Blue Bombers' players bring down Stampeders' Lemar Durant during first-half CFL, West Final action in Calgary, AB, on Sunday, Nov. 18th, 2018. (CFL PHOTO - Dave Chidley)
It’s so emotional because it’s so sudden and because there are no long, drawn-out endings in football.
One morning the Winnipeg Blue Bombers wake up giddy about their overall game, about a first-round playoff win and knowing they are just one more victory away from a berth in the Grey Cup. Then less than 24 hours later, they are back in their dressing room following Sunday’s West Final loss to the Calgary Stampeders packing up their gear and bro-hugging some teammates they may not see again for months… if ever.
That’s football, of course. But that’s also why the emotions are so raw and heartfelt at the same time after a season-ending loss.
“You go back to the start and just the rollercoaster ride we’ve been on throughout the season and we’re trying to stay level-headed throughout all the ups and downs,” began veteran receiver Weston Dressler Monday morning. “And then to get to the point where we did and be so close to making it to the big one… it was a fun year. I’m going to miss the guys in the locker room and miss the coaching staff and everyone involved with this team. We keep saying it, but the love for each other is true in there and that’s what makes it more difficult.”
The Bombers quest to become the first third-place team to win a Grey Cup since 2005 – and end the franchise’s 28-year championship drought in the process – came to a screeching halt Sunday in Calgary against a Stampeders team that was just that much better, and that much fresher after earning a first-round bye.
The Bombers were down just 14-11 with four minutes remaining before Bo Levi Mitchell & Co. authored the deciding score – he connected with Eric Rogers for his third touchdown of the game – that effectively ended Winnipeg’s 2018 season.
“I obviously didn’t think we’d be doing this today,” said quarterback Matt Nichols. “It’s one of the worst days of the year… bittersweet. It’s the last time you get to see a lot of your teammates for a lot of months. So even though you’re dealing with defeat and the end of the season, there’s still a little bit of celebrating of what we did accomplish with the guys.
“A lot of what football is, is building personal relationships and this is as close a team as I’ve ever been around. I love every one of these guys. I’m disappointed we didn’t get our end goal accomplished, but there were a lot of great things to take from this year. Personally, I have so many great memories from this group and this season. It’s one of those things I’ll definitely cherish forever.
“I feel like this was a championship-calibre team,” added Nichols, “and we just didn’t quite play well enough to get it done on a certain day, which is hard to swallow in sports sometimes, especially in football where it’s not a seven-game series like a lot of other sports. You’ve got to show up and play your very best every playoff game and as a team we just didn’t quite get it done.”
The Bombers had exit meetings scheduled on Monday with the club’s coaches before the players start heading out in different directions. At least three will be travelling to Edmonton for the Grey Cup as finalists for the CFL Most Outstanding Player Awards – Andrew Harris (Canadian), Stanley Bryant (Offensive Lineman) and Adam Bighill (Defensive) – which will be presented on Thursday.
Asked what the hardest part of a day like Monday is, head coach Mike O’Shea offered this:
“It’s about the people you have in the room. You see what they’re going through and I can empathize with them. You just see the relationships that have been built over the last seven months in this season in particular, but over the last bunch of years for the core group of guys we’ve had here and it’s… just observing it is tough. Guys don’t want it to end, obviously. Nobody does.”
More on the Bombers lost in the West Final in our weekly post-game collection of notes and quotes we call UPON FURTHER REVIEW…
THE GREY CUP CHAMPIONSHIP DROUGHT… officially hit 28 years early Sunday evening, and while a lot of Bomber players weren’t even alive the last time this franchise won a title, back in 1990, some of the veterans do know how it hovers over the organization like a black cloud. And O’Shea, as one of the Bombers most-recognizable faces and a man who calls this town home, empathizes with the fan base and their frustration.
“These are terrific fans and for the five years I’ve been here, we’ve been trying to deliver what they want and the players have been, too,” he said. “And we haven’t gotten it done, so it’s not easy. I think we have given fans over the last few years something they can be proud of on the field. I think we’ve given them some excitement.
“I know for a lot of fans that isn’t enough and that’s OK. That’s OK that they feel that way. I appreciate that. I don’t think I’ve ever shied away and said I didn’t own that span historically. I’m part of it now. We’re working our damnedest to end it.”
O’Shea was also asked to provide an answer to fans as to where this franchise is going.
“Well, as of today, we’re at a standstill,” he said. “We’re not going anywhere today. And then tomorrow we’ll be moving forward. That’s all you can say. They’re either going to believe we’re heading in the right direction or they’re not. As I’m around about town I don’t shy away from any conversation that fans want to have with me. So if they need convincing, I’ll try and convince them.”
Pressed to convince someone now, O’Shea leaned on what he believes has been built in the dressing room as an important foundation.
“We’ve got a great core of guys that really believe in the team concept in what we’re trying to get done and how we’re trying to do it,” he said. “I think they displayed it all year. Even through the ebbs and flows of the season that were very challenging, we had a real gritty bunch that just stuck to the process and believed in it.
