Matt Nichols (15) Hamilton Tiger Cats, Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Oct 6, 2017
Rewind just over two years ago – September 2nd, 2015, to be exact – when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers pulled the trigger on a deal that hardly sent shockwaves through the Canadian Football League at the time.
Nichols was 5-2 as a starter with the Eskimos at the time in relief of Mike Reilly, but had nevertheless been bumped down the depth chart by James Franklin. A gifted prospect when he entered the league, Nichols had been derailed by injuries in Edmonton and by the time he arrived in Winnipeg, the shine was coming off his star.
Fast forward to the present – and a day when Nichols, for the second straight season, has been named the Bombers Most Outstanding Player – marking the first time the club’s quarterback has earned the honour in consecutive seasons since Dieter Brock in 1980, 1981 and 1982.
Not only that, the 30-year-old veteran has become one of the key components in a franchise turnaround that has featured two playoff appearances after a four-year drought.
“It’s something that down the road I’ll really cherish and have a huge appreciation for,” said Nichols Wednesday of the MOP honour. “Right now, obviously, there are many more other things on my mind. I wish I could have finished the season a little better.
“It is what it is and I look forward to the things we still have ahead.”
One of those ‘other things’ on his mind is undoubtedly his status for the playoffs. Nichols has been ruled out of Friday’s regular season finale in Calgary against the Stampeders after suffering a non-contact leg injury in the first quarter of last weekend’s loss to the B.C. Lions. Dan LeFevour will start in his place, ending a streak of 30-consecutive starts for Nichols.
Nichols would not comment on his health during Wednesday’s session with the media, or about his availability for the West Division Semi-Final on November 12th – a game that will be held either here in Winnipeg or in Edmonton.
“It kills me to miss it,” said Nichols of Friday’s game. “It’s tough, but it is what it is. It’s a long season and these things happen. It’s going to be tough to watch but I’ll be right there cheering the guys on and I know that they can get this one done. “Once that happens, hopefully we lock down the home playoff game and then it’s a new season and we all start at zero-zero. Whatever anyone wants to talk about outside our locker room, it doesn’t mean anything to us. We know we can compete with anyone and beat anyone.”
Nichols has posted career numbers this year – besting last year’s totals – and the Bombers are 21-9 in his 30 starts since he replaced Willy as the No. 1 gun. Even with their recent struggles, the Bombers remain the CFL’s top-scoring offence and Nichols’ fingerprints are all over that improvement.
“The thing I’m most proud of is, until we’ve been racking up some injuries the last couple of weeks, we were pretty steady as an offence putting up points and not turning the ball over and making mistakes,” he said. “Any time we lost a game I felt like we answered the call and came right back with a good performance the next week.
“I’m happy with the level of consistency I played with and the offence played with for the better of the season to get us in the position we’re in now.”
Nichols signed a contract extension in January that will keep him in Bomber colours through the 2019 season. It was a move that spoke of the club’s faith in him, further rewarded this year, and also gave Nichols a place he can call his football home.
It’s also served as validation for all the hours he put in during those dark, injury-riddled days in Edmonton when he was trying to establish himself as a legit CFL pivot.
“It’s nice to get recognition for all the hard work you put in and all the things you’ve been through,” he said. “I worked extremely hard this offseason to improve my game and I felt like I took some strides in certain areas. There are more things I’m going to want to improve on once I look back on this season. It’s nice to see those things you worked so hard on show up on game day.
“I’m much happier about my consistency and my level of play this year from last year. I look forward to only getting better.”
THE ENVELOPE PLEASE…
A look at the six Blue Bomber nominees for the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player Awards, as voted on by The Football Reporters of Canada and the nine head coaches:
MOST OUTSTANDING PLAYER
His 2017 numbers: Posted career totals, despite missing most of last week’s game, half of another, and not suiting up for this Friday’s game in Calgary. Nichols is the CFL’s second-ranked QB with a QUAR of 85.7, having thrown for 4,472 yards and 28 TDs against eight interceptions. His 103.8 QB-efficiency rating is the CFL’s best heading into the final week of the regular season.
FYI: Nichols has now won the Bombers’ Most Outstanding Player Award in back-to-back seasons. He is the first Bomber to repeat as MOP since Charles Roberts won in four consecutive seasons from 2003-06… Since taking over the starting QB chores last year, the Bombers are 21-9 in games that Nichols starts.
Matt says: “It’s a humbling thing. I’m not big into individual awards. I always feel that they are a representation of the guys around you. At the same time, it’s a great feeling. There are a lot of great players in this league, a lot of great players on this team and to be recognized in that way is a huge thing.”
MOST OUTSTANDING CANADIAN PLAYER
Andrew Harris (unanimous)
Position: Running back
His 2017 numbers: They are sensational, to say the least. Harris had a shot at becoming the first CFL player to do the 1K-1K thing – rushing and receiving for 1,000 yards in a season – but will fall short. He has rushed for 967 yards and six TDs and has pulled in 100 passes for 829 yards and another TD.
