CALGARY – There’s a finality to playoff football – the notion of win-or-go-home – that has forever made the annual run to the Grey Cup a must-watch each November.
That’s especially so in a Canadian Football League where one-year contracts are now the norm and as we inch closer to another offseason, where rumours of a coaching carousel are already spinning wildly.
We brought this up earlier in the week before the week’s preparation began in earnest for Sunday’s Western Semi-Final between the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Calgary Stampeders. But as the Bombers arrived here in Cowtown on the eve of the postseason, that subject became that much more pronounced with the team’s short-term future at stake, along with the long-term future of some of the main participants.
Consider that three Bombers quarterbacks – Zach Collaros, Matt Nichols and Chris Streveler – are all heading to free agency this winter, as are all-stars like defensive end Willie Jefferson, cornerback Winston Rose and left tackle Stanley Bryant.
Oh, and head coach Mike O’Shea is without a deal, too.
Given the singular focus of athletes and coaches at this time of year, those ideas are hardly dominating anyone’s thoughts. Yet, it didn’t stop the questions from being asked Saturday in the pre-game availability with the media.
O’Shea, for example, was asked: ‘Are you going to be coaching this team next year?’
“That’s my hope,” he answered.
And when he was asked a follow up – what has to happen for that to come true? – O’Shea offered this:
“We’ve just got to wait until the season is over and then settle down and sign a deal. That’s the plan. I don’t think about it. I’m thinking about Calgary.”
The same question was posed to Jefferson, the West Division’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player and the response was much the same.
“I’m just locked in and ready for this game and whatever I’ve got to do to help this team win, I’m going to do everything I can,” said Jefferson. “It doesn’t add anything (to the story heading into the game). We’re all locked in and focused on tomorrow and the game.
“I’m not worried about contracts or talking to other teams or anything like that. I’m worried about playing football for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and trying to go win a game against the Calgary Stampeders.”
It seems like just about every angle has been explored and revisited in the last few days leading up to kickoff Sunday afternoon. That said, four Bombers – Jefferson, Adam Bighill, Zach Collaros and Andrew Harris, along with coach O’Shea – met with the media on the eve of the playoffs and were quizzed on a variety of subjects.
With that in mind, here are 10 other talking points from Saturday’s session with the press…
THE WEATHER FACTOR
The Calgary forecast can change by the minute, but the Bombers touched down here in the middle of a snowfall warning, with total amounts of 10 to 20 cm expected overnight. Sunday’s forecast calls for a high of -10C with the snow tapering off to a few flurries by kickoff.
So, advantage offence, right?
“That’s 100 percent,” said Andrew Harris. “When the weather is not so much cold, but with the footing because of the snow I think the advantage goes to the offence because they have an idea of where they want to go and it can be tough to react to it. You tend to have guys slipping more, missing more tackles and things like that.”
Not so fast, countered Willie Jefferson later in the press conference…
“When it gets cold outside things tend to lead to the defensive side of the ball because quarterbacks don’t want to get hit and tend to short-arm balls. Receivers don’t really want to go up for balls and they short-arm catches and then running backs don’t really want to run the ball between offensive linemen.
“Honestly, no offensive player wants to hit the ground with the ice. And being defensive minded, we don’t really care what the weather is like. It can be raining, snowing, wind can be blowing… anything that keeps the offence dropping the ball or losing the ball or losing sight of the ball to give the defence and edge, that’s a win for us.”
THE WEATHER FACTOR, PART DEUX
Mike O’Shea isn’t one to wax poetic or get overly dramatic or romantic in his pre-game press conferences. It’s always all business for the Bombers head coach, especially on the eve of a game. But when he was asked about the conditions on Saturday, O’Shea offered that the scene might make for a perfect postcard for the three-down game.
“I personally love this weather,” said O’Shea. “It brings back some great memories of this time of year. I was saying in another interview I left the stadium (IG Field) yesterday and the semi-finals of the Winnipeg High School Football League were going on… the snow is coming down, the field is partially brushed, they were just brushing the five-yard lines… the snow is crystallizing in the air, there was the lights of the stadium… there’s something about that. I mean, it can bring a tear to your eye how great that setting is.
“I think it’s fantastic that Winnipeg high school football players get to play in that kind of weather. They don’t really get to play in that kind of weather in southern Ontario, so for them to get to experience that type of game – and I think it holds true at the pro level – the guys walk out and they see that weather and there’s something perfect about it.”
