As an old saying goes, no one can feel as helpless as the owner of a sick goldfish.
Buck Pierce might not agree.
Down the Stretch
“I think these next seven games are the most important games. This game next week is the most important one, and we’ve got to make sure that we finish strong. We’ll see what happens come November, but it’s going to be important these next weeks.”
– Buck Pierce
The 30-year-old quarterback in his third season with the Bombers sure knows the feeling.
After all, the only thing he could do while his team’s season quickly went off the tracks was sit and watch.
Pierce will make his first start since injuring his foot during a game at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium back on July 13th, as the Blue Bombers host the Tiger-Cats on Friday night in dire need of a slump-buster.
The Bombers have won just two games, including a current stretch of four straight losses without Pierce under centre, and while every loss was hard to swallow for the team’s field general, the hardest part may have been last Friday night.
Finally cleared medically to resume playing, the coaching staff decided its veteran pivot needed a little more time in practice to get back to full speed before playing again. And so, number four had to endure one last painful game from the sideline – a 44-3 loss to the Stampeders at Calgary’s McMahon Stadium.
“It’s been a long summer so far, so having to miss another one when I had felt my best physically with the foot was tough, just knowing that I finally did have the doctor’s OK to play,” says Pierce.
A long summer so far might be an understatement.
The Bombers have endured multiple changes at quarterback in Pierce’s absence, as Alex Brink and Joey Elliott each battled for their chance to lead the offence.
Meanwhile, in the middle of it all, Pierce witnessed the dismissal of his then head coach Paul LaPolice.
Both of those storylines, especially the latter, likely had a profound effect on Pierce emotionally.
The eighth-year quarterback credits LaPolice not only for bringing him into the Bombers organization, but for giving him the opportunity to start.
But Pierce says all of that is behind him, and he truly believes in Tim Burke as a person and as a coach.
Now comes the easiest part for the veteran pivot: getting back on the field and helping his teammates in the best way he knows how.
“I lead best by being out there, and letting the guys know that I have their backs and I’m out there playing with them,” says Pierce. “We haven’t been playing anything like we need to be playing, and it’s hard for a guy to step up and criticize or address issues when he’s not on the football field out there doing it with them.”
Pierce’s return is important for a team in need of some stability and a little bit of extra leadership. Since the native of Hutchinson, Kansas joined the Bombers, the team’s record is 11-13 when Pierce plays, compared to 5-18 when he doesn’t.
For all of its shortcomings over the last month, this has been a team playing without its biggest leader, on the field and off it.
“Right now we still have seven games left, we have a lot of time and it’s important for us to get some wins together,” says Pierce, who went against the odds to lead the Blue and Gold to a Grey Cup appearance last November.
“We’re obviously in a tough situation. For me it’s been a situation to where I want to play no matter what, I don’t care what our record is or where we’re at, I get paid to do a job and my job is to go out there and help us get wins and help lead this team.”
Perhaps the most glaring of the team’s win-loss totals with and without Pierce in the lineup isn’t the fact they’re so much better when he plays, but instead, the reality that he’s missed 23 of 48 games – almost 50 per cent.
When you hear someone say ‘he’s a great quarterback’, you’ll often hear ‘when healthy’ muttered shortly after.
Injuries are just another one of those things that leave a player helpless.
“Ya, it bothers me,” responds Pierce when asked about being labeled as injury prone. “But it’s something I can’t control, and it doesn’t matter – people are always going to say that.”
“I’ve had terrible, terrible luck as a quarterback in this league when it comes to injuries. I’ve won a lot of games when I’ve stayed healthy, and I haven’t been able to stay healthy.”
The one year during his three-year tenure with the Bombers he did manage to stay healthy, Pierce led the Bombers to their first division championship and Grey Cup appearance since 2001, when they finished atop the East Division with a record of 14-4 but lost to the Stamps in the big game.
This year was a chance for Pierce to build on that momentum, and prove to the world that he can stay healthy for a prolonged stretch of football.
But things went wrong from the very get-go, after an injury sidelined him for a good part of the season-opening loss to the Lions, before he injured his foot in a blowout loss to the Esks in the third game of the season.
“This season has been tough. People are going to say what they’re going to say, and they’re going to label me how they label me, and that’s them. I worry about myself,” says Pierce.
“I can’t control injuries, and that has to be understood. I can only control how I prepare and what I do to get back on the football field.”
As we enter the latter stages of the season, injuries are behind the Bombers pivot, who says he’s in it to win it despite his team’s 2-9 record. I asked Pierce about the giant mountain his team has to climb, and what it would take to consider the rest of the 2012 campaign a success.
If one thing’s for sure, this quarterback isn’t about moral victories. When I suggested a 5-2 finish with signs of a team that can contend next season might be enough to make this season a success, his response was indicative of just what he expects to achieve in the final seven games.
“No, our goal is to win championships here and win consistently, and we haven’t done that,” says Pierce. “Anything less than that is considered a failure.”
“I think these next seven games are the most important games,” he continues. “This game next week is the most important one, and we’ve got to make sure that we finish strong. We’ll see what happens come November, but it’s going to be important these next weeks.”
Helplessness has certainly been the theme of the season for Pierce. Watching his team struggle, his coach fired, and his fans suffer while having no way to make an impact is no easy task.
Now as he returns to the fold with just a handful of games remaining and a waning chance to make the playoffs, suddenly Pierce can make a bigger impact than ever.
He might be all the Bombers have left to restore any faith in 2012, and it all starts on Friday night against the Tabbies.
“We’re at a point in the season where we need to make some headway, and put what we’ve done in the past behind us and turn the page,” says Pierce. “We need to respond.”
“We’ve had two very big lopsided losses in the last month and we need to respond to that and show some character and show spark.”
Helpless no more, the time is now for Pierce to show that he’s a true leader in every sense of the word.