Health a major priority for Bombers QB Pierce
It's deja vu for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers when it comes to the big question mark hovering over the team this season.
Will starting quarterback Buck Pierce be able to go the distance?
That wasn't the case last year, when Pierce's first season with the Bombers ended with him playing only five games because of injuries.
The six-year veteran sprained a knee early in the season, then dislocated the elbow of his throwing arm in September.
The Bombers finished with a league-low 4-14 record, losing nine games by four or fewer points — a CFL record — and another by seven points.
Pierce doesn't like to talk about his health — he's left 10 of his last 27 games because of injury — but joked this week when told he provided the team's biggest question mark.
"It's not me. No, it's not me," he said with a smile. "There's got to be something else out there."
All kidding aside, the 29-year-old is aware of the scrutiny he'll be under, beginning with the season-opener in Hamilton on Friday.
"My frame of mind is like it is any season," Pierce said. "We have a lot of expectations, high hopes. We need to set our goals high.
"My goals are set very, very high for this organization and for this team and for myself. Management and the coaching staff have put together a great group of guys and great athletes to help us and help me, as well."
No experienced backup
Pierce will be backed up by the inexperienced duo of Joey Elliott and Alex Brink. Import Brandon Summers out of Youngstown State was added to the practice roster this week.
Running back Fred Reid wants to help Pierce stay on the field.
"That's the key," Reid said. "As long as we keep him upright, keep him healthy through the season, he can do good things for this team and take us a long way."
The four-year veteran led the league in rushing last year with 1,396 yards on 213 carries and plans to continue where he left off.
"I put on a little weight, maybe got a little faster, just dedicated a lot of my time to doing a little extra during the off-season so I have a little more advantage this year," Reid said.
The Bomber receiving corps will get out of the gate with two Canadian starters. Sophomore Cory Watson has earned one spot and supplementary-draft pick Kito Poblah another.
The pair will join leader Terrence Edwards — second in the league in receiving last season — and promising second-year players Terence Jeffers-Harris and Greg Carr.
The Bombers are returning about 20 starters from last season, but one of them won't be offensive tackle Kelly Butler. He's now the backup to Glenn January, who missed last season with a torn pectoral muscle.
One area where the Bombers have to turn their fortunes around is winning close games.
Veteran defensive tackle Doug Brown is heading into his 11th and final season and hopes it includes good health and good luck for he and his teammates.
"With all of the short end of the sticks we got when it comes to luck and catastrophes and things just not going our way … we're long overdue," Brown said.
"Hopefully, we'll catch some breaks in terms of our health and make a play or two down the stretch would help."
One big hole that has to be filled on defence is replacing rush end Phillip Hunt, who led the league with 16 sacks last year. Hunt signed with the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles.
Rookie Jason Vega will begin the season in Hunt's spot, but the Bomber coaches are going to be showing different looks on defence.
Second-year head coach Paul LaPolice doesn't view Pierce's health as the major question facing his squad.
"We've got to find ways to win football games, no matter who's playing quarterback, no matter who's playing any position," he said.
"I've been on a team that went 12-6 with four different quarterbacks."
LaPolice said the defence will be more aggressive in play calling, including employing more press man coverage.
On offence, he plans to keep Reid busy and spread the ball around the receivers with the aim of scoring touchdowns and not settling for field goals.
Special teams is stable with kicker Justin Palardy and punter Mike Renaud, but LaPolice wants more consistency from a coverage team that gave up six returns for touchdowns last year.
He and general manager Joe Mack injected a lot of youth into the squad last season and now it's time to see if it was a move in the right direction for a club that last won the Grey Cup in 1990.
"I'm excited to see them play," LaPolice said. "I think we've continued to build and improve.
"Now we've got to finish."