VANCOUVER – If it’s true that sometimes you have to go through hell to get to heaven, then we offer this on the eve of another Winnipeg Blue Bombers season: The Bombers and their faithful are most certainly more than familiar with Hades and its surrounding neighbourhoods.
So, let’s get this out of the way right here and right now as we begin our 2019 Bombers preview: it’s been 10,428 days since the franchise last celebrated a championship, dating back to November 25, 1990 and a 50-11 win over the Edmonton Eskimos.
And, just to build on that, 208 days have passed since the Bombers last had a crack at ending their long Grey Cup drought, before falling 22-14 to the Calgary Stampeders in last fall’s Western Final.
The post-game scene last November 18th would best be described as funereal. There was anger, but there were more tears. And as Andrew Harris said afterward “I’ve never felt like this in my life after a loss. I mean… we really have something special here and I know it’s never going to be the same. That’s the part that hurts the most.
“I’m sad, man. I’m really said. It’s tough when you care about your teammates so much and the organization and the colours you put on.”
Time has helped soothe some of those wounds, undoubtedly. And as the Bombers ready to open their 2019 campaign here in Vancouver against the B.C. Lions with many of the same faces that have helped this team post the second-best regular season record in the Canadian Football League to the Stamps over the last three years, we offer up 10 questions/issues the club must resolve positively to get back into the winner’s circle…
QB1: A RETURN TO FORM?
Asked earlier this week by bluebombers.com to describe his 2018 season in one word, Matt Nichols didn’t hesitate, offering up ‘rollercoaster.’
It’s a perfect description for what unfolded last season, a year in which he suffered a knee injury, worked tirelessly to return to the field and then had a mid-season bad spell before finding his mojo again and helping lead the club to its first playoff win since 2011.
Nichols looks leaner and more mobile now, a year removed from the injury, and the hope is he’ll look more like the QB who threw for a career-best 4,472 yards with a sparkling TD-to-interception ratio of 28:8.
If the Bombers are going to go deep into November, he’ll need to post those kind of numbers again.
QB2: WHAT TO EXPECT?
Chris Streveler’s rookie campaign offered up so much promise, as he became the first QB in these parts to hit double-digit TD totals in passing and rushing since Matt Dunigan in 1993. Offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice devised a scheme that best utilized his skillset last year, but Streveler himself said his goal now is to take the next step as a pocket passer.
The question is, what to expect from Streveler in his second season, knowing that Nichols is back to 100 percent health? He remains an excellent change-of-pace/different look at QB, but how many reps will he get in 2019?
AN O-LINE REDESIGN
The Bombers will open 2019 with two familiar faces at offensive tackle in Stanley Bryant and Jermarcus Hardrick, the best pair in the CFL. What they have in the middle of the O-line will remain an unknown until the real action begins Saturday night.
Michael Couture will replace Matthias Goossen at centre, and he’s spent three seasons grooming for this opportunity. But with left guard Pat Neufeld opening the season on the one-game injured list and right guard Sukh Chungh now with the Lions, the Bombers will flank Couture with Cody Speller and Geoff Gray. Those two have combined to play in just three CFL games.
So much of what the Bombers have become over the last three years began with the big men up front. Change can be good. But change can also be frightening until there is evidence this bunch can get it done.
CONTENT WITH THE CANADIAN CONTENT?
The Bombers took some hits in the offseason, losing three of their seven Canadian starters in Goossen, Chungh and Taylor Loffler. As much as the Bombers have faith in their replacements – Couture, Gray and veteran Jeff Hecht at safety – until proven otherwise they remain a bit of a mystery.
The club does return some outstanding Canadian starters in Andrew Harris, Drew Wolitarsky, Nic Demski and Neufeld – when he does get back on the field – and have some solid pieces in Jake Thomas, Daniel Petermann, Mike Miller, Jesse Briggs, Derek Jones and their other special teams foot soldiers.
There’s also this: while the team whiffed on taking Faith Ekakitie first overall in 2017 and just recently released their top pick of 2018 in Rashaun Simonise, it’s worth noting that seven members of the 2019 draft class are on the active roster or practice roster in Drew Desjarlais, Jonathan Kongbo, Brady Oliveira, Connor Griffiths, Tui Eli, Nick Hallett and Kerfalla Exumé.
AND ONE MORE CROWN MAKES THREE?
Dating back to 1950, nine different Bombers running backs have combined to capture the CFL rushing crown 16 times – Tom Casey (1950), Mack Herron (1972), Jim Washington (1976), Willard Reaves (1984, 1985, 1987), Robert Mimbs (1990, 1991), Michael Richardson (1992, 1993), Charles Roberts (2003, 2005, 2006), Fred Reid (2010) and Andrew Harris (2017, 2018).
