WINNIPEG - Coach Mike O'Shea will be back next season but Winnipeg Blue Bombers general manager Kyle Walters wouldn't comment on any other possible personnel changes after the team missed the playoffs for the third year in a row.
"We'll identify why we didn't win more football games and we won't be afraid to make changes if we think it's going to improve the product next year and help us win more games," he said Wednesday.
O'Shea's rookie turn as a head coach in the CFL started well, fizzled as summer waned but ended on a high note with a gritty 18-13 upset of the league-leading Calgary Stampeders last Saturday that saw the Bombers finish the season at 7-11.
"I like to think that game out in Calgary we won in the end tends to summarize the players' willingness to play for him and continue to fight in what would be termed a meaningless game for us," said Walters.
And even though he didn't finish that game in Calgary — which was won by backup Robert Marve — rookie starting quarterback Drew Willy also finished his season in Walter's good books.
"I think he showed toughness, he showed the ability, when a game is on the line, to pull out victories. He put up some impressive statistical numbers."
Willy, obtained from Saskatchewan where he was a backup for two seasons, sits behind only Toronto veteran Ricky Ray in passing yards on the CFL leaderboard, although every other team in the league has one more game left to wrap their season. He's also thrown a league-leading 16 interceptions.
"Obviously Drew needs to cut down on the turnovers but, like all of us in our jobs, you would like to think you're going to improve from year to year," Walter said. "And Drew showed enough that there's something in there, that he's going to lead us to a Grey Cup."
The fact that the playoffs eluded the Bombers yet again as did a trip to the Grey Cup, a trophy they last won in 1990, weigh heavily on Walters' evaluation of himself during his first full season as general manager.
"We didn't make the playoffs, we didn't win the Grey Cup and I stood up here ad the beginning of the year and said 'We want to win football games, we want to win Grey Cups,'" he said. "And we didn't do that, so that would be my self-evaluation."
With the Grey Cup in Winnipeg next year, getting better is the goal and Walters said he'd be willing to spend on free agents if that would help. The team proved its willingness to do that this season by picking up receiver Nick Moore from B.C. at a cost of $185,000, although that didn't work as well as planned.
Walters said Moore's performance in the games he played was fantastic, but injuries limited those games.
"We just need him to do it for 18 games, not nine."
Walters was pragmatic in his analysis of a season where the Bombers won five of their first six and finished with eight losses in a row before Calgary.
"The games that were decided by a touchdown early in the year went our way and the games in the second half didn't go our way," he said.
"I would say 13 of our 18 games we either won or were competitive in. Five . . . we were on the wrong side of scores bigger than 17 points."
He said next season that has to change.
"When Mike and I sit down, everybody's going to be evaluated. Mike and I have the same goal, as with (Bomber president) Wade Miller and it's win a Grey Cup."
He wouldn't focus on any particular aspect of this year's squad — "We'll improve every area" — but did concede the offensive line has to get a lot better.
"Of course, it's critical. It's paramount to our long-term success being in the Western Conference," said Walters.
"We need an offensive line that can control the clock and keep Drew out of second-and-long situations, make more manageable passing situations, keep him from getting hit as much . . . Your entire team's success is based around the productivity of the offensive line."
One big find this season was rookie Canadian kicker Lirim Hajrullahu, undrafted out of Western. He sits third in kicking points at 153 and made 87 per cent of his field goals.
"Lirim was fantastic in his first year. He exceeded expectations when you find a guy that was undrafted."
Hajrullahu was the team's pick for most outstanding rookie, Canadian and special team's player in the CFL player awards. Willy earned most outstanding player honours, veteran Glenn January was the team's pick for outstanding offensive lineman and CFL rookie DB Maurice Leggett earned defensive player honours.
The Bombers are well-stocked with draft picks for what is expected to be a year with an above-average crop of Canadian talent, another area where Winnipeg finds itself in short supply.