May 17, 2016

Season Preview

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Drew Willy (5) smiles after a play against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats during the first half of CFL action in Winnipeg Friday, June 19, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

May 17, 2016

There’s no way to sugarcoat the numbers or find some sort of silver lining. So Wade Miller, Kyle Walters, Mike O’Shea and the rest of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers football brain trust won’t even make the attempt.

Any organization that has missed the playoffs in four straight seasons and has just one winning campaign in the last eight is completely aware it is under the microscope, with its every move magnified x 100.

All that said, after a busy offseason in which the club was a big-time player in free agency – adding the likes of Andrew Harris, Weston Dressler, Ryan Smith, Justin Medlock, Keith Shologan and Euclid Cummings – there is a sense of quiet optimism in Bomberland.

“It’s a work in progress,” said Bombers GM Kyle Walters on the club’s annual season preview conference call with the national media. “When you look at the depth chart now versus two years ago, there has been a massive turnover.

“As much as you’d like to think things could be fixed overnight, you build and you improve and you overhaul your Canadians and you draft and develop… I would like to think we’ve been building for a couple of years and gradually getting our roster better.

“I feel that, yes, our roster now is stronger than it was two years ago and it’s stronger now than it was last year because of the process of developing our young guys and finding players in scouting and using free agency to augment it.

“We’re optimistic of the changes we’ve made, and we’re happy with the guys coming in that are going to make us better,” added Walters. “But we’ll see in a few weeks.”


The Bombers hope to bust out of the starting gates early, even if the schedule is nasty to open the season. Winnipeg opens at home to Montreal and then has two games each against Calgary, Hamilton and Edmonton before visiting Toronto just before their bye week in mid-August.

O’Shea and his staff, like all of their Canadian Football League rivals, won’t have much time to piece this whole thing together before the curtain lifts on the season. The Bombers open rookie camp next Wednesday, main camp on May 29th, and then play their first exhibition game at home against the Montreal Alouettes on June 8th.

The games start for real 16 days after that with the 2016 regular season opener at home, also against the Als.

“With all these acquisitions that we’ve made in the offseason one of the things I always think about is how we get them to gel quicker,” said O’Shea when asked what the major question marks are for the team heading into training camp. “We want to make sure this group, once we leave training camp, is working together as a team and with some new faces sometimes that can be a challenge.

“But with the guys that we’ve brought in I really think this won’t be a problem. We’ve got some very talented veteran players that are just great character guys, too, in the locker room.”

The additions will be critical to an improvement in 2016, but vital to a turnaround is keeping quarterback Drew Willy upright and healthy for an entire season.

The Bombers were 3-4 when his season ended last year and are just 2-10 in games he has missed over the last two campaigns because of injury.

Asked if he had concerns about Willy’s injuries the last two years and whether the club may have to go in another direction at the QB position should he be hurt again, O’Shea said:

Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea and quarterback Drew Willy (5) hug after defeating the Montreal Alouettes in CFL action in Winnipeg Friday, July 10, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods“I don’t look as injuries as all adding up, I look at things as distinct events. I always believe the players are going to stay healthy and if that isn’t the case, then you deal with it then.

“We’ve done a good job of making sure we’ve got Matt Nichols locked up for this season. So, we have a better insurance policy there, that’s for sure.

“I have full confidence that Drew’s going to play the entire season for us. I always think that way.

Some of the other notable sound bites and items from Tuesday’s conference call:

  • O’Shea when asked if it’s ‘playoffs or bust’ this year for the organization: “We believe in trying to win the Grey Cup every single year. That’s never going to change.”
  • President & CEO Wade Miller said season ticket numbers are down slightly – as expected after playing host to the Grey Cup – but the club hopes for a push before the opener on June 24th.
  • O’Shea on defensive backs coach Greg Knox leaving this week to become the head coach at McMaster University and how that affects his coaching staff: “… It’s not a pressing issue with Greg Knox leaving. (Defensive coordinator) Richie (Hall) is quite comfortable stepping into that role. Richie and I are meeting and talking about what the next move is. We feel very comfortable adding another staff member, but we also feel and know that if it’s not the right person then we can go forward with the way that it is. I’m very excited for (Knox). One of the toughest things you can do as a coach is leave your family and he’s got two teenage kids back home in Peterborough. This gives him a chance to be closer to them and see them through their transition from high school to university. He’d been at Mac for basically a decade so he’s very familiar with the program and they’re very familiar with him. It was a good move for him and we’ll be just fine. The coaching profession can be fairly transient.”
  • Walters said he is in contract talks with all of the team’s 2016 draft picks and hopes to have them all at rookie camp when it opens on May 25th. “We’re in talks with all of them and see how it goes. I anticipate everybody will be done on the 25th, but that’s up in the air right now.”
  • O’Shea on all the changes this offseason: “The reason we pick up guys and the reason you go through an offseason like we did is you’re always trying to get better. You could win a Grey Cup and you’re still going to have changes to your team. I mean, it happens every single year and every champion will go through the same thing because you’re constantly striving to get better. Will it be different this year? We still have the emphasis of keeping Drew upright and healthy and in games and throwing downfield… the way we go about that will be different this year.”