October 11, 2012

Irving: Blue Bombers playing care-free football


Well, there they go again.  

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers have coaxed their die-hard fans, of which there are many thousands scattered throughout the Province of Manitoba, into believing yet again that there is actually hope the 2012 CFL season can be salvaged. 

And who knows, maybe it can.   

After all, when a team like the Bombers waltzes into Percival Molson Stadium in Montreal and knocks off the Alouettes, surely all things are possible. And this was an Alouettes team highly motivated to rebound from an embarrassing loss the week before in Hamilton; an Alouettes team that at the time had a 6-1 home record in 2012, and had lost just eight of its last 43 home games.  

But sure enough, there were the Bombers, rediscovering some of their lost swagger and grinding out a 27-22 victory that they were full value for.

Head coach Tim Burke should get some of the credit for Winnipeg’s inspired effort. Burke had told his players earlier in the week to stop putting pressure on themselves.  He implored them to forget about the dreadful record, and try to remember when and why they fell in love with football in the first place. 
And then he asked them to go to Montreal and play with a carefree, joyful approach that would remind them of their youth, when the game was played strictly for fun, with no negative external forces at work.  

After the game, many players said that Burke’s message had made the difference.  They followed his advice, played with enthusiasm and “joie de vivre”, and came away with their most complete victory of the year.

The game represented one of the finest hours of the season for the Winnipeg offence, which had been erratic all year long.  Joey Elliott and Chris Mathews were the stars of the offensive attack.  It would be fair to say that Elliott’s play had been “uneven” in five previous starts this season, but on Thanksgiving Monday, he was nothing short of brilliant, completing 17 of 25 passes for 335 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions.   

Mathews, the 6-foot-5 rookie from Kentucky, was Elliott’s favourite target, hauling in six passes for 143 yards, furthering his bid for CFL rookie of the year honours in the process.  Mathews now has 60 catches for 974 yards and six touchdowns.  He is a matchup nightmare for defences and is arguably one of the best young receivers to come into the CFL in many years.   

Fortunately for Matthews, Elliott will return under centre when the Blue Bombers host Calgary on Saturday. On Thursday, it was discovered that Buck Pierce was not given medical clearance to return after missing the Montreal game.  

When Pierce does eventually return, Burke has made it clear that he is the number one quarterback on the team, and when he’s healthy, he will start.   
There was a noteworthy moment at the end of the Bombers big win in La Belle Province.  Bob Wetenhall, the long time owner of the Alouettes, visited the Bomber locker room to personally congratulate Burke for the victory.   

Burke had served as Montreal’s defensive coordinator from 2008-10, and only left Montreal for Winnipeg in 2011 because he felt it would best support his interest in becoming a head coach in the CFL.   

Burke told his weekly radio show on CJOB that Wetenhall’s gesture of kindness didn’t surprise him saying “Mr. Wetenhall is a very nice man, was always supportive of me while I was in Montreal, and is a tremendous owner and a total class act.”

I have said on more than one occasion that the Bombers poor record is not indicative of the ability they possess.  General Manager Joe Mack and his personnel director Ken Molle have recruited impact players like Mathews, Alex Hall, and Chad Simpson this year, adding to an impressive roster of talent that has been assembled in Winnipeg the past three years.  

For any number of reasons, injury and erratic play at the quarterback position among them, this season has gone off the rails. But a lack of talent is not the primary problem.   

Now we’ll see if the Bombers can further my argument by putting together their first two-game win streak of the season.  And it won’t be easy because up next will be the Stampeders, at high noon Saturday at Canad-Inns Stadium.