This series of articles will celebrate (or laugh at) some of the worst professional sports teams of all time. I will focus on teams within my lifetime so expect the worst from the 1970s to present day.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers have a long and proud history. They were the first Western Canadian team to capture the Grey Cup, way back in 1935. Hall of Fame players such as Ken Ploen and Leo Lewis, donned the Blue and Gold uniforms, bypassing the NFL. Bud Grant coached the Bombers to 4 Grey Cup victories before becoming manning the sidelines for the Minnesota Vikings for 18 seasons. Cal Murphy led the Bombers to 3 Grey Cup triumphs as coach, then later as general manager, before becoming the chief scout of the Indianapolis Colts. Mike Riley was the coach for two of those Grey Cup wins, before trying his luck with the San Diego Chargers. Riley is the current head coach at Oregon State.
However in 1998, the Bombers were a running joke. Winnipeg finished with the worst record in the CFL that season, posting an abysmal 3-15 record. Where did it go wrong?
It started the previous season. The Bombers board of directors, (the team is community owned for those that don’t know) were looking for a new head coach and general manager, to replace Murphy who was relieved of his duties. While “Kindly Cal” was a legend, it was thought the game had passed him by and new blood was needed. The Bombers decided to hire Jeff Reinebold as their new man in charge of the Blue and Gold. Before coming to Winnipeg, Reinebold served as the defensive coordinator in Edmonton and as a special teams coach with B.C. At 39 years old, Reinebold was the youngest head coach in the CFL. His introductory news conference saw him riding a Harley Davidson into the Winnipeg Convention Centre, signalling a new era. The Bombers were now Blue and Bold! The Bombers were bold in 1997. Bold and bad. Winnipeg finished with a dreadful 4-14 mark and missed the playoffs.
Reinebold vowed to turn things around in 1998. His first move was convincing quarterback T.J. Rubley to come north of the border. Rubley was coming off a stint with the Rhein Fire of the WLAF (remember them?) in which he was named MVP of the league. You know your football league isn’t very good when T.J. Rubley is your MVP. Rubley did spend time at the show as well, playing three seasons for the Los Angeles Rams, before brief stops in Green Bay and Denver. What really got Winnipeg all up in arms was that Rubley was friends with actor Sylvester Stallone, the star of Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. The worst movie in the history of civilization. The entire city was buzzing if Sly/Rocky/Rambo/Demolition Man, would grace Winnipeg with his presence.
Reinebold wasn’t done there. In order to protect his prized possession of a quarterback, the Bombers signed left tackle Chris Perez away from the defending Grey Cup champion Toronto Argonauts. The former Kansas Jayhawk was asked to protect Rubley’s blindside while anchoring an inexperienced offensive line. The Bombers also signed linebacker Maurice Kelly and running back Sean Millington away from the B.C. Lions. Kelly would later move to the NFL and play two seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. Millington only had one game, where he rushed for over 100 yards, during his tenure in Winnipeg.
Despite the Bombers poor showing the previous season, fans were optimistic heading into 1998. Season ticket sales were up and some even hoped the Bombers would be in the Grey Cup game, which Winnipeg was hosting that season. The exact opposite happened.
The Bombers stunk in 98. This was a ghastly group. The Bombers lost their first 10 games of the season. The defence, which was supposed to be the strength of the club, along with being Reinebold’s specialty was atrocious. The Bombers surrendered 588 points or an average of 32.6 points per game. Not even the French Army surrendered as much as the woeful Bombers defence.
Meanwhile, Rubley couldn’t adapt to the CFL game. He struggled with the width and length of the field, as well as the receivers being in constant motion. Rubley went 0-10 as a starter with the Bombers. And no, Sly never showed up. I guess he didn’t want to see something just as awful as his movies. Rubley completed 58.8% of his pass attempts for 1,504 yards, 4 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
The Bombers also tried Troy Kopp, Chris Vargas, Jay Walker, Terry Karg and Kevin Mason as signal callers. While Kopp and Walker did manage to put the Bombers under the win column, their play was more erratic than Peter Griffin’s behaviour on every Family Guy episode.
