Serviceable Quarterback Play Showcasing Bombers’ Contending Roster

Both Bombers’ general manager Kyle Walters and his personnel department have, through three seasons on the job, built a contending roster for head coach Mike O’Shea.

It’s for this reason that the Bombers’ terrible start to the season was so puzzling, as none of the free agent signings were underwhelming, and it was very evident that the roster boasted the talent to dominate. Naturally, the blame was pointed directly at O’Shea, but as Bombers’ fans know better than most from experience, the success of a Canadian Football League team is heavily dependent on the quarterback no matter the supporting cast on offense or defense. Drew Willy, the franchise pivot who was signed to mega, $415,000 annual contract, was simply not getting it done.

With Matt Nichols now supplying consistently serviceable play, the Bombers’ entire roster is being showcased, and they appear to be one of the most talented teams in the CFL. The defense, which has played the last few games missing nearly their entire secondary, leads the league in takeaways with 27 – the next team on the leader-board is the Argonauts at 16. The run-game is finally taking off under star, Canadian running back Andrew Harris, who leads the CFL in rushing at 505 yards now that opposing defenses have to, at least, respect the Bombers’ aerial attack. In a league that has underwent a passing explosion since drastic rule changes in 2015, having done it two games in a row, the Bombers are proving to be one of the only teams to be able to win with under 300 yards passing.

Walters’ master plan, which was completed this off-season with free agency and the draft after a planned, three-year rebuild, is coming into fruition. The missing ingredient during the tumultuous start of the season just so happened to be at the most crucial position in the game: quarterback. With Nichols now inserted into a starting role, the Bombers’ last few off-seasons are looking great.

No matter the free agent signings, teams’ scouting departments must be able to consistently discover American players who are sitting on their couches, waiting for a call to resume their professional football careers. Winnipeg’s scouting department has sorely underachieved during Walters’ term, annually failing to uncover a starting caliber American rookie offensive lineman, receiver and defensive end – not to mention some depth at the position – until this year. Travis Bond and Jermarcus Hardrick, although the latter had already spent some time in the CFL, have solidified the offensive line, while Jace Davis and Thomas Mayo are each better than any rookie receiver the Bombers have brought in since Chris Matthews.

Finding young defensive backs has been the only consistent discoveries of the scouting department until this season – Johnny Adams and Bruce Johnson were great acquisitions – and they’ve continued that trend in 2016. Boundary halfback and dynamic kick returner Kevin Fogg is a threat to win Rookie of the Year, while Terrance Frederick and CJ Roberts are developing into future starters as they fill in for the injured Chris Randle and Johnny Adams. Rookie Canadian Taylor Loffler, meanwhile, has solidified a starting safety spot just months after being drafted in the third-round.

Johnny Adams was one of the league’s best defensive backs in his rookie season, while Chris Randle was playing at a higher level than any defensive back in 2016 before suffering an injury. Without them, the Bombers’ secondary has been a dynamic, turnover-machine, displaying the depth of this team.

Walters nailed free agency this signing – the Bombers inked contracts with six big-name free agents: Euclid Cummings, Andrew Harris, Euclid Cummings, Keith Shologan, Weston Dressler and Ryan Smith – defying the foolish belief that free agency is a terrible idea for rebuilding teams, and that there’s always a reason the players weren’t initially re-signed, and it rarely works out, etc. His acquisitions in 2015 have panned out good, too, as Darvin Adams has emerged into a go-to receiver, and two-time All-Star Stanley Bryant has been consistent protecting his quarterback’s blind-side.

The Bombers’ offensive line has been one of the teams weakest positional groups during all of Walters’ tenure, but they weren’t getting the recognition they deserved while Drew Willy was behind center during the first five games of the season. Versatile international pick-ups Jermarcus Hardrick and Travis Bond were great acquisitions, while 3rd-year Canadian Mathias Goossen, who’s in his first season as a full-time starting after being selected with the second overall pick in 2014 – is blossoming into an elite center. According to 3 Down Nation’s John Hodge, the Bombers surrendered an average of 3.2 sacks-per-game with Drew Willy at the helm. Under Nichols, who’s decisiveness and movement in the pocket is the difference, the average sack-rate has dropped to 1.66 sacks-per-game since making the switch at quarterback.

