Matt Nichols is standing in front of a row of reporters just outside the Winnipeg Blue Bombers dressing room. And in a five-minute chat, the discussion is focusing mostly on the offence’s red zone productivity and his missed throws.
It was then when it struck yours truly just how dramatically the narrative around this football team has changed in the last month or so.
Remember, it wasn’t too long ago when the masses were clamouring for a quarterback change, bemoaning the play of the offensive line, and filling the sports-talk airwaves with demands for change all the way from the top down to the beer vendors at Investors Group Field.
Now here we all are today, talking about red zone productivity after the first Labour Day Classic win in 11 years in a game that saw the offence put up 28 points, in the middle of a five-game win streak, and with the sports-talk airwaves now chatting about contract extensions for Mike O’Shea, Kyle Walters & Co.
Yes, pro sports can be goofy sometimes…
But after a 1-4 start to the season that began with so much expectation, the chatter around this team is about what you’d expect from any 6-4 team on a solid run and looking to play meaningful football in November.
And that’s nothing but a welcome change in this town.
“It’s a good thing,” began running back Andrew Harris. “What I like is it means there’s still room for improvement and growth when we’re talking about stuff like this.
“As far as the red zone, it’s about execution. We had some dropped balls, we had some missed blocking assignments and some early pressure on the quarterback… it just comes down to execution. When we’re scoring touchdowns, we’re going to beat teams even more.”
“We’re going to have to get better in the red zone because once we get down the stretch here and the games are closer, it’s going to make all the difference.”
Just for the record, the Bombers have made 28 trips to the red zone this season (the 20-yard line and in) and have 13 touchdowns, giving them the fifth-highest red zone trips total and seventh-best touchdown percentage.
But those numbers have been especially magnified over the past couple of weeks as Justin Medlock has trotted out to connect on 13 of his 14 field goal attempts. Inside those numbers: in the win over Montreal on August 26th, four of those field goals came with drives that began in Alouettes territory. But in Regina last Sunday, five of the seven field goals began with drives in Winnipeg territory.
Translation: there has been offensive production, even with settling for threes.
“When (Medlock’s) attempting eight or nine field goals in a game, it tells you we have a lot of great drives going and drives starting backed up and we were able to get ourselves in field goal position,” said Nichols. “But, we had a couple of opportunities in the end zone to come away with touchdowns and I felt like I missed on a couple throws. I felt like I was throwing the ball well all day and missed on a couple touchdown throws. My main focus as a quarterback right now is making sure we finish off some of these drives with touchdowns.
“I’m not saying we need to turn every single one of those into touchdown drives, but we need to convert two or three of those into touchdowns because that’s why we’ve been in some of these close football games the last couple of weeks. If we could put some of those touchdowns in, we’ll be pulling ahead of teams in the fourth quarter.”
Lost in the red zone productivity discussion has been some of the lack of continuity the Bombers have had with their offensive lineup. The club has had to adjust its ratio due to injuries and now starts three import offensive lineman as part of a makeover that has seen three different O-line combinations used through 10 games. And the receiving corps has seen six different combos through the first 10.
That’s a whole pile of change, not including the biggest switch of all – at quarterback.
“Every team wants to score more touchdowns. But, I guess if we were scoring more touchdowns the game wouldn’t have been as exciting as it was,” said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea with a grin. “But the bottom line is we won.
“Our offence started fairly deep in our end several times and drove the ball into field goal range. So if those drives start 20 yards further up, then we’re in the red zone and seeing what that looks like.
“We were only in the red zone three times. Everybody wants to score more touchdowns, for sure.”
BOMBER REPORT – SEPT. 7
RECEIVER MUSICAL CHAIRS:
The Bombers will be making another change to the receiving corps this week with Ryan Smith returning to the lineup, likely at the expense of Clarence Denmark.
Smith, who has been out since July 14, was working with the No. 1 offence when the club returned to practice on Wednesday alongside Quincy McDuffie, Rory Kohlert, Weston Dressler and Gerrard Sheppard. Denmark was with the second unit.
“I’m pretty grateful to be back playing football again,” said Smith. “I’ve been out for six weeks and I missed it. Just to be back, especially against Saskatchewan, it’s a big-time game for me and a big-time game for this team.
“Any time you’re on the sidelines watching the game, watching your teammates make plays and you can’t be out there celebrating with them, it hurts a little bit. I’m really excited to be back on the field with them and be able to celebrate and get that camaraderie back with the guys.”
A proud product of North Dakota State University, Smith figures to have a ton of support from his hometown of Wahpeton, N.D.
“I know a lot of people from my home town, Wahpeton, are coming up… I think they’re bringing a bus,” he said with a grin. “And then a couple of my buddies are coming up. It should be quite a few people, actually.”
Back on the field on Wednesday were DBs Macho Harris, Chris Randle and Terrence Frederick. It looks like Frederick will replace C.J. Roberts, who finished up Sunday’s win – including his spectacular interception late in the game – while playing hurt.
LBs Ian Wild and Moe Leggett did not practice on Wednesday, with Tony Burnett and Kyle Knox taking turns in those spots.
The Bombers announced at 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday that just 150 single tickets remained unsold for Saturday’s Banjo Bowl.
“I’m excited. I can’t wait to have this place sold out,” said Andrew Harris. “It’s going to be a crazy environment and one that every player dreams of playing in.”
Both kicker Justin Medlock and receiver Quincy McDuffie, along with Solomon Elimimian of the B.C. Lions, were named the Shaw CFL Top Performers for Week 11, as chosen by Matt Dunigan and Duane Forde of TSN and Pierre Vercheval of RDS. Medlock tied a club record with seven field goals in the win, including the winner as time expired, while McDuffie had seven receptions for 153 yards, including an 82-yard TD.
“I was just thankful I was in the lineup and my number got called and I made the best of my opportunity,” said McDuffie. “I’ve been known for the majority (of my career) for my return capability. But I was thankful to be in the position to play receiver and showcase my talent.”
Bombers QB Matt Nichols was asked Wednesday if he drew any extra pleasure from beating the Riders and his old boss, Chris Jones, on Sunday. It was the Eskimos, after all, who shipped Nichols to Winnipeg last September for a seventh-round draft pick.
“Coach Jones and I have a good working relationship,” said Nichols. “We were talking before the game and he told me that it’s great because it’s the first time I’ve had an opportunity where I’m not looking over my shoulder waiting for someone to get healthy to play.
“He just told me he was proud of me. I have a ton of respect for him and what he’s done in this league. There’s definitely no ill feelings or anything. We had a good relationship in Edmonton, it just didn’t work out how you would expect it to. We parted ways, but that’s not anything personal against each other, it’s how the business works. It’s worked out for the best for me, so I couldn’t be happier about it.”