It’s a question that gets asked almost every week, and it often comes whether the Winnipeg Blue Bombers win or lose.
Yes, the Bombers are 6-2 and atop the Canadian Football League’s West Division following Thursday’s 26-24 win over the Calgary Stampeders for any number of reasons, including among them the two punt-return touchdowns by Janarion Grant in his debut, the two critical interceptions by Marcus Sayles and Winston Rose and a 55-yard field goal by Justin Medlock.
But, of course, there was also the work of Andrew Harris – there’s always the work of the Bombers all-star running back – who carried 19 times for 100 yards and led all receivers in the game with eight catches, covering another 44 yards.
It was his second consecutive 100-yard rushing effort, his third century-mark game of the season, and keeps the reigning back-to-back CFL rushing champ atop that list again. That part isn’t new, nor are the accolades that come showering down upon him from his coaches and teammates after every game.
“He’s always good… he’s just so talented and he’s so bloody tough,” said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea after Thursday’s win. “I’ve always been impressed with his toughness. That doesn’t even talk about how smart he is and how he helps people out and how he gets us out of jams and makes people better around him.
“I’ve said it numerous times, I’ll say it again – I love coming to work every day knowing he’s going to be here.”
Let’s examine Harris’ latest body of work and then take a big-picture look at his numbers.
In Thursday’s win against a very stingy Stampeder defence, Harris accounted for just over half of the team’s net offence – 144 of the 286 total – and did so with three of his 19 carries and two of his receptions converting second-downs.
What shouldn’t be overlooked here with the season Harris is having is the offensive line features three changes from last year, with the entire interior different following the retirement of centre Matthias Goossen, with Sukh Chungh leaving in free agency, and with Pat Neufeld injured. And Thursday, that line featured another change as Cody Speller was dinged in the first quarter and replaced by Drew Desjarlais.
There’s also this: with Darvin Adams out and Nichols working on developing chemistry with three new receivers in Kenny Lawler, Chris Matthews and Lucky Whitehead, every team in this league focusses that much more attention on limiting the damage by Harris.
Still, there he is bouncing off tackles and pulling in passes at age 32. So, again, that question about just how good this guy is…
“I mean, he’s the greatest that ever played,” said quarterback Matt Nichols with a shrug and a grin. “He’s unbelievable.”
The ‘greatest that ever played’ comment is, of course, debatable and the kind of conversation that will be held over pints and shots wherever CFL fans gather for decades to come. But Harris’ 25th career 100-yard rushing game does push him further into that conversation. He is now within 60 yards of moving past Dave Thelen into the CFL’s Top 10 list of all-time rushers – a group that includes, in order, Mike Pringle, George Reed, Damon Allen, Johnny Bright, Charles Roberts, Kelvin Anderson, Joffrey Reynolds, Normie Kwong and Leo Lewis.
Every one of those players, for the record, is in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. Harris is a slam dunk to follow.
More on the Bombers sixth win of the season in our weekly collection of post-game notes and quotes we call ‘UPON FURTHER REVIEW’…
THE VICTORY HAMMERED HOME… the old adage that every CFL game features a handful of plays that could be difference makers, whether they come on offence, defence or special teams.
That’s only going to become more obvious as we move closer to the midway point of the season and teams begin seeing each other for the second and third time.
“A lot of these games going forward will be like this where it will come down to certain plays, however it works out,” said O’Shea. “I really do feel these games are going to net out to one play. It doesn’t mean that’s the one play that decides the game, but they’re going to get five and tonight we got six.
“All these games are going forward are going to be that tight, which means we need to get in the room tomorrow and correct mistakes because we still made a number of mistakes that could prevent us from winning these tight contests. But, overall, that was a really good football game.”
TWO OF THOSE CRITICAL PLAYS… came courtesy Janarion Grant, who became the fourth different punt returner in five games for the Bombers – after Charles Nelson, Kenny Walker and Mike Jones – and took two to the house for scores.
He became just the eighth player in CFL history to do so and the first Bomber since the CFL began keeping official records in 1950, to accomplish the feat.
Grant, who had a stint with the Baltimore Ravens and was in training camp with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats this year, spoke after the game about simply having an opportunity. He was also asked who he might call after a game like this and his answer revealed a bit of his humility.
