Early re-signings point to defensive uncertainty in Winnipeg

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers have been busy negotiating contract extensions with a number of veterans this winter, re-upping seven players long before February’s free agent deadline.

Offensive starters Stanley Bryant, Weston Dressler, Jermarcus Hardrick, Timothy Flanders, and Patrick Neufeld have officially re-signed with the Bombers through 2018 (and, in some cases, beyond), while depth offensive lineman Manase Foketi has also agreed to terms on an extension.

Justin Medlock and Derek Jones have also signed extensions, shoring up the Bombers’ special teams through next season.

This leaves one phase of the game unaccounted for as the club has yet to announce a defensive re-signing this off-season. There are plenty of key players to re-up on that side of the ball — star cover linebacker Maurice Leggett is pending free agent, as are all-star defensive backs T.J. Heath and Chris Randle and national defensive linemen Jamaal Westerman and Jake Thomas — but none have agreed to terms.

This seems to be an indication that the club is uncertain about the future of its defensive coaching staff. Richie Hall’s unit regressed in its third year under his tutelage, leading to speculation that the club would make a change at defensive coordinator come season’s end. Six weeks later, the Bombers have yet to make announcement regarding the future of its defensive coaching staff.

Rumblings have indicated that the Bomber brass is unhappy with Mike O’Shea’s drawn-out assessment of his defensive coordinator. One would think that a miserable performance in the West Semi-Final — Hall’s defence gave up five touchdowns of fifteen yards or more — would have been enough for O’Shea to pull the trigger on finding a new coordinator. No such announcement has been made.

That isn’t to say O’Shea’s sluggish decision-making is unprecedented (for him, anyway). The head coach waited seven weeks after a poor 2014 campaign to fire Gary Etcheverry, his first defensive coordinator in Winnipeg.

While swift, knee-jerk decision-making is rarely a recipe for success, wasting weeks of the off-season on slow, meandering staff reviews can be equally harmful to a team. Noel Thorpe, the top candidate available this off-season, was snapped up by the Ottawa Redblacks more than two weeks ago. Rick Campbell even managed to hire Thorpe while keeping Mark Nelson — Ottawa’s defensive coordinator of the past four seasons — on staff in a reduced role.

O’Shea needs to make a decision on Richie Hall as soon as possible. If he is dismissed (which, given the state of the club’s defence in 2017, should be a given) the Bombers will need time to find a successor before they begin making decisions about pending defensive free agents.

Winnipeg has already lost out on the top defensive coach on the market. Losing out on talented players as a result of delayed decision-making would be just another off-season setback for a team that has yet to win a playoff game since 2011.

You snooze, you lose. It’s as simple as that.

John Hodge is a Canadian football reporter based in Winnipeg.