mistakes. Mistakes lead to sacks. Sacks lead to injured quarterbacks. Injured quarterbacks lead to losses.

This one wasn’t GM Joe Mack’s fault. He can’t be blamed for the fact LaBatte was born in Weyburn, Sask., and has a pregnant girlfriend in Saskatchewan. LaBatte wasn’t even a CFL fan growing up, so it wasn’t his love for the Riders that brought him home. It was his family. You can’t blame him — or Mack — for that.

That doesn’t mean it’s not a big blow to the Bomber offensive line, which hasn’t exactly been a model of consistency over the years.

Mack wants you to believe they have someone who can step into that role. Sure they do, but they don’t have anyone close to LaBatte’s calibre.

3) Tweet, Tweet

When LaBatte and receiver Greg Carr bolted via free agency, a few members of the Bombers let the world know they were upset.

Defensive backs Deon Beasley and Jonathan Hefney criticized the team’s management via Twitter for letting them get away, calling the organization cheap. Cornerback Brandon Stewart posted on Facebook that the team needed to pay the free agents, and no fewer than six players indicated they “liked” Stewart’s opinion.

Then, when the Bombers released running back Fred Reid last week, cornerback Jovon Johnson Tweeted “Wow smh,” which stands for “shaking my head.”

Mack said he was more upset about the Beasley and Hefney Tweets than he was about losing the free agents, and then he fired back by saying there would be plenty of defensive backs in training camp.

Even though public criticism of your own team’s management is terrible, that’s a dangerous road for Mack to go down if he wants to re-sign them one day.

4) Doug Brown

The actual loss of the defensive tackle won’t hurt as much as losing his birth certificate.

Brown was an East Division all-star last season, but even he would probably admit he wasn’t as dominant as he once was. That’s only natural when you’re 37 years old.

The big question after Brown’s impending retirement is this: Who becomes the team’s seventh Canadian starter? Winnipeg will have three on the offensive line, two in the receiving corps and safety Ian Logan.

Option No. 1 would appear to be Pierre-Luc Labbe, who started at middle linebacker in last year’s Grey Cup game. Then again, import Joe Lobendahn was having a brilliant campaign before tearing his ACL midway through the season and is still on the roster.

After that, there aren’t many options. Fernand Kashama saw only spot duty on the defensive line last season, and fourth overall draft pick, receiver Jade Etienne, didn’t catch a pass last season and showed few signs of improvement in practice.

Winnipeg’s first pick in this year’s draft is 13th overall, so it’s unlikely they’ll find a starter there. Thanks to the loss of LaBatte and Brown, the Bombers are once again dangerously thin on Canadian talent.

5) Where’s the Improvement?

Even though they made it to the Grey Cup last season, the Bombers were still a 10-8 team and finished the year with just three wins in their last 10 games.

In other words, they need to add talent. Whereas other teams have been stockpiling established parts, the Bombers have been bleeding players.

To be fair, though, the Bombers didn’t add any CFL veterans last off-season and went from 4-14 to 10-8, so you can’t count out the work done by Mack and director of player personnel Ken Moll. Some of the no-names they brought to camp last year included Jason Vega, Bryant Turner and Clarence Denmark.

We’ve already mentioned the departures of LaBatte and Brown. The loss of an import receiver is never the end of the world, but Greg Carr, who bolted to the Eskimos after agreeing to terms with the Bombers, is 6-foot-6 and has the ability to be a game breaker.

Winnipeg tried to add free agent offensive lineman Dominic Picard, but he went to the Roughriders along with LaBatte. The Bombers also tried to shore up their awful punting situation by going after Calgary’s Burke Dales, but he signed in Edmonton instead. (Does anyone want to play in Winnipeg?)

Then the Blue and Gold made the odd move of trading a conditional draft pick to Edmonton for an import punter in Eric Wilbur.

To quote Jovon Johnson, “smh.”

QB signings a bright spot

It’s not all bad.

While the Bomber off-season hasn’t been one to write home about, it hasn’t been a complete disaster.

For starters, GM Joe Mack re-signed all three of his free agent quarterbacks, which looked impossible at the beginning of the off-season.

Buck Pierce, Alex Brink and Joey Elliott are all back in the fold. The team’s quarterback play wasn’t exactly stellar last season, but the continuity won’t hurt.

The Bombers will no doubt run with Pierce as long as they can and then hope Brink or Elliott can develop into a No. 1 gun. Neither has shown the ability to do that yet, but the tools appear to be there.

Brink bounced back from a rough 2010 campaign with a much stronger 2011 season, and he is over the moon about the hiring of new offensive co-ordinator Gary Crowton, as are the other two pivots.

Crowton’s hiring also means head coach Paul LaPolice is unlikely to continue calling the plays, which a lot of fans were hoping for after last season’s popgun attack.

Meanwhile, Winnipeg’s best off-season move might have happened on Jan. 7 in Hamilton. That was the day the Tiger-Cats hired George Cortez to be their new head coach, passing over Bombers defensive co-ordinator Tim Burke.

Last January’s hiring of Burke was arguably the primary reason why the Bombers made it to last year’s Grey Cup. Winnipeg’s defence remains mostly intact, so there’s no reason why it can’t win the team a few more games in 2012.

Also, Mack re-signed nine of 13 potential free agents, which is a decent haul. He lost LaBatte and Carr, and he wasn’t interested in bringing back Don Oramasionwu or Aaron Hargreaves.

Finally, LaPolice was deservedly one of three nominees for the CFL’s coach of the year award, which outgoing B.C. Lions boss Wally Buono captured on Friday.


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