The Winnipeg Blue Bombers have cleaned out their lockers and are heading home, but a disappointing season has left a big question mark hanging over the quarterback position for 2013.
For the first time since Buck Pierce arrived and became the starter, the team seems to be looking hard at other options.
“I would say there will be competition for the starting position at quarterback,” coach Tim Burke said Sunday after ending the season with a win over Montreal a day earlier that left the team with a 6-12 record.
That doesn’t come as a huge surprise.
Pierce missed 11 games with a foot injury, concussion and finally a shoulder problem. He played in 16 games in 2011 and took the team to the Grey Cup in B.C., which they lost.
But he also missed most of his first season in Winnipeg in 2010 and injuries were one of the big issues he faced when he was with the B.C. Lions.
“Obviously, the way the season went for me and the way we left this year, there’s going to be changes,” said Pierce.
He says he knows he can win games if he can stay healthy. But Pierce understands the reality the team is facing as it decides where to go next season, after missing the playoffs when they hoped to get back to the Grey Cup.
“I’m being real too,” he said. “I understand the situations that I’m going to be put in and the discussions that have to be made. But I’m more confident than ever in my ability and what I can do and knowing that I can lead this team and get them back to a Grey Cup.”
Pierce insists he does all he can to stay healthy.
“I truly feel like I do everything right. I do everything in my power to keep my body healthy and live the right way, sometimes it doesn’t work out for you,” he said. “I took a lot of hits in situations where I think I shouldn’t have taken hits.”
Inexperience on the offensive line as the season started didn’t help.
And Pierce says while he knows the CFL has taken some steps, he doesn’t think the league will do much more to protect quarterbacks from injury.
“I’m sure the league will continue to look at it over the next few years but I doubt anything will change,” he added.
Quarterback isn’t the only spot that will be under review in the off-season as Burke, confirmed as head coach for next season prior to the Montreal game, and general manager Joe Mack roll up their sleeves.
Burke, the former defensive co-ordinator who replaced the fired Paul LaPolice in mid-season, wasn’t happy with the way his defence played.
He’ll be looking to hire a new defensive co-ordinator to help make changes.
“It’s my philosophy that you win with speed on defence, so I’m going to find a defensive co-ordinator that fits my philosophy,” he said.
He’d like to hang on to free agents like Johnny Sears and Jason Vega but knows some will test NFL waters and might slip away to higher bidders in Canada.
But he also had a tough message for all his players as they prepared to leave for the off-season.
“I want them to know right now, you’re coming back with a great attitude and great work ethic or you’re not going to be here,” said Burke.
There were highlights such as two 1,000-yard-plus receivers — rookie Chris Matthews and veteran Terrence Edwards — and a rookie running back who also racked up more than 1,000 in Chad Simpson.
But the season got off to a rocky start on and off the field.
The team’s new 33,500-seat home on the grounds of the University of Manitoba, Investors Group Field, wasn’t ready.
So the Blue Bombers decided to play their first four games on the road and bank on assurances the new stadium would open in July.
They lost all four games, Investors Field still isn’t finished and the Bombers played their entire season at 59-year-old Canad Inns Stadium.
Some key players didn’t make it out of pre-season, including No. 1 running back Chris Garrett, who tore his Achilles tendon.
The wheels really came off when Pierce went down with a foot injury July 13 in game three.
Alex Brink took over but after one win and two losses he was replaced by Joey Elliott, who also managed to get only one win until Pierce came back Sept. 21.
Pierce was able to finish, and win, only one game before he was out again with a concussion.
Toronto linebacker Brandon Isaac almost knocked Pierce out with a helmet hit to the chin. It was Isaac’s second fine this season for illegal hits and he was finally suspended for a game for a third against Saskatchewan quarterback Darian Durant.
Pierce was out until Oct. 19. Elliott returned and staged a surprise 27-22 upset over the Montreal Alouettes before dropping one to Calgary.
Pierce returned to defeat the Argos, only to go down again early in Hamilton the next week with a shoulder injury in a must-win game.
Of the three backups, the low man on the totem pole may be the most secure. Six-foot-five Justin Goltz is only 25 and Burke and Mack are high on his athleticism.
The Bombers will look to see who else is out there, but Brink and Elliott both expect to return and challenge for the top spot.
“We had a lot of ups and downs as an offence and that’s going to go with being the starting quarterback for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers,” said Elliott.
“I think I learned, I matured as a quarterback, and going through those down periods made me more consistent over a long period of time.”
Brink says its important a clear decision is made on who the starter will be next season. He would like the job but says he’s content with whatever role the team wants him to play
“Whoever the starter is, that needs to be made very clear and that guy needs to be given the reps from Day 1 of training camp,” he said.
“That’s how you’re going to get better. That’s how as a young quarterback you’re going to grow.”