FYI: Harris’ 100 catches leads the CFL and is just two shy of tying the league record for running backs of 102, set by Saskatchewan’s Craig Ellis in 1985… That total smashed the Bombers record for receptions by a running back – 71, set by Robert Mimbs in 1990 – and makes him just the fifth Bomber to crack the century mark in receptions, joining James Murphy (116 in 1986), Gerald Wilcox (111 in 1994), Milt Stegall (106 in 2002) and Eugene Goodlow (100 in 1981)… This is Harris’ fourth Most Outstanding Canadian team nomination, having twice been named as a member of the B.C. Lions.
Andrew says: “There’s a lot of good Canadians, a lot of good players on our team. To be given that honour, there’s a lot of pride in that. For me, it’s a tribute for coming in and working hard every day and sticking true to what’s got me here. It’s about getting us in the playoffs and a home playoff game and that’s the only thing I’m worried about right now.”
MOST OUTSTANDING DEFENSIVE PLAYER
His 2017 numbers: Randle has posted all-star worthy numbers in 17 games with 58 tackles, five interceptions – one for a touchdown – a fumble recovery for a TD, one tackle for loss, five pass knockdowns and a sack.
FYI: This is Randle’s first team nomination with the Bombers. Randle was named Calgary’s Most Outstanding Rookie in 2012.
Chris says: “It’s just an honour and a privilege to make it to Week 18 these days. To get the defensive player nomination on top of that, it’s just a bonus. This was my first year in the past couple of years where I was able to devote all my time to specifically enhances all of my abilities and my training and my skillset, moreso than recovering and rehab. It paid its dividends.”
MOST OUTSTANDING OFFENSIVE LINEMAN
Position: Left tackle
His 2017 numbers: Bryant is part of an offensive line that has helped the Bombers become the CFL’s top scoring team and top rushing squad heading into the final week.
FYI: Since signing as a free agent in Winnipeg in 2015, Bryant has not missed a single game… Bryant was a CFL All-Star in 2013 and 2014 while with the Stampeders and was the Bombers Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman in 2015.
Stanley says: “It speaks volumes for our entire offensive line. Guys like Goose (Matthias Goossen), Travis (Bond), Jermarcus (Hardrick), Sukh (Chungh), Paddy (Neufeld)… we’re all one unit with a special bond. All those guys played a part in helping me be better as a player.”
MOST OUTSTANDING ROOKIE
Position: Defensive back
His 2017 numbers: Made starts this year at halfback, cornerback and outside linebacker, registering 49 tackles, a tackle for loss, four pass knockdowns and forcing two fumbles in 14 games.
FYI: A walk-on during his days at the University of Central Florida, Alexander has essentially done the same thing as a Bomber – first impressing at a free agent camp, then at rookie camp and main training camp this year.
Brandon says: “I’ve got to thank the team, the coaching staff – everybody – for believing in me and putting me out there after two years removed from the game. It shows not only the amount of work I put in, but their belief in me that I could still go out there and produce. That first start this year… it seems like time has flown since then. I know we’ve got to buckle up now that we’re starting the playoffs.”
MOST OUTSTANDING SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER
His 2017 numbers: Medlock leads the CFL in scoring with 215 points and has connected on 79.1 per cent of his field goals (53 of 67). He hit game-winning field goals in overtime vs. Saskatchewan on Canada Day and Montreal in late August, hit two field goals in the last minute in a victory over Ottawa in August, and tied the club record he already shares with Trevor Kennerd with seven field goals in last week’s game against B.C.
FYI: In the 18 years since the CFL created the Most Outstanding Special Teams Award three players have won the Bombers nomination more than once: Medlock in 2016 and 2017, Jovon Johnson in 2009, 2010 and 2011 and Albert Johnson III in 2000 and 2006.
Justin says: “We had a lot of good guys who really helped out our team. It’s pretty cool to get nominated for this year. We’ve done a good job on kickoff, punt and field goals this year and helped the team win some games.
“It was good to see some balls go through the uprights last week, including a couple tough ones. It was good to help out the team again and I’ve just got to keep doing that moving forward.”
For a look at the team-by-team nominees for the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player Awards, click here.
WE ASKED, YOU ANSWERED
Earlier this week bluebombers.com offered fans the opportunity to fill out their own ballots for the Most Outstanding Player Awards in our 2nd annual Fans Choice Awards.
We were overwhelmed by the response – thank you very much – as more than 1,500 fans opted to weigh in with their thoughts. As well, we have selected three names as winners of our Bomber Store gift packs.
1st place – Cyndy Szwaluk
2nd place – Alex Reid
3rd place – George Yunk