BLUE ROSTER MOVES
The Bombers added QB Chris Streveler to the depth chart after he missed the regular-season finale due to injury. He is listed third on the depth chart behind Collaros and Sean McGuire.
The other significant change sees Cody Speller now starting at centre for Michael Couture, after he was injured in the last game.
Asked about Streveler, O’Shea said:
“We’ll see tomorrow. As always we’ll see when they wake up how they fared on the plane ride.”
And on Couture:
“We’re going to miss him. I miss Michael. He’s a good guy. I like having him around. He’s a very good player. So is Cody Speller… smart, works hard, gritty. This is where, once again, in those type of moments players really relish (them).”
Adam Bighill summed up perfectly the emotion of the playoffs in a tweet he sent out on Saturday and then followed that up at the press conference.
Playoffs!! It means everything to me!! To have an opportunity to play another week with my brothers!! The feeling when it’s all on the line, and it’s do or die, THATS WHAT I LIVE FOR!! #comeupbig #savage #4TheW https://t.co/hETPlGgbel
— Adam Bighill (@Bighill44) November 9, 2019
“It’s electrifying,” said Bighill of the playoffs. “You can feel it building in the air in October. You can feel the pressure and importance mounting with every single game. You get to this point now… I’ve played in enough playoff games where it’s so tangible you can see and feel the difference in execution and physicality. That’s just so fun to me because I love putting it all on the line. Win or go home, do or die, gotta make this play, gotta get the ball back for the offence… those types of situations where it’s all riding on this play – that’s what I live for.”
THAT QB SWAGGER
The Bombers have raved about the experience Collaros has brought to the huddle since his arrival at the trade deadline, an idea that was best summed up by Harris.
“As soon as Zach came into the huddle there was instant respect,” said Harris. “Obviously we know his history and you know he’s played the game, but you could tell there’s a lot of experience there and a lot of confidence. The trust is gained instantly.”
O’Shea was also asked about that Collaros confidence, and specifically, his thoughts on the root of it.
“Experience, one. And his preparation,” he said. “Any time you go to write a test and if you’ve studied everything you can study, you don’t sweat it, right? I think he’s confident in his athletic ability also.”
WELL SAID, MR. QB
A lighter moment from Saturday’s session came when Collaros was asked if he knew his teammates yet.
“I’ve had a few drinks with Andrew over the years,” Collaros said with a grin. “I know Willie (Jefferson). I know Drake (Nevis), I know Meddy (Justin Medlock)… I’ve played against a lot of these guys. Biggie (Adam Bighill), I’ve played against a bunch of times. You look across and shake those guys’ hands.
“I think there’s a mutual respect, not just from an opponent’s standpoint, but just how hard it is to play this game and how much time goes into that. There wasn’t enough time to go, ‘Hey, let’s get our families together and go do X, Y and Z. But, again, we’ve all played this game a long time and there’s one common goal: to win.”
THE SPECIAL TEAMS ‘X’ FACTOR
Bombers returner Janarion Grant has been the subject of a number of stories this week, generating both from Winnipeg and from Calgary. With good reason, too, as the first-year returner has gobbled up the Stamps this year.
As to why he’s burned up the horsemen…
“I don’t know why,” said O’Shea. “If I did know why I’d give him scouting reports of the other teams dressed in Calgary colours. Who knows? It’s worked out well for him. He’s a very good football player and he’s done well against other opponents, too.”
A great answer, too, from O’Shea when asked about Grant’s handling the ball well this season, given he came north with the concern about fumbles from his days in the NFL.
“As a coach, you’re always aware of what the reports say when you bring a new guy in,” said O’Shea. “But you also want to give him a clean slate and let him show you what he can do, not listen to what other people say he can’t do.”
The return to Calgary for the playoffs may open up some old wounds for those Bombers who were on the field for last year’s Western Final and then headed home disappointed. But Bighill also put that into perspective on Saturday.
“Some of the veterans that were here last year obviously remember that feeling, but the majority of this team maybe wasn’t here,” he said. “Leaders always bring those things into the mix here. We don’t really talk about it that much, we want to be talking about the lessons that have been learned early on in the season.
“Last year is so far away it’s out of sight, out of mind. Those things were learned early in the season so from that standpoint it’s all fresh, it’s all new. This is a new team, this is a new year and a new feeling for sure.”