The receivers were a mess as well with one exception. Milt Stegall is one of the greatest receivers in the history of the CFL. He holds CFL records in 5 different categories, including most touchdowns scored in a career (147), most touchdowns in a season (23), and most yards per catch in a season (26.5). However in 1998, Stegall only appeared in 7 games as injuries slowed him down. His absence was devastating for the Bombers as they tried and failed to replace him. Stegall ended the season with only 32 receptions for 403 yards and 6 touchdowns. Yet, Stegall still led the team in yards and touchdowns amongst Bomber receivers. In fact, it was a running back, Eric Blount who led the Bombers with 45 receptions in 1998. The Bomber receivers were that bad. The likes of Matt Dubuc, Mario Bailey, Kotto Cotton, Demetrious Stanley, Travis Anderson, Ted Long and Bruce Boyko were simply awful in the skill of catching the football. They couldn’t catch a cold if they ran barefoot on Portage and Main in January.
Blount was another rare bright spot in an otherwise dark season. The North Carolina alum nearly broke a league record with 3,816 total yards. He did set a record for most kickoff return yards, with 1,695 return yards off of kickoffs. He had many chances to return kickoffs as the Bombers yielded numerous touchdowns over the course of the season. Blount also recorded 1,051 punt return yards, 599 rushing yards and 339 receiving yards. Blount was dangerous, but the Bombers didn’t surround him with much talent so he was going up against everyone, while he did all the work.
Millington proved to be a massive disappointment for the Blue and Gold. The Simon Fraser product only managed to gain 424 yards on 82 carries for the season. Many blamed offensive coordinator Harry Justvig for not designing a proper offence around Millington. But Millington needs to take some of the blame himself as he never found his comfort level in Winnipeg. Mercifully, Millington was traded to Edmonton early in the 1999 season, before ending up back in B.C. where he was an integral member of the Lions 2000 Grey Cup championship squad.
The defence was horrendous but not because of defensive tackle Joe Fleming and Maurice Kelly. Fleming was a star on the front four, but was forced to face double teams as support around him was weak. Despite the double teams, Fleming led the CFL with 15 sacks, and was a menace to opposing quarterbacks.
Kelly was used both at linebacker and at safety because of the lack of depth on the Bombers defence. Kelly led the team with 84 tackles, 5 interceptions and 3 fumble recoveries. Everyone else was vile. Defensive back Antonio Banks couldn’t cover a wounded turtle. Defensive back Patrick Burke had a great look at opposing receivers backsides, as they ran past him. Safety Brad Elberg’s coverage was so bad, he could have been a correspondent for Fox News. The only sack defensive tackle Jean-Daniel Roy got in 1998 was one to pick up potatoes at the farmer’s market.
There were many awful games for the Bombers in 1998, but the one stands out for me was on July 24 against the Calgary Stampeders. I attended this beating of the Blue and Gold in more ways than one. In fact, the final score flatters the Bombers as they “only” lost 44-25. But it felt like 144-25 the way the Stamps toyed with Winnipeg. It looked like Jeff Garcia and company weren’t even trying. With the game drawing to a close, frustrated Bomber fans on the East Side of the old Winnipeg Stadium began taunting Stamps slot back Allen Pitts. The response from Pitts was shocking as he jumped into the stands, and start pounding away at the drunken soul who was mocking him. The fan left worse for wear, while the Stamps bench tried to restrain Pitts. Most of the players were laughing at the fan as the Bomber players did nothing about it. The Bombers and the fans were both getting smashed by the Stampeders on that night.
Reinebold didn’t even last the season. After the Bombers were humiliated 40-20 by Edmonton on Canadian Thanksgiving, the Bombers fired Reinebold and replaced him with offensive line coach Gary Hoffman. For all his charisma and rhetoric, Reinebold’s career record with the Bombers was 6-27. Rubley was released and signed with Hamilton in the offseason. He was cut early in the year. Perez did play another season in Winnipeg but ran into some off-field issues and was subsequently released following the 1999 season. Dave Ritchie was brought in as head coach to begin the 1999 season and the Bombers slowly improved to a 6-12 mark. In 2001 under Ritchie’s guidance, the Bombers finished with the best record in the CFL, going 14-4. They lost a heartbreaker to Calgary in the 2001 Grey Cup game. Jeff Reinebold continues his nomadic football journey. He resurfaced at the University of Hawaii as a defensive line coach in 2006. In 2008, he joined SMU as a receivers coach, where he stayed for 3 years. In 2012, Reinebold returned to the CFL as the defensive coordinator in Montreal. Hew was fired after only one season. As of this writing, Reinebold currently serves as the special teams coach of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
The Bombers hold the dubious distinction of having the longest Grey Cup drought in the CFL, not having won the prize since 1990. They have had many disappointing seasons, but none as awful as 1998.
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