The defensive line, meanwhile, has been good all season, and they’re making the flashy plays now that the defensive backfield is encouraging offenses to run the ball, and quarterbacks to hold onto the ball. A unit that has plagued this defense over the last two seasons, former Toronto Argonaut Euclid Cummings has been a one-man wrecking crew at defensive tackle, supplying the needed pressure from the pass-rushing, three-tech position. Jamaal Westerman continues make a case as to why he’s the most well-rounded defensive end in the game, and opposite him, Shayon Green is finally coming along after a tumultuous start to his rookie season. This unit has dominated the opposite offensive lines three weeks in a row – all of which were played in front of a supposedly patch-work secondary.

There’s no direct correlation between Matt Nichols and the defense, of course, but the offense is finally controlling both the time-of-possession and the field-position. He hasn’t had to carry the team, passing for 350-to-400 yards on a consistent basis like most quarterbacks for their team to have a chance – in fact he hasn’t even had to pass for 300 yards. But he’s managing the production on first down, recognizing busts in coverage and giving his receivers opportunities to make plays. In two of three starts, Nichols has simply stuck to basics of the system, managing the game and delivering the ball to his play-makers – and kudos to Nichols; Drew Willy wasn’t capable of fulfilling even the simpler job for pivots in Paul Lapolice’s offense.

It’s scary to imagine how good this team would be if an elite quarterback like, say, Mike Reilly was leading the charge – at the end of the day, quarterbacks make the entire roster better. But, for now, Nichols is holding up his end of the bargain, and his serviceable play is proving to be enough on a team with a great supporting cast, from the starters all the way down to the practice squad.

PHOTO CREDIT TO NATHAN DENETTE OF THE CANADIAN PRESS. I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO.
PHOTO CREDIT TO NATHAN DENETTE OF THE CANADIAN PRESS. I DO NOT OWN THIS PHOTO OR CLAIM TO.

Analysis: Don’t Blame Marcel Bellefeuille’s System For Bombers Offensive Issues

Despite several off-season acquisitions and an overall sense of optimism heading into year two, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ offence only regressed last season, inevitably leading to the end of a tumultuous, two-year stint with offensive coordinator Marcel Bellefeuille.

The unquestioned number one job for Bellefeuille’s replacement, Paul Lapolice, is keeping starting quarterback Drew Willy healthy and on his feet for 18 games. Willy, who’s missed 12 starts – and having been knocked out of a handful of other ball games in two years – has already sustained more than enough physical punishment as the Blue & Gold’s starter for the liking of anyone within the club’s brass.

With the Bombers allowing a league-high in sacks surrendered with 71 in 2014 and 59 in 2015 – as well as the inability to develop a consistent rushing attack – the consensus blame is often put on Bellefeuille’s blocking schemes. And while Bellefeuille, like any offensive coordinator, has his own wrinkles in his offense – as well as deficiencies from a play-calling and game-planning standpoint – his blocking schemes were not what ultimately negatively separated Winnipeg’s offense from the rest.

Head Coach Mike O’Shea, who’s well-versed for defending his coaches and players at all costs, said himself that Bellefeuille instilled the same protection schemes as every other CFL offensive coordinator – and he took a lot of heat for saying that. But, really, O’Shea wasn’t lying – the CFL is even more of a copy-cat league than the NFL, and every coach has figured out the best way to use a 65-yard field to their fullest advantage.

While it would be asinine to ignore some flaws noticed in Bellefeuille’s system – although it is possible to find flaws in every coordinator’s scheme – Bellefeuille was not fired because his scheme was different from every other team’s and failed (see Etcheverry, Gary). There were other reasons that will be touched on later  – and frankly, the need of a fresh-start was probably a reason.

Perhaps the biggest reason for Winnipeg’s offensive struggles is quite straight-forward: personnel. While one could argue that Bellefeuille should’ve done a better job covering up for a lack of talent, which is easier said than done in this case, Bellefeuille, at the end of the day, employed a system similar to any other offensive coordinator.

