Bombers excited for next season*

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For the 16th year in a row, it was a quiet garbage bag day in the Winnipeg Blue Bombers locker-room.

It wasn't all doom and gloom, though, because the Blue and Gold believe they are climbing the CFL ladder, not tumbling down it.

The Bombers bounced back from a dismal 5-13 campaign in 2005 to post a 9-9 mark this year under new head coach Doug Berry. They lost a heartbreaker on Sunday, giving up 14 unanswered points to the Toronto Argonauts in the final eight minutes of their 31-27 loss in the East Division semifinal.

There were plenty of wouldas, couldas and shouldas dancing in the Bombers' heads yesterday, but there was none of that when they spoke about the season overall.

"We did some good things," quarterback Kevin Glenn said. "We brought playoff football back to Winnipeg."

"It was a major stepping- stone," running back Charles Roberts added. "We were horrible the last two years, and we found ourselves a playoff team. We were one catch or one touchdown from the Eastern final. You can't be mad at that.

"But at the same time, it gives us a lot of momentum and confidence going into next year if we can keep the team together."

Keeping the team together is going to be tough. The CFL's new salary management system, which includes a $4.05-million cap, kicks in after the Grey Cup. The Bombers have 17 potential free agents, including defensive tackle Doug Brown, defensive backs Anthony Malbrough and Kelly Malveaux, and placekicker/punter Troy Westwood (see Page 42).

"I'd love to keep it intact, but the reality is it isn't going to happen -- to a degree," Bombers GM Brendan Taman said. "You're not going to keep all (17) guys. It's physically and financially impossible ... the turnover could be significant."

Several potential free agents told Taman during exit meetings yesterday that they will test the market in February. Middle linebacker Barrin Simpson, who was Winnipeg's pivotal signing last winter, hopes the key cogs decide to return.

"It's more important to keep the core guys here," Simpson said. "There's always going to be free agents that leave, and there's a salary cap in place now, so we're going to lose some guys.

"I know Brendan's going to do a great job of keeping the core guys on offence and defence and keeping the key special teams guys."

Taman, Berry and the coaching staff will spend the next few weeks ranking their players in terms of importance to prepare for what promises to be the most intriguing CFL off-season in years.

"I still think we're in good shape compared to other teams," said Taman, whose payroll this year was in the neighbourhood of $4.4 million.

"Whatever changes we make, we'll set our goals and our standards higher for next year," Berry said. "We will not be satisfied with just making the playoffs next year.

Malveaux, who was acquired just before the season began, echoed the sentiment that there is plenty of hope on Maroons Road.

"It was a great season, especially coming to an organization that wasn't supposed to be worth squat," he said. "Even with the disappointing ending, we did turn some heads throughout the league, just to let people know that Winnipeg is going to be a force to be reckoned with."

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The question is being asked right now.

It's sure to come up again over Christmas dinner.

It will then be debated all spring leading up to training camp.

And that query will go something like this: Is Kevin Glenn the answer at quarterback for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers?

"Kevin will be the starting quarterback here next year," slotback Milt Stegall said yesterday. "You ask coach Berry. Will he say the same thing? Hopefully.

"You've heard people rumbling about getting another quarterback in here. They've been saying that since Khari (Jones) left, basically, and Kevin has always proven folks wrong.

"They'll say, 'Well, look at the last game he played.' Kevin has done a great job for us. He's out there playing injured, he's shown that he's a true leader, and he's gonna get better and better every single year."

The 27-year-old Glenn just completed his second full season as a CFL starter, but it ended on an ugly note Sunday. His last pass of 2006 was picked off during Winnipeg's potential game-winning drive, allowing the Toronto Argonauts to kill the clock in their 31-27 win in the East Division semifinal.

It certainly could've ended better for someone trying to silence the critics. None of those detractors can be found in the Bomber locker-room, even though Glenn has a penchant for throwing fourth-quarter, game-killing picks.

"I wouldn't trade him for some guys in this league right now -- guys who played (Sunday)," Bombers GM Brendan Taman said. "I'm not heralding him as the best quarterback in the CFL, don't get me wrong, but I think he's in the mix.

"And if he keeps getting better, we'll be all right."