“My family, my mom,” Grant said. “ I have a little girl, she’s two years old about to be three and she wouldn’t be able to understand. But she knows football and every time she sees me on TV, she’s like ‘Is that daddy?’ I’m just really thankful for them.”
“He’s shown he’s pretty special,” said O’Shea of Grant. “And our guys will get a little more used to him and have a better understanding of how they’ve got to work for them and he’ll get a better feel for it, too. But what a great debut… second touch he takes it to the house. We had another good one called back with a penalty, but we were fairly clean in that department.
“He’s fun to watch.”
BY THE WAY… Grant’s two return TDs give the Bombers three on the season – including Lucky Whitehead’s opening kickoff score against Toronto on July 12th – which is already two more than last year.
“After that first one… we knew that Janarion was a fast guy and he could make some plays, but every time after that we were all on the edge of our seats and looking for it,” added Andrew Harris. “Not only that, but even our cover teams – there’s always some big plays, some big hits causing turnovers on a returner. Our special teams are definitely exciting.”
That’s an excellent point, because the Bombers kick-cover unit was solid against a dangerous Stamps return squad on Thursday. That included a huge play by Nick Hallett, who forced then recovered a Terry Williams fumble on a punt return in the fourth quarter on the Calgary 18-yard line. That led to a Medlock field goal that were the critical points in the win.
“I was just fortunate to get that opportunity and made the best of it,” said Hallett. “Special teams was working all game and I was just lucky to make that one play. It’s a big part of the Canadian game. We worked some things out this week and we’re going to just keep trying to get better.”
THE WORK OF HALLETT JUST HIGHLIGHTS… again, how good the Bombers 2019 CFL Draft class has been already. Hallett was a seventh-round pick out of the University of Toronto, 61st overall, and he already has six special-teams tackles this season.
The player taken nine picks after him – 70th overall – is Kerfalla Exumé, who now leads the CFL in special-teams tackles with 14.
“It’s awesome,” Hallett said. “We both worked very hard in camp just to try and get our spot on the team. It’s worked out. It’s weird in camp, because you’re competing with someone, but you’re also building that bond. Now, that bond is very strong and we’re both trying to push each other to help this team in whatever way we can. I was just looking for that opportunity. I’m just so fortunate.”
The Bombers first two picks in the draft – offensive lineman Drew Desjarlais and defensive end Jonathan Kongbo – both got significant work in Thursday’s win due to injuries to Cody Speller and Jackson Jeffcoat. Winnipeg’s third-round pick, Brady Oliviera, is on the six-game injured list after hurting his leg in the home opener, while both centre Tui Eli and defensive tackle Connor Griffiths are ripening on the practice roster.
THE BOMBERS DEFENCE WAS ALSO UNDER THE MICROSOPE… a bit after the losses in Hamilton and Toronto. And while there were some miscues in the win over Calgary, they also delivered the two massive interceptions by Sayles and Rose that came in critical moments.
Sayles was sensational with the interception, a sack and eight tackles, while Rose now has seven interceptions – that already ties the third-highest total by a Bomber since Less Browne had 10 in 1991 and set the club record of 14 in 1990. Maurice Leggett (2016), Lenny Walls (2009), Brian Clark (2003) and Rod Hill (1992) all had seven-interception seasons after Browne’s back-to-back stellar seasons.
“This was really important for our defence,” said Sayles. “And the turnovers we had were crucial – one before the half and the other to seal the game.
“We had two off weeks with Toronto and Hamilton and we knew we had to come out and bounce back. This was for first in the West and we know we’re probably going to see them in the playoffs, so we’re happy to get one game up on them for down the road.”
AND, FINALLY… we’ll give the last word – a few of them, actually – to linebacker Adam Bighill. Asked to offer up a take on the significance of the win, especially after the losses in Hamilton and Toronto, Bighill provided a big-picture outlook.
“This win, it puts us at 6-2. The journey is far from over,” he said. “There are a lot of things on film we’re going to want to do better. By all means, special teams really showed up for us and that was huge for us. All three phases are going to need to play extremely well down the stretch and those are the things we’re going to need to focus on.”
And when asked about Sayles, who is all smiley in the dressing room but a big hitter on the field, Bighill delivered up this gem:
“Don’t mistake his stature, understand his intentions.”