It’s renovation time for two of the CFL’s once mighty franchises, and this time they better make it right.
Both the Edmonton Eskimos and Winnipeg Blue Bombers are in rebuilding mode, after a pair of ugly 2013 campaigns that left fans shaking their heads in both towns.
“What went wrong? I have no answer for that,” veteran Eskimos defensive back T.J. Hill said as his season ended.
The mood was as sombre in the Bombers locker room as players looked back on what might have been.
“It would be a sad thing if I left Winnipeg with this taste in my mouth,” said Terrence Edwards, leader of the Bombers receiving corps, who knows he has few seasons left.
Edmonton and Winnipeg have a lot in common.
Other CFL teams may struggle to fill seats, but not the Bombers or Eskimos. They have loyal fans, although lately they haven’t had much to cheer about and there is always a chance their patience will finally run out.
Both are community-owned teams and both finished their 2013 seasons by sacking their head coaches.
For the Bombers, it was two coaches in two years, with Paul LaPolice getting the hook mid-2012, when Tim Burke took over. Kavis Reed at least had three seasons in Edmonton.
Both teams also have had a bit of an off-field circus going in their management offices in recent years that have kept negative headlines before local fans.
But above all, perhaps, both teams also have a long history of winning that makes it even tougher to swallow defeat.
The Eskimos can claim to be the most successful franchise of the modern era, with 13 Grey Cup wins starting in 1954 and five in a row between 1978 and 1982. Their most recent was in 2005.
The Bombers are no slouches, with a league-leading 24 appearances at the Grey Cup and 10 wins. But their last was in 1990, when they beat Edmonton.
The Bombers have made five unsuccessful trips to the Grey Cup since 1990, the most recent in 2011. Edmonton has also been to five, winning three and losing two over the same time frame.
This season, the Eskimos finished 4-14, their worst since the league went to 18 games, and the Bombers fell into the CFL cellar at 3-15, tying their worst ever 18-game season.
Since 2006, the Eskimos have finished last in the West six times, although a weak East has allowed them to earn a crossover playoff slot twice. They won only one of the East semi-finals they played, against Winnipeg in 2008.
A relatively healthy quarterback Buck Pierce managed to get the Bombers back to the Grey Cup in 2011, but they fell to the B.C. Lions.
Their coach wasn’t the Bombers only casualty this year. Slumping Winnipeg cleaned house during the summer at general manager and president, with former Bombers player Wade Miller replacing Garth Buchko as chief executive officer and assistant general manager Kyle Walters moving into Joe Mack’s spot.
Miller and Walters had their interim tags removed after the season ended, and the rebuilding job is now squarely on their shoulders.
The Bombers are trying to land the Grey Cup and, of course, would very much like to play host to the kind of party the Saskatchewan Roughriders threw in 2013, capped by a hometown win. But Walters says, Grey Cup or no Grey Cup, winning is a must.
“We want to put a winning product on the field as quick as possible,” he said. “That’s [the Grey Cup] zero into my decision process into how we get this roster cleaned up and start winning some football games.”
His first job though was to find a new coach and he tabbed Toronto Argonauts special-teams co-ordinator Mike O’Shea, someone he played with at the University of Guelph.
O’Shea doesn’t like to use the word “rebuild” when it comes to the job he now faces with the Bombers.
“I know what I believe and the only reason you start a season is to win a Grey Cup,” he said at his introduction, a statement greeted warmly by the fans who attended.
“It’s my job as a coach to get people to buy into that.”
The Eskimos sacked GM Eric Tillman in 2012, after the trade that sent star quarterback Ricky Ray to Toronto, and his replacement Ed Hervey’s first rebuilding step after this season was hiring respected Argos defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones as new head coach.
“We know there’s work to do but we’re committed to making this right, to building a winner,” Hervey said as he introduced Jones Nov. 27.
What do the Bombers and Eskimos have to work with?
Only two Eskimos made division all-star in 2013, slotback Fred Stamps, who missed three games and was still the CFL’s leading receiver with 1,259 yards, and defensive tackle Almondo Sewell.
The Bombers had four: veteran offensive lineman Glenn January, defensive tackle Bryant Turner, linebacker Henoc Muamba and running back Will Ford. Muamba is already a question mark for 2014, with NFL interest.
Both teams have lengthy shopping lists and their timing is good, with the Ottawa expansion draft creating a more active marketplace.
Winnipeg will look for a dependable quarterback who can consistently put the ball into the hands of his receivers. They ended the Pierce experiment in 2013, but have no one in the wings who comes close.
Other than quarterback, with a team that was either dead last or second last in every offensive and defensive category, where don’t the Bombers need help?
Their Canadian talent has been slow to develop on the offensive line but they have had some talented receivers, when they’re not injured, and always seem to have another speedy running back in the wings.
Edmonton has offensive line issues as well but they’re is a little better off at quarterback. Mike Reilly may take a little time to develop fully but he was second in the league in passing yards and led all quarterbacks in rushing yards in his debut season as starter.
He also threw 18 interceptions, second most in the league.
After Stamps, his next best receiver, Adarius Bowman, was No. 21 on the CFL list with 697 yards. On defence, the Eskimos were the worst in the league at stopping the run and, as for their own ground game, Reilly had more yards than anyone.
“You’ve got to be able to protect the quarterback,” said Jones, who seems to like what he sees in the young pivot.
“You’ve got to be able to run the ball effectively. Those are the two things that I see that this organization has to do to do in order to have success now and in the future.”
O’Shea wants to see some grit and a real work ethic.
“If I were going to envision how we’re going to win games, it’s gong to be defence and special teams. It’s going to be hard-nosed but disciplined football. They’re going to be hard-working guys, character players. We’re going to do it the old-fashioned way.”
One thing is certain. With Winnipeg back in the West in 2014, it shouldn’t take long to see which team is closer to reaching the historical highs it once enjoyed.