Professional athletes will often say, "it's never as good as it looks when you win, nor is it as bad as it looks when you lose." As we head into the final week of the regular season it will be the last chance for two teams in the CFL to lace them up. It is also a last opportunity to take a look at both the Edmonton Eskimos and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and try and figure out if it was as bad as it looked.
First the Eskimos, a team that was for years the flagship organization in the CFL, but has now missed the playoffs for the second time in the last four seasons. It is just too easy to blame all the issues and losses on a trade that happened two years ago, when Ricky Ray became an Argo. Yes, it has taken the team two full years to find their franchise player, and even with Mike Reilly now established as the starter, it may take a couple of more years until the franchise is a true Grey Cup competitor.
However, while the play at quarterback in 2013 wasn't perfect, Reilly's body of work this year was good enough to get this team into the post-season. Whatever fate lies ahead for Kavis Reed in Edmonton, the head coach can take pride in the fact that by being convinced to give Reilly a real opportunity, he just may have led the franchise out of the shadow of the Ray trade.
Early in the year, after a loss in BC, the head coach was being pressured by the media and fans to make a change at quarterback. Most felt that Reilly had enough of a chance at that point, and it was time to look at other guys. Reed said recently, "there was a lot of noise in that regard, the fans wanted me to make a change, but I knew we had to be patient with Mike." Despite the dismal record in Edmonton that patience has paid off. They now have a quarterback that they can build a team around, and will also have a healthy Matt Nichols back in the mix in next year's camp who can, at the very least provide a solid back-up, and at best challenge Reilly for the starting job. Such a competition that would make them both better.
So if the play at the most important position on the field was good enough for a post-season berth than what happened in Edmonton?
It seemed this year that both sides of the ball, the coaching staff, and even management took turns making mistakes along the way that led to the team's struggles. Those errors have been well documented and don't need to be rehashed, but the organization does need to make a list of every decision made, every policy implemented, and rewind what was said in every press conference, and make sure that the mistakes are not repeated. There are holes to fill in the roster for sure. For instance, unless your quarterback's name is Allen, or Ham, your pivot cannot be your leading rusher. Running the ball successfully depends on the entire offence pulling the rope in the same direction and a coaching staff that is committed to that balanced attack. All aspects of the running game then have to be examined in Edmonton.
The defensive side of the ball was supposed to be the strength of this team, and they simply underachieved. So yes, general manager Ed Hervey has his work cut out for him this off-season. However, maybe on D it is not so much about finding better starters as it is about finding better depth that will push the starters. While in Vancouver last week Mike Reilly said, "we were close this year to turning it around but it would be a mistake to think that if we just get the bounces next year we will get in the playoffs." He went on to say, "so I'm sure there will be changes this off-season." Reilly is bang on.
For the Esks, it can't be status quo, but they aren't that far off either. It starts with self evaluation, which I'm sure has already begun. Then the next step is to eliminate the mistakes. Then finally, build a positive and professional culture that will give the players in Edmonton a chance to be successful.
Now to the Bombers where the issues, from the outside looking in, appear to be much deeper, and may take longer to fix.
If the first step to building a winning football team is to find a franchise player/quarterback, and then secondly, build a team around that person, well then the Bombers are still trying to negotiate step one. It may be stating the obvious but, you can bet they will be preparing offer sheets in January for free agent QB's, and that is not an indictment on Max Hall. Hall has done his best in a very difficult situation, and has shown glimpses. However, I think it is safe to say it will be tough for the Bombers management to sell "glimpses" to their season ticket base.
Hall doesn't necessarily have to be kicked to the curb, and could be invited to camp in 2014, but there simply has to be a stable of quarterbacks to compete for the starting job, and at least one of the new horses should be a player on a current roster that is heading for free agency.
Like the Eskimos, the Bombers made mistakes this year from management to the players, but when you take a look at both team's rosters it is clear that Edmonton is closer.
There really needs to be a shift in overall philosophy when it comes to the Bombers' approach to re-signing players on their current roster, or attracting free agents.
For instance, it has been suggested on TSN broadcasts multiple times this year that one of Winnipeg's top priorities should be to re-sign Henoc Muamba, which has ignited a wave of Twitter responses from Bomber fans saying that Muamba won't sign anything until he sees what's out there, so why bother giving him an offer?
Here is why. He is vital to the rebuilding process when it comes to Canadian talent. In this particular situation, the Bombers may have to overpay for Muamba, or lose another huge Canadian cornerstone, reminiscent of Brendon Labatte from a couple of years ago. He still may say 'thanks but no thanks', and move to a different team. However, assuming that he will and therefore holding off on making him 'an offer he can't refuse' is not a strategy that will ever work.
On a radio interview a month ago acting general manager Kyle Walters said that the organization has been talking to Muamba and that is a start, as long as it isn't just talk. If the Bombers have to make Muamba the highest paid linebacker in the CFL next year so be it, they can deal with that contract down the road as their overall Canadian content improves. But to let him walk would be devastating.
Yes, a highly paid free agent quarterback, overpaying for a Canadian middle linebacker, while paying at least two and possibly three head coaches, may cause the team's accountant some long nights but what is the alternative?
Some will say the team can't afford to do that while they are paying for a brand new stadium, but can they afford not to? If Muamba does move on, and it is later learned that the money was close, then the Bombers have fumbled yet again. The team needs a quarterback and Canadians plain and simple, so it's time to do whatever is necessary to get them.
Ultimately, it will be the Esks' and Bombers' fans who will be the judges as to whether or not it was as bad as it looked in 2013, but what is important now is to look forward and not back.
It's next year country in Winnipeg and Edmonton and next year starts now.