With the amount of public relations problems the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have suffered through this season—ultimately making them the punch line of the league—the one name that constantly comes up in discussions is that of general manager Joe Mack.
Mack took over the club on January 22, 2010. He essentially took over a team that saw draft picks traded in exchange for players who ultimately failed to contribute.
CEO Lyle Bauer resigned, VP of player personnel Brendan Taman stepped down and head coach Mike Kelly was shown the door before Mack took over a club that needed an identity and help to restore it.
Mack hired an offensive-minded coach, Paul LaPolice, from the Saskatchewan Roughriders to head up the Bombers. He also traded declining players in exchange for draft picks, ultimately securing two first-round picks in 2011 after the club finished last a season earlier.
Although the club finished last at 4-14 in the East Division in 2009, it had nine opportunities that could easily have seen the outcome go either way.
Mack put a stamp on the team and made it his own, bringing in players he felt would help contribute to the team. Eleven players from that roster still play for the Bombers.
Those players contributed to putting the Bombers back in the Grey Cup five years after their last trip.
The 2011 offseason came and problems for Mack culminated.
Brendon LaBatte, the Bombers' highly prized draft pick in 2008, wanted to move to Saskatchewan to play for his home team while his girlfriend was pregnant.
Knowing the odds to re-sign LaBatte would end with no deal in place, the money saved from LaBatte’s contract should have been used to sign back Dominic Picard or any other highly touted free-agent offensive lineman. But that was met with zero effort.
Then receiver Greg Carr left the team to sign with an opponent in the West Division, the Edmonton Eskimos, after Mack failed to extend a deal to Carr. Carr’s replacement, Chris Matthews, has done exceedingly well for the Bombers but has to be considered a lucky pickup.
Another area of concern at the time for the Bombers was behind center and at quarterback.
Center Obby Khan’s play tampered off and it was known that the club wanted to go elsewhere but failed to secure any real talent there.
Quarterback Buck Pierce’s health was in question. The team had two quality backups, Alex Brink and Joey Elliot, but the issue was handled poorly when labeling one Backup A and the other Backup A2.
Mack’s inability to sit down with then-head coach Paul LaPolice and hammer out a definitive No. 2 quarterback ultimately came back to haunt the team.
Another move that would further fuel the fire on Mack was his extension to Paul LaPolice after their Grey Cup run. This was a move that should have been reserved for around the middle of the season or the following offseason.
Paul LaPolice was Mack’s hire—and ultimately his responsibility—and the offense struggled under him. To fix that problem in Mack’s mind, he went out and hired an offensive coordinator by the name of Gary Crowton.
Crowton came to the CFL with zero previous experience after working in the United States with several different universities.
Putting a coordinator with zero experience together with a head coach whose team ultimately struggled a season earlier offensively was not met with high regards.
And one of the biggest knocks toward Mack (if not the biggest knock) through his tenure as general manager has to be the selection of receiver Jade Etienne in the first round (fourth overall).
However when looking at Etienne’s background, people have jumped too quickly on the negative side of the ball. With a season and time to develop, Etienne could become a premier receiver.
The team was put in a further bind when it was announced that the new stadium would not be ready in time for the first home game. Although this cannot be put on Mack, the team started the season 0-4—a hole that even some of the greats would find hard to get out of.
On top of this, all the travel that Winnipeg had to endure resulted in player personnel injuries across the board. Again, this is not something Mack can be directly faulted for, but an unfortunate situation that’s linked with his name (unfairly, I’d add).
However, about midway through the season the team offensively and defensively was starting to come together. They put together a few wins, and although they lost to B.C., they looked close to breaking out.
Then Mack made the decision that likely spelt his end in Winnipeg—and that was the firing of head coach Paul LaPolice.
While LaPolice struggled at times as head coach, his offensive schemes, with the right personnel executing them, could have been more successful.
With many people calling for Mack’s dismissal, LaPolice emerged as the scapegoat, only further igniting the fire for a change at the top.
And a move that was heard around the league—and not popular or even smart—was when Mack walked into the dressing room and told the team that he was sticking with them for the remainder of the season.
A team that had struggled much of 2012 had just been told that any issues going forward would not be met with dismissals or players being shown the door.
Likely, it's a move that could come back to haunt Mack as it gives the players no incentive to perform on the field, knowing their jobs are safe until the offseason.
Going forward, however, firing Joe Mack is a decision that, if it has to be made, should not occur until the completion of the 2013 CFL campaign.
Mack has only had one season to fix the issues from the previous season, helped in bringing the team to the Grey Cup the following season and was met with adversity in the third term.
The board of directors must allow Mack to have his third real term as the general manager of Winnipeg to see if his decisions can ultimately put a product on the field under the new stadium digs.
But if afforded that opportunity, he must go out and bring talent in. He will need to find a new quarterback, even if it means trading with B.C. or Saskatchewan. He'll have to look down South and see if there is real talent available.
The knack for being cheap during the season is one that is no secret to many people, but it’s one that Mack needs to address and fix. He needs to go out and sign players, as he did a year ago.
Interim head coach Tim Burke should stay as the head coach. Mack should allow him to pick his coaching staff and run the team his way while Mack stays away, scouring the South for talent to help bolster the team as a whole.
Looking back, Mack is responsible for the failures of Paul LaPolice, knowing full well what he was extending and then hiring a coordinator with zero CFL experience.
He did do some good, bringing in players earlier on that helped the team, but when it came time to spend money, he failed to pony up, likely costing him more money in the end.
Injuries are a part of the game and no one can predict when they're going to happen, but failing to have the necessary upgrades or replacements in place is something Mack will have to address.
Ultimately the board has likely already made its decision regarding Mack and is just waiting for the season to finish. If afforded an opportunity in 2013, however, Mack had better make the most of it.
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