The Same Scheme

With the way that the rules and regulations of Canadian football are tailored for offenses, every single team runs strikingly similar versions of the spread offense. It is a zone-based offense, with regular slide and half slide pass protection – both zone concepts – as well as a zone running scheme. In American football, you’ll see many different offenses, such as the spread, Air Raid, pro style, multiple, etc – some with man-blocking, and some with zone blocking. But in the CFL, excluding against certain, select fronts, it’s mostly all zone blocking. Bellefeuille was no different.

CFL lineman – not just Winnipeg’s or Calgary’s or BC’s – must be smart and athletic. Agility, and not as much brute strength/power, is a huge need. (Don’t get nastiness and strength confused when thinking about how the Bombers “rebuilt” their line). While zone protection, with blockers responsible for gaps, is better against stunts, it can put offenses in disadvantageous match-ups – i.e. an offensive tackle in space versus a defensive back – whereas big-on-big (man-blocking) will always have running backs on linebackers/defensive backs and lineman on lineman. Therefore, the more agile the blocker, the better in a zone scheme.

Winnipeg’s bread-and-butter – and every other team’s, too – in the run-game was the outside zone play. The Bombers base running packages included many, many different variations of the outside zone, inside zone – which is very similar to the outside zone, but the running backs aiming point is changed – the inside zone option, inside split zone, the zone stretch and the outside zone with ghost motion.

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The outside (and inside) zone is a play that works off the displacement of defensive players, with the intent of getting them moving laterally down the line of scrimmage and cutting up into a gap where they have vacated. Offenses rely off the displacement of the defensive lineman or linebackers to find the spots that are vacated. It’s anything but a downhill play – taking what the defense gives you. It’s a slow-to-fast play where running backs follow a strict set of reads and see how defensive linemen have displaced themselves laterally. The whole idea of the play is to get the LB to run in the direction that we are running, hold lineman with combination blocks and find the spots in-between. Making his reads, the RB goes off the placement of the read-man’s helmet and outside shoulder.
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RB Cam Marshall’s (#32) first read is on the defensive end, who’s outside shoulder is well outside the play, so Marshall starts cutting inside. His next read is on the 3-tech, and given his displacement, Marshall continues to work inside and get yards. It is not uncommon for offenses to leave the backside DE unblocked against certain fronts, which is the case here, as it’s only more than blockers that can work to the second level faster.
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Montreal aligns in a base 40-front, with NT Alan-Michael slightly shaded to the A-gap as a 1-tech, and DT Corvey Irvin in the B-gap as a 3-tech.
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Following his reads, RB Jon Cornish (#9) cuts back inside and gains 12 yards, exactly as the play is drawn up.

Like other teams, the Bellefeuille threw in some jet sweeps, toss sweeps and other heavy misdirection plays to keep defenses on their toes. (It wouldn’t have hurt if they ran slightly more of these runs to give defenses even more to really prepare for).

From a pass protection standpoint, the Bombers ran the same pass protection schemes as the rest of the league – half-slide, full slide, big-on-big (man-blocking) versus select fronts, 7-man protection and max-protection. Half slide protection is easily the most common in the league. Every lineman is responsible for the gap beside them in the direction that the line is sliding to except the backside offensive tackle, who is man-blocking against the defensive end.

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Calgary comes out in half-slide protection on this second-and-long passing situation. After identifying the threats, C Pierre Lavertu, who has a 0-tech straight ahead and the Mike LB (#48 Bear Woods) in front of the B-gap, calls for the half-slide to go to the right. RT Dan Federkeil (#66) also has an outside threat in Will LB Winston Venable (not pictured), which is communicated to the center, as well.
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LT Edwin Harrison is locked on with DE Gabriel Knapton (#55) as the rest of the line slides to the right.

The direction of the slide is usually to the strength of the defense, and is determined by either the center (usually), the offensive coordinator or even, but rarely, the quarterback. (Some plays naturally develop into “combo” blocking, where the backside tackle and guard block B.O.B., while everyone else slides). In half slide protection, the running back is responsible for the backside linebacker, and will often release for a pass if either the linebacker goes in coverage or there are no immediate backside threats.