“It’s hard, in words, to paint the right picture. But if you could bring all those fans into the dressing room in tough times and in good times, they would pick it up very quickly about what we have going on here.”
ONE MORE FROM O’SHEA, IN RESPONSE… to the comments by Stampeders head coach Dave Dickenson caught on the TSN telecast that had him reacting to a penalty call in front of the Bombers bench by yelling “(Very bad word) Canadian.”
According to others around the league, the reference comes from the Bombers brain trust of President and CEO Wade Miller, GM Kyle Walters and O’Shea – all former players and all Canadian – being called the ‘Canadian Mafia.’
Dickenson reached out to O’Shea after the game, and apologized again today.
“Lesson learned, I apologize to anyone,” Dickenson told reporters in Calgary. “I texted Mike afterwards, I texted him. It had nothing to do with him personally, by the way. I just felt the calls were coming out on their sideline, as some calls come out on my sideline.”
And from O’Shea:
“I’m a proud (another bad word) Canadian,” he said with a grin. “ So… him and I have already spoken. It really is a heat-of-the-moment type thing and I’ve got a good relationship with Dave. I congratulate him and the Stamps. They won the game, they played extremely well. They beat us and they’re a good football team. I think we’re a good football team. They’re moving on and we’re not.”
THE MOVE TOWARD ONE-YEAR CONTRACTS AND AN EXPIRING CBA… means this will be an intriguing offseason in the CFL, with potentially more player movement than at any other time in its history.
“It’s going to add some different questions for a lot of guys,” said Dressler. “Hopefully they can get all that worked out and figured out soon to answer all those questions. But at the end of the day, if you want to play football and there’s a team that knows you want to play and wants you to be a part of it, I think you can work around those question marks along the way.”
NO PENDING BOMBER FREE AGENT IS BIGGER THAN… Adam Bighill, the team’s Most Outstanding Player and a nominee for the CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player.
Bighill, his left thumb in a cast after breaking it in the West Semi-Final win over Saskatchewan, was asked about his time in Winnipeg.
“It was a great year,” he said. “From the moment coming into this locker room, into this organization and into this fan base… the fans have been great, the locker room has accepted me since Day 1, the coaching staff has been great. I came to work every day and enjoyed being here every single day. That’s super important to creating chemistry and building something special and down the back half of the season, we were really doing that. It was a very fun season for me.”
There are several factors in play for Bighill before he makes a decision on where he’ll play in 2019, but he made it clear on Monday that nothing is bigger than his family.
“It’s always going to start with my family and what’s going to be best for my family,” he said. “From there you weigh in other factors, but most important is family. My wife and my kids… my wife’s family is from Vancouver. We have a home in Vancouver. I’ve got to make the right decision for them and it’s got to fit in line with me professionally.”
BIGHILL HAS A UNIQUE PERSPECTIVE… on what the Bombers often refer to as the working environment in the room and how that might compare to his other stops with the B.C. Lions and New Orleans Saints.
“We had guys that truly cared,” he said. “We had guys that really accepted their role, whether it was as a back-up or as a special teamer, whether it was being on practice squad in helping give looks to get guys better.
“Everyone has a role and everyone on this team is extremely valuable, no matter if you’re playing on game day or not. We had guys who just accepted their role. We had guys consistently throughout the year putting in way more than 4 ½ hours (the max, as required by the CBA)… in early, watching film, doing their own meetings together, spending extra time together watching film. Those are the things that… they’re not that common from what I’ve seen professionally.”
“This was an uncommon group and a group of special guys that wanted to work hard and do it the right way. You can’t ask for more than that from your teammates that you’re going to put the work in. I was just proud to be in the locker room with them.”
NO INDECISION FROM KICKER JUSTIN MEDLOCK… as there was last year at this time as to whether he wants to continue playing.
Medlock, who is a pending free agent, tied a career best by connecting on 89.4 percent of his field goals (42 of 47) while continuing to hone his punting skills.
“I’m ready to come back,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll have a talk with Osh and Kyle Walters and we’ll figure something out. Last year when I made the decision to come back I was 100 percent committed and ready to roll. I’m ready. I had a conversation with my wife about it today and we’re all in… I think you have to be. If you’re 50-50, you see the results that kind of happen, in 2017, that weren’t too my level. I was kinda 50-50 that whole year. But I’m 100 percent committed and ready to go. I feel better and my game feels like it’s just getting better.
“I got motivated from a bad year from my standpoint and being competitive, you want to be the best. (Sunday) was a good example of trying to compete with some of the best kickers and special teams units and try and bring it and I was able to put together a good, solid game. Those are the kind of games you play for – the chance to go to the Cup and bring your best game.
“I had fun. I love the guys in the locker room. They’re great guys… these guys are awesome. Playing for a coach like O’Shea is a bonus. I’m motivated to play, motivated to be the best and hopefully I can keep going.”
THE LAST WORD… goes to O’Shea. The Bombers head coach offered a take on the mood with his club after being eliminated.
“There’s great disappointment because there was great expectation, and there should be great expectation,” he said. “We had a good football team.”
Asked how much promise his team had, he added this:
“I feel we could have been hoisting the Grey Cup next Sunday.”