The last three years have not been easy to stomach for the large legion of Winnipeg Blue Bombers fans.
After a Grey Cup appearance in 2007 in which they lost 23-19 to the Saskatchewan Roughriders, the Bombers delivered a disappointing 8-10 season in 2008, which turned out to be Doug Berry’s final year at the helm.
Many of us never quite understood why CEO Lyle Bauer fired Berry, especially when Berry’s successor, Mike Kelly, could only manage a 7-11 record during a wildly uneven 2009 season in which the Bombers gave up 120 more points than they scored.
Bomber management cleaned house at the end of that year, installing Joe Mack as the General Manager of Football Operations, who subsequently hired Paul Lapolice as the head coach.
Amid much optimism, the Bombers won their season opener in 2010 in spectacular fashion, ripping Hamilton 49-29 as newly signed quarterback Buck Pierce threw for 291 yards and two touchdowns while running for 89 more.
The Bombers managed to split their first four games before disaster set in. They won only twice more in their final 14 games, winding up 4-14. Yet there was hope to be drawn from those 14 losses, since nine were determined by four points or less.
Mack and Lapolice elected to stay the course. They made very few personnel changes, and with just four games to go in the 2011 CFL season, they are reaping the rewards.
A dominating 33-17 win over Hamilton on Friday night, a game in which the score flattered the losers, gave the Blue Bombers a 9-5 record and clinched their first playoff spot since 2008.
And never before this season have the Bombers looked better.
In every aspect of the game, they were superior to the Ticats. The Bomber offensive line had probably its best game of the year as Winnipeg controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
They were also efficient on offence, rolling up 23 first downs and 400 total yards with Buck Pierce back at the helm after missing a game with bruised ribs.
Mike Renaud, whose job was threatened earlier in the week, punted brilliantly. And Winnipeg’s defence was, in a word, overpowering.
The Ticats made only 10 first downs in the game’s first 44 minutes before the Bombers relaxed on defence with a 26-3 lead. The Bombers get enough pressure from their defensive front that they don’t have to blitz very often.
And that allows their fast, athletic and physical linebackers and defensive backs to roam about and create havoc. And that’s exactly what they did, much to the chagrin of 23,000 disgruntled spectators at Ivor Wynne stadium.
I have covered the Blue Bombers for a very long time, dating back to the mid 1970’s. I’ve seen some very good Winnipeg teams, especially during Cal Murphy’s 14-year reign from 1983 to 1996.
The 1985 team that gave up only 259 points in 16 games featured one of the best Bomber defensive units I have ever seen, with people like Tyrone Jones, James West, Roy Bennett, Ken Hailley, David Shaw, Stan Mikawos and Tony Norman, among others, leading the way.
That team also had a spectacular offensive unit that put up 500 points, which made life a lot easier for the defence.
It’s always hard to compare teams from different eras. But I will say that this 2011 Blue Bomber defence has as much pure speed and athleticism at linebacker and in the secondary as any I have seen in a long, long time.
And so the Bombers will be participating in this year’s Grey Cup derby. And as long as they can keep their defensive dozen intact, they will definitely have a real chance of ending that long, agonizing 21 year Blue Bomber Grey Cup drought.
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