December 22, 2018

Year in Review | #7 The Comeback

It was as if time stood absolutely still for a few moments, with the only sound filling Investors Group Field for those fateful seconds a painful yell in frustration by Matt Nichols.

Rewind, for a moment, to June 6th and the final full practice of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 2018 training camp…

It was near the end of the session when Nichols – the Bombers starting quarterback and their Most Outstanding Player in 2016 and 2017 – had just fallen to the turf while back-pedaling.

He wasn’t touched on the play, but he remained on the ground for a spell before unbuckling his helmet and throwing it in frustration. And it was then, with 50-plus players and coaches watching in both disbelief and horror, that the Bombers 2018 season was seemingly wobbling on the edge of a cliff before a real game had even been played.

What happened over the next few days, weeks and months — with Nichols missing three starts, returning to lead the team, struggling for a couple of games and then finding his form again down the final stretch – was one of the most-compelling dramas of the Bombers 2018 season.

The injury and ensuing comeback comes in at #7 on our Year in Review series.

But back to that fateful day in June…

It’s important to remember the circumstances at the time – Darian Durant had unexpectedly retired just before camp, leaving the Bombers quarterback depth chart with a couple of question marks behind Nichols in Alex Ross and Chris Streveler.

Andrew Harris, Darvin Adams, the big eaters on the offensive line, Adam Bighill, Jovan Santos-Knox and the like were all key components in what the Bombers accomplished in 2018, every one of them critical in a 10-8 record and the first playoff win for the franchise in seven years.

But if there is a MIP – Most Important Player – on the Bombers, or any Canadian Football League team for that matter, it is a quarterback like Nichols.

He had been part of the rebirth of the franchise in 2016-17, guiding the club to a 21-9 record and two playoff appearances while throwing for over 8,000 yards and 46 touchdowns against 17 interceptions after replacing Drew Willy in the summer of ’16.

And when he dropped in that moment and then had to be helped off the field by two members of the training staff – the initial prognosis was he would be lost for four-to-six weeks with a knee injury – a promising campaign looked to be derailed before it even set off down the tracks.

The Bombers showed something in going 1-2 without Nichols at the controls – they fell 33-30 to Edmonton and 31-17 to Hamilton while walloping Montreal 56-10 – and had also clearly found something in Streveler.

But when Nichols returned early from the injured list, the club responded by winning four of its next five.

“It’s like we’re getting that confidence and swagger back,” said Bombers right tackle Jermarcus Hardrick of the eve of the return of Nichols. “The best thing about Chris is he probably had all of those things come naturally to him, but then he had a guy like Matt to learn from. It wasn’t really like a step down, other than in his experience. He brought everything that Matt brought: the spunk, the confidence, the want-to and the want to not let the guys down.

“But the biggest thing with Matt is his confidence. Plus, you don’t want to let the guy down. When you see 15 putting his heart on the line, it’s hard not to put your heart on the line, too.”

The Bombers had improved from 1-2 to 5-3 when Nichols first returned, and while the club’s offensive balance meant his passing numbers weren’t overwhelming – his best passing yardage total during that stretch was 253, in a win over Toronto – he was playing his trademark steady protect-the-football game.

And then came the second pothole in his season, this one more mental than physical. After the 4-1 stretch, the Bombers met up against Ottawa and Calgary, the top two squads in their divisions, and the wheels began to come off for Nichols and the offence.

He posted good numbers in a loss to the REDBLACKS, throwing for 291 yards and two TDs, but also heard boo birds when he returned to the game after suffering an arm injury. The Bombers then had a lead a week later in Calgary before unravelling in the final quarter in another loss, and then dropped both ends of their annual Labour Day Classic/Banjo Bowl doubleheader with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Just like that, 5-3 had become 5-7 and Nichols – who had thrown two Pick-6s and been benched at halftime of the Banjo Bowl – was squarely under the microscope.

Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea opted to stick with his veteran QB as a quarterback debate raged on through a bye week, and the decision proved wise. Winnipeg would then reel off five straight wins – the streak ending in a regular-à season finale loss in Edmonton in which several regulars, including Nichols, were rested.

Nichols, meanwhile, was sensational through the five game win streak, with a 7:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a superb 358-yard passing effort in a playoff-clinching win over Calgary in late October.

“You go through a little patch like that… it happens to even the best quarterbacks in the world,” Nichols said of his midseason slump. “A couple bad decisions here, a couple bad breaks there… it can pile up quickly when you’re playing professional football.

“For me, I kind of got lucky and ended up reading this thing about Bill Belichick and how he talks about ‘don’t let a negative outcome affect what you know is a good decision’. I’ve played way more good football than a couple of bad games. There’s no reason for me to question my preparation or what I do on a daily basis to get ready for games. I went through a little bad stretch, kept doing what I do and got back to the football I’m used to playing.”

Nichols would be front and centre in the Bombers playoff win over Saskatchewan with another steady performance, but again in the crosshairs after a West Final loss in Calgary in which the entire offence struggled to finish.

And with that came to a close the most topsy-turvy of Nichols’ three seasons as the Bombers starter that featured an injury, a triumphant return, a rough patch, a dominant stretch and both post-season joy and anguish.

“A lot of what football is, is building personal relationships and this is as close a team as I’ve ever been around,” said Nichols after the West Final. “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.”

This is the third in a series recapping the Top 10 Bomber stories of 2018.

Next: #6 – A Defensive Transformation