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Drawn up version of half-slide protection to the left.

CFL teams will slide the entire line (full slide protection) often when they’re sure they’ll likely be outnumbered in protection, but also in certain rare plays where the running back does not have blocking responsibilities. This time, the backside offensive tackle is involved in the slide – no longer locked on to the defensive end – and the running back is responsible for the defender outside of the tackle.

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Montreal’s offensive tackles communicate the outside threats to the center, who calls for full slide left protection. Every offensive lineman is now responsible for the gap to the left of them and will step with the same foot. In 7-man protection, each running back is responsible for the most dangerous defender in the C-gab. QB Rakeem Cato (#12) is responsible for throwing hot off safety Josh Bell (#11).
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As you can see, the line slides left and RB Carl Volny (#29) picks up the most dangerous threat, LB Jeff Hecht (#28). Cato stays calm and released the ball for a touchdown strike before his man, unblocked defender Josh Bell, makes contact.

Again, the Bombers, who struggled against cover-0 and cover-1 blitzes, were no different from a schematic standpoint. Defensive coordinators figured out in 2014 that the bombers struggled mightily against these blitzes, proving incapable of consistently taking advantage of the one-on-one match-ups downfield in the passing game.

A lack of talent

As O’Shea has pointed out many, many times, sacks cannot always be blamed on the offensive line; it could be on the quarterback for not releasing the ball soon enough or for wrongly reading the pocket; the running back for missing a block; or the receivers for not adjusting their routes to become a viable, quick option for the quarterback throwing hot off an unblocked defender. Everyone needs to be on the same page, especially against cover-1 or cover-0 blitzes. And, of course, the players must be able to execute.

The Bombers, overall, did not have enough talent on the offensive side of the football in 2015, sparking some serious off-season changes. Winnipeg’s much-improved offensive line proved to be anything but, while the running backs each displayed different issues and the receiving corps failed to take off in year two.

It was interesting to watch Calgary call very similar plays in similar situations as the Bombers only to yield much different results. Calgary’s offensive line, despite some serious injury issues, was better all season than that of Winnipeg.

The Bombers received sub-par play at the left guard position all season, rotating between players – Chris Greaves, Sam Longo, Selvish Capers and Patrick Neufeld, who’s still below-average, but the best option of the bunch, all started games there.

Releasing veteran center Steve Morley following 2014 proved to be a mistake, as his replacement, 34-year-old Dominic Picard, was a huge bust. Although a lot was asked of him, Picard showed that simply didn’t have the explosiveness to compete at the high-level needed considering the players surrounding him on the line. He struggled against 0-techs – his worst games were against Montreal, who’s 3-4 defenses puts NT Alan-Michael Cash head-up on the center often – losing to power rushes and failing to assert any dominance or nastiness.

Contrary to Picard, who’s high intelligence was indeed evident, rookie guard Sukh Chungh showed all the needed skills – he just made a lot of mental errors. And the Bombers likely expected nothing less when they made the conscious decision in training camp to allow a rookie offensive lineman to cut his teeth at right guard over 18 games as a starter. Although, even as a rookie, the University of Calgary product was often Winnipeg’s best and most reliable interior offensive lineman, Chungh was still a below-average right guard in his inaugural campaign – he showed extremely great potential on some plays, but made fundamental or rookie errors on others. Ideally, on a team with better depth at the position, Chungh would’ve spent his first season developing into a dominant player from the sidelines.

Vital to pass protection, the two offensive tackle positions each yielded very different results. Contrary to popular belief, Stanley Bryant actually lived up to his salary with a very solid season. Opposite the two-time All-Star, however, is where many issues were presented. Youngster Jace Daniels was wildly inconsistent at right tackle, and only did Winnipeg find balance was when depth Canadian Patrick Neufeld pushed out to right tackle for the final 1/3 of the season. Neufeld, admittedly, actually played really good and provides the Blue & Gold with an excellent fall-back option at right tackle if needed.

