February 22, 2012

Irving: Bombers’ quiet approach to free agency

Bob Irving

To say the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have been “quiet” since the CFL free agency period on February 15th would be putting it mildly. The Blue Bombers have not signed one free agent. And it’s not because they don’t have the salary cap room, or because there weren’t any talented players out there.

It’s just that, philosophically, Blue Bomber Vice President of Football Operations and General Manager Joe Mack is not a big believer in getting into bidding wars for free agents.  

For the two years Mack has been in charge of Football Ops for the Bombers, he has placed a great emphasis on upgrading the Bombers Canadian talent through the draft and re-signing the teams own free agents.

Leading up to the February 15th free agency date, Mack was successful in re-signing all three of his quarterbacks, Buck Pierce, Alex Brink and Joey Elliott, along with offensive linemen Steve Morley and Glenn January, safety Ian Logan and defensive back Brady Browne.  

He was not so fortunate in retaining two key offensive players in guard Brendon LaBatte and receiver Greg Carr, along with defensive tackle and local product Don Oramasionwu, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.  

While the Bombers made little effort to retain Oramasionwu, they did go to the wall for LaBatte and Carr. Mack offered LaBatte, a four-year veteran and recognized as one of the top offensive linemen in the country, a three year deal worth roughly $170,000 a year. The money was more than acceptable to LaBatte; the location wasn’t.

LaBatte said he had many sleepless nights over the decision. He cherished his time with the Bombers but in the end the native of Weyburn, Saskatchewan said it was simply time to go home to his native province where he could be close to his family and his pregnant girlfriend. Those were forces the Bombers could not compete with.  

In Carr’s case, the Bombers put an offer of $120,000 on the table, which Carr initially accepted. But when the Edmonton Eskimos made an 11th hour pitch that exceeded Winnipeg’s offer by roughly $15,000, Carr was off to Alberta. Mack downplayed the loss of Carr, promising that he and his scouts will find another quality import receiver.    

The departure of a blue chip Canadian starter like LaBatte was not as easy to accept, but Mack said the Bombers were powerless to prevent LaBatte from following his heart, and he assured Winnipeg fans that there are young Canadian players in the wings, like Chris Greaves, Chris Kowalczuk and Paul Swiston, who are ready to step up and make their prescence known.

Plus with Morley, January and Obby Khan returning, and the possibility that left tackle Andre Douglas will also be back, Mack says the Bombers could very well have four of the starters from last year’s offensive line back in the fold. 

At this writing, Mack says he has little or no interest in the three veteran free agent offensive linemen who are still available in Rob Murphy, Taylor Robertson and Alex Gauthier.

The Bombers did aggressively pursue free agent punter Burke Dales. Again, geography played a role, as Dales opted to stay close to his Calgary home by signing with the Edmonton Eskimos.

Add it all up and there is no disputing that the Bombers didn’t do very well on the free agent scoreboard. Fans are concerned that good players have been lost and replacements have not been found. A perfectly understandable concern.

Meanwhile, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts have strengthened with the addition of new head coaches and future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, creating what, on paper, appears to be tremendous competitive balance in the CFL East. 

Through it all Mack has remained defiant. While there is no denying the “optics” aren’t good, he points out that the Bombers will return the vast majority of players who saw them improve from 4-14 in 2010 to 10-8 and a grey cup berth in 2011.

The club has a number of talented young Canadians, like linebacker Henoc Muamba and receiver Kito Poblah, who could be on the verge of major breakthroughs. More good American talent is on the way.  

Mack has asked the fans to be patient, and not pass judgment on the 2012 product until they actually see it in action.