Deatrick Nichols 32 2nd half
HAMILTON, Ont. — The story of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ epic Grey Cup run just over two years ago was as improbable as it was incredible: Three playoff wins in hostile territory with a quarterback who had only one regular season start with the club to his name, a running back so intense he was spitting nails, and all backed by a defence and special teams unit that raised their games to the stratosphere.
We bring this up today not as a refresher, but with this in mind as the Bombers leave for Hamilton and settle in for another Canadian Football League championship week leading up to Sunday’s 108th Grey Cup at Tim Hortons Field: What kind of story can these guys author in 2021?
This has already been an unprecedented CFL season, what with the 2020 campaign wiped out by the pandemic and with this year’s schedule reduced to 14 games. There have been strict COVID-19 protocols implemented and all the stress that accompanied a potential outbreak. There were no preseason games and there were many games where stadiums across the league – not in Winnipeg, of course – were at less than 50 percent capacity.
Yet here we are with the Bombers and Hamilton Tiger-Cats meeting again in a Grey Cup rematch some 750 sleeps after that fateful Sunday in November of ’19 – a day which ended the longest championship drought in franchise history and sent fans into a delirium that lasted for months. The Bombers embark for Steeltown Tuesday on a chartered flight. And from the moment the club touches down and begins its first media session – this one held right on site at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum – the wild and wacky that is Grey Cup week will be officially underway.
With all that in mind, here’s our early look at the key numbers/questions/issues that will be important and evolving stories leading up to Sunday’s 108th Grey Cup game
1. ENCORE, ENCORE
The move to one-year contracts in the CFL has led to players picking up and moving to new locations like nomads in the desert. And with roster turnover now so commonplace, the idea of a three-down dynasty – let alone a team that even goes back-to-back in the winner’s circle – seems as fantastical as a tale featuring dragons and knights and stone castles.
The Blue Bombers have a chance to Defend the Cup and become the first team to repeat since the 2009-10 Montreal Alouettes. In fact, get this: only the Alouettes and the 1996-97 Toronto Argonauts have managed to win consecutive championships since the Edmonton five-time Grey Cup dynasty of 1978-82. The Bombers haven’t had back-to-back Grey Cup squads since 1961-62, during a stretch that saw the club win four times in five years, including 1958-59.
That’s part of what has made this season so unique for the Bombers. Management worked to keep this team intact as best it could with the pandemic leading to across-the-board pay cuts. But because so many wanted a shot at repeating and love the football environment in Winnipeg, it wasn’t a difficult sell. Consider this: 29 of the 46 players who dressed for the ’19 Grey Cup are back, including 19 of the 24 starters. On top of that, four more players who were on the injured list two years ago – starting centre Michael Couture along with Brady Oliveira, Geoff Gray and Charles Nelson – all also returned.
Let’s take this one step further: with so many faces returning, training camp opened in July with questions being asked of the newcomers. Well, how about this: Alden Darby, who replaced Mercy Maston at the dime back spot after the latter was lost for the season with an Achilles injury in camp, along with Deatrick Nichols and DeAundre Alford in the secondary – who replaced Marcus Sayles and Winston Rose, who returned in October – were all named West Division All-Stars.
Kicker Sergio Castillo, an all-star with the B.C. Lions, was also added in October for future hall of famer Justin Medlock. All of that speaks to the shrewd work of Kyle Walters and the entire football management team to replace gold with more gold.
2. BEEN HERE, DONE THIS
As sequels go, this figures to be a dandy. These two franchises will meet for the 12th time in the history of the Grey Cup and this match-up is so steeped in history it goes back to the days when the two teams weren’t even known as the Blue Bombers and Tiger-Cats.
The ‘Pegs and Hamilton Tigers met in 1935, with Winnipeg becoming the first team based in Western Canada to win the Grey Cup. More championship matchups between these two teams followed in 1943 1953, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1961, 1962, 1965, 1984 and 2019.
Winnipeg has a 7-4 record in those previous battles, with wins in ’35, ’58, ’59, ’61, ’62, ’84 and ‘19. Those games include the 1958 and 1961 championships – considered for years to be among the greatest Grey Cup games – along with the 1962 ‘Fog Bowl’ and the 1965 ‘Wind Bowl.’ The Bombers and Ticats met just once this season in the CFL curtain raiser way back on August 5th at IG Field, with the home side exiting the ring with a 19-6 victory.
3. THE ‘HOME’ GREY CUP
The Blue Bombers have been made three-point favourites for Sunday’s Grey Cup and will be walking directly into a hornet’s nest with the game being played on the Tiger-Cats’ home turf.
Just FYI, the last time the Ticats played in a home Grey Cup was in 1972, when they knocked off the Saskatchewan Roughriders in front of their faithful. This will be the third time Hamilton has hosted a Grey Cup since 1950, including ’72 and the epic snow game of 1996, a 43-37 win by the Toronto Argonauts – featuring Mike O’Shea at linebacker – over Edmonton.
Hamilton becomes the first home team since Saskatchewan in 2013 to appear in the Grey Cup. The last three teams to play in and host the Grey Cup have all won – the Riders in 2013, Toronto in 2012 and the B.C. Lions in 2011. The last team that had a Grey Cup in their back yard and couldn’t finish were the 2008 Alouettes, who fell to Calgary 22-14 at Olympic Stadium in Montreal. On top of this and courtesy the Bombers’ win in 2019, the Ticats now have the longest Grey Cup drought in the CFL, dating back to 1999 and a club quarterbacked by current Winnipeg assistant GM Danny McManus.
4. THE 33-TRAIN KEEPS ROLLING
We pointed this out in our latest Upon Further Review, but it bears repeating: in his last two playoff games – the 2019 Grey Cup and last Sunday’s Western Final – Andrew Harris has rushed for 270 yards on 41 carries.
Let’s look at little deeper here at the future hall of famer and his work on the grandest of stages… This will be the third Grey Cup Harris has played in during his career after having previously won in 2011 (then with the Lions) and in 2019. In those two previous games he has rushed 28 times for 201 yards – a 7.2-yard average – and two TDs while pulling in six passes for 41 yards and another score.
He was named the Most Outstanding Canadian Player in 2011 and the Most Outstanding Player AND Most Outstanding Canadian Player in the 2019 victory.
5. A STARRY NIGHT?
No doubt Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea is grumbling about the timing of it all, but the CFL has moved its annual Most Outstanding Player Award ceremony from Thursday to Friday night – less than 48 hours from kickoff. The Bombers will be well represented at the Hamilton Convention Centre that night, as Zach Collaros (Most Outstanding Player), Adam Bighill (Most Outstanding Defensive Player) and Stanley Bryant (Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman) are all up for the prestigious league awards. O’Shea is also the front-runner for the CFL’s Coach of the Year honours, which will also be announced that night.
The trio of Most Outstanding Player nominations marks the third straight season three Blue Bombers have been finalists. Willie Jefferson (defence), Mike Miller (special teams) and Bryant (offensive lineman) were finalists in 2019, with Bryant, Andrew Harris (Canadian) and Adam Bighill (defence) all representing the West in 2018.
Dating back to 2016, at least one Blue Bomber has won a CFL Most Outstanding Player award – Justin Medlock (special teams, 2016); Bryant (offensive lineman) and Harris (Canadian in 2017); Bighill (defensive) and Bryant (offensive lineman) in 2018 and Jefferson (defensive) in 2019. A Blue Bombers boss hasn’t been named coach of the year, meanwhile, since Dave Ritchie in 2001. Yet as O’Shea will no doubt be imploring to his troops, Friday could be fun, but Sunday could be historic.