The Bombers were 9-7 this season in games Glenn started, and they were 9-5 in contests he started and finished. He threw 10 fewer touchdowns and four fewer interceptions than he did in 2005.

Berry, the man who ultimately will decide who starts at quarterback next season, had tepid praise for Glenn yesterday.

"I do believe Kevin got better as the year went along," he said. "Would I love to have him take that final play back and reconsider what his options were? Sure. And I think that he would do the same.

"That doesn't mean that Kevin didn't develop this year. I really do believe that he did. He did lead us to a number of wins over some of those impressive opponents that we did play. But it all boils down to we didn't get to where we ultimately wanted to. We didn't score a whole bunch of points this year, which is the team's number one evaluation of a quarterback.

"But Kevin did do a lot of good things this year, and I'm not going to ever say that I'm totally dissatisfied with Kevin Glenn."

The Bombers had four backup quarterbacks this year, but none established themselves as a bona fide backup. They need quarterback depth, and Berry vowed to give Glenn "as much competition as we can find" next year.

Taman said he wouldn't rule out loosening the purse strings this winter in the pursuit of negotiation list pivots like Craig Ochs and Omar Jacobs.

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Doug Berry and Milt Stegall had dinner together on Sunday night at Pearson International Airport.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach hopes his all-star slotback was still hungry for a Grey Cup after they ate.

"I conveyed my thoughts to him ... how I felt he still had game left within him," Berry said yesterday. "I'd be very happy to have Milt here again next year."

The 36-year-old Stegall has headed home to Atlanta, where he will discuss his future with his wife, Darlene, and his son, Chase.

Turtle Man will return to Winnipeg next week to work for The Score during Grey Cup week, but he won't announce his intentions on live national television like he did last year in Vancouver.

Bombers GM Brendan Taman said he expects Stegall to make his decision by the end of December.

Stegall was fourth in the CFL this season with 1,269 receiving yards, despite missing four games due to injury. He also scored seven touchdowns, which left him two shy of breaking the league's all-time mark of 137.

Neither the pursuit of the record nor Winnipeg's resurgence this season will factor into his decision. It's entirely about what's best for his family.

"This is football, man," he said. "Nothing compares to my family."

BOMBER BITS: Taman said no CFL teams called yesterday to ask for permission to speak with defensive co-ordinator Greg Marshall ... Look for centre Obby Khan, a potential free agent, to put his signature on a new deal soon ...Taman said non-imports will take priority when it comes to re-signing players this winter. He added that some players' options won't be picked up ... When told that Derick Armstrong has committed to returning to Winnipeg next season, Taman said, "Well, that might be another (contract renegotiation) I'm going to be working on very quickly then."

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It was just three words, but they'll be music to the ears of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and their fans.

"I'll be back," receiver Derick Armstrong said yesterday, as he and his teammates cleared out their lockers and prepared to go their separate ways. "You can write it down. Armstrong will be back next year."

The Bombers' most impressive in-season acquisition, Armstrong came to Winnipeg in September, after being released following three seasons in the NFL.

His contract -- he'll be entering his option year in 2007 -- allows him to take another crack at the NFL during the winter.

But Armstrong says the sting of Sunday's loss to Toronto in the East semifinal convinced him to come back and try to get it right next year.

"It hurt that bad," he said. "Next year will be a little better, a little sweeter. We're going to come out and just try to win this thing."

In just five regular-season games, Armstrong became quarterback Kevin Glenn's favourite target, hauling in 25 passes for 302 yards and three touchdowns.

He also led Winnipeg with five receptions for 77 yards on Sunday.

Bomber GM Brendan Taman says Armstrong is the team's most likely candidate to land work in the NFL.

But with all his success here, Armstrong says this will be his football home for at least another year.

Besides, he doesn't want to go through the whole NFL rejection thing again.

"I just love playing football," the 27-year-old said. "And I love making plays. This team has given me the opportunity to make plays. And I've just been taking advantage of it. And just having fun being with that old guy."

The "old guy" Armstrong refers to is Milt Stegall, who is considering retirement.

Stegall won't retire if Armstrong has anything to say about it.

"I'm trying to get him back," Armstrong said. "I need him. And he knows that. I talked to him yesterday about it. The chances are, I would say 60%."