Harris could become the first back in Bombers history to grab three straight rushing titles, but he’ll be working behind a revamped O-line and with an offence now featuring new receiving weapons. A superb receiving threat himself, he will remain a Bombers offensive workhorse. Ask him and he’ll readily admit he’d gladly sacrifice a third-straight crown to be slurping champagne from the Grey Cup on the last Sunday in November.
THE JEFFERSON FACTOR
He’s a big, bad freak of nature. And we say that in the kindest way about defensive end Willie Jefferson, one of the marquee names added by the Bombers in free agency. He’s a 6-7, 248-pound monster up front who was the Saskatchewan Roughriders Most Outstanding Player and Most Outstanding Defensive Player last season. Couple him with Craig Roh, Jackson Jeffcoat, Drake Nevis, Jake Thomas and Steven Richardson and the Bombers have a ferocious D-line. Slot Adam Bighill behind them at middle linebacker and the front seven could be deadly.
AN UPGRADED AERIAL ATTACK?
The Bombers said good-bye to future hall of famer Weston Dressler who, after being released by the Riders before the 2016 season, gave the squad three solid years – and became a favourite target of Nichols – before the two sides parted ways. To offset that loss, the Bombers landed veteran Chris Matthews, who returns to the club after a run in the NFL and helping the Stamps win the Grey Cup last fall.
He’s the kind of massive target – 6-5, 230 – that every quarterback wants to play catch with, and the Bombers saw the jaw-dropping evidence in camp before he pulled up with an undisclosed injury. He’ll begin 2019 on the one-game injured list.
But even without Matthews for the opener, the club looks to have unearthed some talent in Lucky Whitehead, Kenny Lawler, Kenny Walker and Charles Nelson that should mean more targets for Nichols. That’s no small thing, considering the club’s top three receivers last year – Darvin Adams, Wolitarsky and Demski – combined for 165 catches for 2,232 yards and 18 touchdowns. Those totals ranked sixth in the CFL among the top three receivers for each team.
A DOMINANT ‘D’?
The Bombers defence transformed into a CFL power by season’s end and the crew assembled for this season is confident it can keep morphing into an elite unit.
Winnipeg finished second to Calgary in points allowed last year and tied for the league lead in forced turnovers and turnover ratio, while finishing in a four-way tie for first in quarterback sacks.
Willie Jefferson helps, and Kyrie Wilson is drawing rave reviews as a replacement for Jovan Santos-Knox at linebacker. But there will be three new starters in the secondary in the aforementioned Hecht and cornerbacks Winston Rose and Chandler Fenner – who moves outside after playing halfback and Dime last season.
The backbone of any championship side is its defence, and that was certainly the case in these parts as the Grey Cup teams of 1988 and 1990 were dominated by their defenders.
PUTTING THE ‘SPECIAL’ BACK IN SPECIAL TEAMS
The Bombers have one of the best kickers in CFL history in Justin Medlock, who has also evolved into one of the league’s top punters. Head coach Mike O’Shea and special teams coach Paul Boudreau continue to devise schemes that make the Bombers among the most consistent units in the league.
But the return game was mediocre last year, as the club finished eighth in both punt and kickoff return yardage. That could change in ’19 with the dynamic duo of Whitehead and Nelson back to return kicks and offering instant field position.
WHAT VALUE CONTINUITY?
Mike O’Shea is heading into his sixth season as the Bombers head coach and while his overall record is a middling 45-45, it’s impossible to ignore the mess he inherited when he arrived in 2014. The Bombers arrow is trending upward after three straight double-digit win seasons and a record of 33-21 over that span.
O’Shea’s staff is also intact, and that’s no small thing given LaPolice is widely regarded as the most creative offensive coordinator in the CFL.
The question is, what will all that continuity – both in the coaching ranks and on the roster – mean this season and when the do-or-die games arrive in November?
Finally, read into this what you will, Bombers fans, but vegasinsider.com unveiled their 2019 Grey Cup odds this week. Discuss amongst yourselves.
Calgary Stampeders: 13/5
B.C. Lions: 9/2
Ottawa REDBLACKS: 11/2
Winnipeg Blue Bombers: 11/2
Hamilton Tiger-Cats: 7/1
Saskatchewan Roughriders: 15/2
Edmonton Eskimos: 10/1
Toronto Argonauts: 15/1
Montreal Alouettes: 19/1