Regardless, the emergence of a serviceable, American right tackle in training camp will be crucial, as Drew Willy is naturally a difficult quarterback to protect. He isn’t necessarily great at throwing against pressure, often panicking. And without the escapability of Zach Collaros or Mike Reilly, GM Kyle Walters must provide his franchise stud with a better receiving corps to take some pressure of the 29-year-old.

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To protect against Montreal’s cover-0 blitz, the Bombers will slide the entire line to the right, leaving Willy responsible for weak-side LB Winston Venable (#31).
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SB Nic Moore (#17) is open, but Willy fails to step into the throw, delivering an incomplete pass. In this situation, Willy must do a better job staying calm and stepping into the throw. He was never even knocked down on the play, so it was certainly a throw he needed to complete.

Winnipeg’s group of pass-catchers, who likely formed the second-worst receiving corps last season aside from Montreal, certainly caused a handful of sacks, turnovers or incomplete passes in blitz scenarios themselves by either failing to recognize certain blitzes and adjust their route or by failing to take advantage of the favorable, one-on-one match-ups created by cover-1 or cover-0 blitzes.

Running backs are crucial in pass-protection, and although Paris Cotton had some moments, Winnipeg’s running backs were sub-par at best at blocking. The rules/principles for running backs in half slide and full slide are probably universal for every team in the CFL, although many teams, including Winnipeg, simplified their running backs reads/responsibilities, allowing them to check and release and faster. The Stampeders, who had easily the best pass-blocking RB in the league last season in Jon Cornish, put a lot on their running back’s plate in pass-protection, knowing they could handle it. That’s another luxury that Bellefeuille didn’t have.

Looking back at 2015, the Bombers simply did not have good enough players on the offensive side of the football – losing his starting quarterback for the season in week 7 didn’t help – limiting, to some capacity, what Bellefeuille could do.

Lapolice adjustments: 

It is entirely possible that, under Paul Lapolice, the Bombers become one of the league’s most prolific offenses. And while there are changes that Lapolice can make to operate a better system and to be a better play-caller than Bellefeuille, the greatest factor for a possible step forward would be the improved personnel.

A healthy Drew Willy would already do wonders for the Bombers. With all due respect, there is a huge drop-off from Willy to Matt Nichols, who makes a lot of frustrating, fundamental mistakes. Add in upgrades and changes at every other position on offense as well, and the Bombers are looking much better on paper than they ever did with Marcel Bellefeuille.

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Compromising for Ottawa’s dominant DE combo, Winnipeg came at them with several inside zone option plays in back-to-back matches against the REDBLACKS. Here, on an inside zone option right, Nichols must better execute this simple read on DE Shawn Lemon (#52).
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Despite Lemon slow-playing the exchange and angling towards the quarterback, Nichols decides to keep the ball. As a result, Lemon gets a huge hit on the QB, hardly giving Nichols time to even release the ball. Nichols *must* give the ball to RB Da’Rel Scott (#23) – it’s a simple read.
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The Bombers come back to inside zone option after seeing Lemon aggressively play the quarterback earlier in the game.
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This time, the read-man (DE Justin Capicciotti, #93) crashes hard on the running back, and Nichols incorrectly fails to pull the ball. If the read-man makes the tackle, it’s 99% always the quarterbacks fault. That was the case here.

Andrew Harris provides the Bombers with an excellent pass-protecting running back that can line up in the slot and also be an effective receiver. Weston Dressler and Ryan Smith – plus the addition by subtraction of Julian Feoli-Gudino being subject to bench to make room for another American starter – are instant upgrades to the receiving corps.

Although it would be a reach to project Winnipeg’s offensive line of being a top-4 or top-5 unit next year, significant improvement is still expected. After displaying great potential while getting over the huge learning curve as a rookie, RG Sukh Chungh should continue to get better in year two before likely becoming one of the league’s best in 2017. Patrick Neufeld, who looked solid at right tackle for the Blue & Gold in the final stretch of last season, offers at least an upgrade over Chris Greaves/Sam Longo/Selvish Capers at left guard. At right tackle, if at least one of the several rookie offensive tackles brought in to compete in training camp will become at least an average player, the Bombers will be upgraded there.

