Patrick Neufeld (53) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the CFL game against the Montreal Alouettes at Percival Molson Stadium in Montreal, QC, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019. (Photo: Johany Jutras)
It is a topic that will be worn down and beaten to death from now until the start of the Grey Cup playoffs, and especially now that the Canadian Football League’s 2021 season is officially a go.
And so, let’s get to flogging the issue right here and now: just how will difficult will the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ attempt at a title defence be given the long lay-off between November 24th, 2019 and August 5th, when the team returns to action?
After all, by the time the ball is put on the tee for the CFL season opener with the Bombers at home to Hamilton Tiger-Cats in a Grey Cup rematch a whopping 621 days will have passed.
And with that much time having elapsed between action, will this truly be defending or more of a fresh start?
“It feels like we’re starting over again but, at the end of the day, we were the last ones to hoist that trophy,” said Bombers defensive end and 2019 CFL Most Outstanding Defensive Player Willie Jefferson. “So, we are the defending champions. We can have a year off, but we still are going to defend our championship.
“Somebody’s going to want it. Somebody’s going to want to be the champs of 2021 and we don’t want them to take it. We want to keep it in Winnipeg.”
The Bombers made four players available to the media on Tuesday, one day after the green light was given to a 2021 season and a tasty opener at IG Field with a Grey Cup rematch against the Ticats.
All four players were asked about defending – something that hasn’t been done in the CFL since the Montreal Alouettes went back to back in 2009-10. All four provided varying answers, but with essentially a similar theme – a team can’t fixate on getting back to the Grey Cup without first doing all the heavy lifting ever week.
“Talking about defending a Grey Cup is interesting,” said veteran guard Pat Neufeld. “I don’t think we’ll go into it with that mindset. We’re a team about earning the thing and it’s a brand new challenge, it’s going to be a brand new season with unique circumstances, I’m sure. So, I don’t know if we’re going to be talking about defending it, but having the right to go out and play in that in game.
“We’ll literally take it week by week, game by game to try and earn that trophy again. We’re lucky that we’ve got damn near the same roster and guys knew what it took to get to that game and the ups and downs. That will be our team’s mindset and our approach – very workmanlike and humble, but having the confidence to go out there and execute to get back to that game.”
Added quarterback Zach Collaros:
“Any time you’re the defending champion you’re going to have a target on your back. I don’t really think that will be an issue with the group of people we have in the locker room. It will be a very workmanlike environment. We’ll approach things day by day like we always have.
“Obviously Hamilton is going to be a huge challenge. They have the majority of their roster back and a really great coaching staff. It will be a challenge but we’ll be ready for it.”
Linebacker Adam Bighill provided an honest and objective take on the Bombers approach to defending, drawing back to his last experience trying to do so with the 2012 B.C. Lions, who knocked off the Bombers in the 2011 Grey Cup but fell to the Calgary Stampeders in the ’12 West Final.
“Going into that year Wally (then GM and head coach Buono) said, ‘there’s a reason why teams don’t win back-to-back very often. It’s extremely tough to do because people get complacent. They think they’re just going to go out there and do what they did before and it’s going to come easier to them,’” Bighill began. “So, from my experience and as a leader and to even to last year’s victory and having success and going into the playoffs doing good things… we can’t take it for granted because it’s going to be important that we step it up even more going forward. Now this year the thing that holds true is you can’t let complacency sink in and think that you have it, you got it. You’ve got to keep working for it every single week. For example, we get to the West Final, first-round bye, in 2012 with the Lions and we were a very, very good team. And complacency from a couple of guys on the team cost the entire season. We should have been in the Grey Cup, we should have won another Grey Cup back to back, but the fact is, complacency crept in and a couple guys did not hold up their part. At the end of the day it cost us big plays in the game that changed the fate of the season.”
Now, while defending the title will undoubtedly be a common talking point with fans and media during the season, expect Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea to slam the door shut on that narrative as soon as the team assembles for training camp.
New team. New faces. New challenges. That message will be delivered to the Bombers leadership group and then filtered down through every player who puts on a helmet and shoulder pads.
“O’Shea does such a good job of keeping us on task and focussed on what we’ve got to accomplish… it’s his leadership, too,” said Bighill. “It’s the expectation from inside the room to holding people accountable. That’s what I’ve always done well, holding people accountable because of the standard I set myself to and the way that I work. I expect guys to hold up their end of the deal to me as well as to teammates.
“We’re just going to keep reiterating that and making sure we get what we want because that’s what great teams do.”