WINNIPEG - The Winnipeg Blue Bombers may not be getting much respect from oddsmakers, who have them dead last as a Grey Cup bet this season, but coach Tim Burke will take that wager.
He says the team is further ahead than it was at the start of 2012, when they finished out of the playoffs with a 6-12 record, tied with Hamilton in the CFL cellar.
"Definitely, offensively, we're farther ahead than we were at this point last year," he says. "(And) I think as far as desire to win we're farther ahead than we were last year."
Starter Buck Pierce was sidelined last season by a series of injuries, and the Bombers floundered behind their backup quarterbacks. But Burke says the fire in the belly that got them to Vancouver to compete for the Grey Cup in 2011 also seemed lacking.
"I don't think we had the fire that we had coming back from the year before and I think we have a little bit more of that this year. Hopefully enough of it to get us some wins," he said.
But can they pull off a repeat of 2011, when they stunned pretty well everyone by rebounding from an even more dismal 4-14 finish the year before to challenge for the Cup?
Head coach Paul LaPolice, who led them to that final, paid for last year's poor performance with his job and Burke took over mid-season.
This year, Burke has put his stamp on the Bombers from the start. The team even has a brand new touchdown song to play in their new $200-million stadium, if and when they score one.
They didn't get a chance at their first exhibition game, with total offence consisting of two field goals in a 24-6 loss to the Toronto Argonauts. That was close compared with the 52-0 drubbing by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats that closed their pre-season.
Burke had left most of his A team at home when the Bombers crumbled before Hamilton and Henry Burris, and probably was glad the debacle wasn't televised.
But more so than in past years, this pre-season was about testing rookies and resting starters for the first regular-season game June 27 against Montreal.
First and foremost, the Bombers need Pierce healthy. Failing that, they must rely on one of their backups — Justin Goltz or Max Hall — to win games Pierce can't play.
It was Pierce who got them to the 2011 cup final but, with his injury record, training camp has been spent weighing who should stand directly behind him on the depth chart.
Hall is a CFL rookie (with NFL experience) but even Goltz, who won the toss as No. 1 backup, has thrown very few passes in his three seasons. Alex Brink and Joey Elliott, cut in the off-season, were always ahead of him on the chart.
That focus on backups means Pierce hasn't had much time to work on his game, but he insists he isn't concerned.
"It's OK, they're going to give me lots of reps this week, and we'll get ready to go," he said as camp wound down.
"I'll be fine. I've been playing for nine years, I'll be OK."
The Bombers have been prepping a new-look offence and new protection schemes. They aren't taking the wraps off those though until the June 27 season opener at home against Montreal.
Of course, Pierce has to co-operate. Breaking out for an eight-yard run on his first play of the first pre-season game showed that the best-laid plans can fail in the execution. The Bombers let him play only three series before giving him the hook.
Quarterbacking remains the big question mark hanging over Winnipeg's offence.
Otherwise, it seems in good hands with the return of healthy runningbacks Chad Simpson, Chris Garrett and Will Ford. Burke has the enviable problem of looking for ways to hang onto all the talented import tailbacks at his disposal.
Simpson's starting job is secure after racking up more than 1,000 yards in his rookie season, good enough to be named an East Division all-star, but it's a toss up between the other two, with one destined for the regular roster and another likely the practice roster.
For receivers, Winnipeg has rookie of the year Chris Matthews and veteran Terrence Edwards, two 1,000-yard-plus performers, and plenty of depth behind them, including non-import Cory Watson.
Offensive co-ordinator Gary Crowton also now has a year of CFL experience under his belt.
The offensive line, a weak link as last season opened, has firmed up. And 2012 draft pick Tyson Pencer seems healthy enough and is persuading coaches he could become the ratio-changing tackle they saw in the six-foot-seven, 315-pound rookie, although he starts the season on the nine-game injured list.
Burke has clearly had issues with his defence though this season.
Last season, injuries forced the Bombers to play musical chairs with their defence. This season, Burke hasn't been happy with the veterans on the secondary and told them to pick up or pack up.
Despite a $35,000 signing bonus, two-time all-star Jonathan Hefney got a ticket to ride.
It may have been his play, but it also followed the news he'd been busted for marijuana possession at home in South Carolina. He was quickly snapped up by the Stampeders and his was the only departure that could be called a surprise.
To fill his place at halfback, the Bombers tabbed Demond Washington, who dazzled at times last season as a kick returner, when he held onto the ball.
Cauchy Muamba, brother to Winnipeg defensive linebacker Henoc Muamba, moves into safety, replacing Ian Logan.
Burke's call for new players challenging for spots on the secondary to push the veterans was heard, says Washington, who started as a linebacker, cornerback or halfback in seven games last season.
"I know they're hungry," he said of the rookies. "But the veteran guys are hungry too. We can't just sit there and let them get all the meat. We've got to get in and get us some food too."
Cornerback Jovon Johnson, the CFL's outstanding defensive player in 2011, says the secondary is ready and the veterans know the score.
"I mean, we've got talent, all the way across the board," he said. "In this business, nobody's ever safe. You've got to come out and go out and perform and if you don't do that, they'll find guys to replace you."