Perhaps the largest x-factor of the entire offense – excluding the health of Drew Willy – is third-year center Mathias Goossen. After grinding out two seasons as a depth player, Goossen enters training camp for the first time as a starter. All that’s guaranteed is that Goossen will be at least an upgrade over Dominic Picard in his first full season as a starter, as he already proved so last season. While it is reasonable to expect Goossen to be a solid starter in the CFL this season, he is still very difficult to project.

There are lots of question marks, but the offensive line is still looking much better than last year, and could become as good as a mid-tier unit next season.

But if this was entirely a personnel issue, Mike O’Shea would’ve never fired Bellefeuille in the first place. Although I believe any accusations against a lack of “creativity” from Bellefeuille would be false, an argument could be made regarding predictability, game-planning and in-game management. In this case, Bellefeuille was perhaps less adequate as an actual play-caller than play-designer.

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Desperate times call for desperate measures, which usually indicates a look into the back of the play-book. The Bombers come out in an unbalanced offensive line with RB Da’Rel Scott (#23) lining up at right tackle for Patrick Neufeld, who’s lined up on the left side, and run the inside zone option.
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Scott flares out and is wide-open, but Nichols missed the throw. Good play-design, but poor execution. No lack of creativity here.

Although overblown, one could say the Bombers gave similar looks too often in predictable situations. Winnipeg rarely operated the 3-step passing game from the pistol alignment, and although the running backs may have been granted the freedom to line up on the back-side of the protection on pass plays, it would have been wise to give some drop-back passing looks from the pistol, too. Bellefeuille could have also done a better job balancing between dictacting how the offense attacks the defense and simply taking what the defense gives. Perhaps no coordinator does a better job than Saskatchewan’s Stephan McAdoo. If cornerbacks are giving 12-yards of cushion, offensive coordinators must open up the deep ball by calling short routes – such as a speed-out – to force that CB to close the cushion.

Schematically, there is always room to improve and change things, especially for the league’s worst offense. The Bombers, who put too much pressure on their guards in 2014, perhaps actually used too many fullback sets in 2015 after signing Tim Cronk. It would be good to see Lapolice rely more on empty sets while changing the quarterbacks launch point to help out the offensive line more. That, and attacking the boundary with more receivers as well as getting the wide receivers more involved with lateral motion, would be good pages to take straight out of Hamilton’s play-book.

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I didn’t like how Winnipeg blocked their empty sets. The Bombers are in big-on-big protection and since there are no A-gap threats, has C Dominic Picard (#68) as the double-read lineman.
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RT Jace Daniels (#59) squeezes the 3-tech (LB Simoni Lawrence (#21), and with no immediate inside threats, Picard will kick out and take DE Adrian Tracy (#93) before he gets to Drew Willy.

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There are surely other smaller nuances to be nit-picked, but the simple fact of improving the offensive personnel would undoubtedly be the biggest reason for an offensive breakthrough in 2015, if it happens.

Conclusion: 

The easiest excuse is to blame the offensive coordinator, and we are all to blame for this. But Marcel Bellefeuille, who instilled virtually the same blocking schemes as every other CFL offensive coordinator, simply was not all that much of a burden on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ offense for the last two seasons.

As a play-caller, Bellefeuille probably leaves some to be desired, but the biggest detractor for the Bombers was the on-field personnel. Bellefeuille consistently used misdirection, different formations and prepared very different week-to-week game-plans, but the results never reflected that.

Bellefeuille gave defenses just as many different looks as any other offensive coordinator. His offense was not vanilla, and he did indeed try many different ways to get the finest execution possible out of the players he had to work with.

With a healthy Willy – and having brought in a versatile running back in Harris, cut ties with Picard, (potentially) uncovering a rookie right tackle in training camp and upgrading the receiving corps through free agency – Paul Lapolice is taking over a much better team than Marcel Bellefeuille ever had. Of course, Lapolice can always work to build a better and better system than his predecessor, but it will not make as much of a difference as the improvement in talent level will have.

I am not saying it was a bad move to fire Bellefeuille – he had some issues. But none of Winnipeg’s past issues on offenses were as glaring as the personnel.