TORONTO – Part of the quaintness of the Canadian Football League is that with just nine teams, there is an engrained familial feel to the whole thing.
Coaches often move from club to club and the players – especially in an age of short-term contracts – tend to collect jerseys by the fistful as they move from one team to another over their careers. All of which means there is week-to-week the low hanging fruit story angles of ‘Player X facing his old team’ for those of us who cover this circuit regularly – certainly to the point that it has become almost cliché.
This one, we must insist, is different. This one is hardly cliché.
Andrew Harris is a future Canadian Football and Winnipeg Football Club Hall of Famer. He was the face of the Blue Bombers when returning home to Winnipeg as a free agent in 2016, even before he played a key role in the back-to-back Grey Cup championships of 2019/2021.
And his exit to the Toronto Argonauts this offseason… well, let’s just say the goodbye was hardly cordial.
“It’s going to be fun and it’s going to be great to see him,” said Blue Bombers left tackle Stanley Bryant, another future hall of famer. “The O-line, the team in general, had some awesome times with Andrew. It’s good to see him still doing what he does.”
“Great teammate. Great guy. He’s one of those guys you know is going to bring the same thing each and every game. I love the guy to death. Great memories, like that first Grey Cup in 2019 with everything he had gone through.
“I know I’ll be locked in when he’s on the field. Hopefully he’s not doing a lot of damage out there. We’ll go out there and put our best foot forward and try and put another ‘L’ in their column.”
The Blue Bombers have been diligent over the last few days in not getting too caught up in the ‘facing Andrew Harris’ storyline, repeatedly insisting they are playing the Argonauts, not their former teammate. That’s a wise tactic, but you can certainly believe the ever-present chip on #33’s shoulder is now the size of an asteroid.
“We’re playing against the Toronto Argonauts. Obviously, Andrew is playing there and it’s going to be great to see him, but no one has really spoken about that in the locker room,” said Brady Oliveira, Harris’ protégé. “You would expect he’s going to be fired up and have a little bit more motivation playing against his old team. But we’re going to focus on us and focus on playing the Toronto Argonauts and have a good game.
“He did so many amazing things for this organization. Me being from Winnipeg and being a Bomber fan… I mean, it was stressful being a Bomber fan growing up. They had some good runs, but never just finished. Andrew came to this organization when things were rocky, and he was a big part in taking it to the top and helping this organization win back-to-back Grey Cups. There’s no question in my mind he’ll be in the Ring of Honour one day and rightfully so – he deserves it.”
More on the reunion with Harris and other subplots to Monday’s game with the Argos in this week’s 3 Storylines…
1. BRADY AND JOHNNY AND REPLACING A LEGEND
It’s only natural that there would be comparisons when Harris moved east and was replaced by Oliveira and Johnny Augustine. Harris had a sensational Argos debut with 87 yards rushing but was limited to just 27 yards on seven carries in last week’s blowout loss to the B.C. Lions.
Oliveira and Augustine, meanwhile, have 121 and 56 yards rushing through three games as Winnipeg has averaged 84 yards along the ground, for fifth best in the CFL.
“The comparisons, you get that a lot,” said Oliveira. “I get that a lot just walking around the city of Winnipeg and people stop me and ask me questions like that. It’s going to keep on happening. It is what it is. There are similarities when you look at our body stature and how we run and catch the ball.
“I can only control what I can control. I come in here, put the work in. At the end of the day, we’re two different running backs, two different people. I’m just going to go in and do what I do every single week and just keep working hard.
“I do really try to block out the noise,” added Oliveira. “That was a goal I set for myself this year – to block out all the noise, even the stats and not worry about it all. I just want to focus on staying healthy every week and being available for my team and going in there and executing every single play I can. That’s been my main goal.”
2. STRUGGLES IN THE 6ix
This from the ‘strange, but true’ file – the Blue Bombers have lost their last two visits to Toronto, continuing an ugly trend that dates back, well, a long time.
Winnipeg is an abysmal 3-7 in its last 10 visits to Toronto but even worse is the record in the Centre of the Universe dating back to 1990. Cover your eyes, Blue Bombers fans, because this is ugly: Winnipeg is just 11-28-1 in Toronto dating back to 1990.
Included in the recent setbacks was a 28-27 loss in 2019 in which the Blue Bombers blew a 20-0 first-half lead, surrendering a game-tying TD with 10 seconds remaining with the ensuing convert sealing a Toronto comeback.
Asked how much stock he put in the team’s struggles of late in Toronto, head coach Mike O’Shea offered a succinct answer:
“Not much. I mean, it’s a new team. Toronto’s a new team. They’ve done extremely well in terms of putting their team together. I look at them as completely distinct events. So, this year’s a version of both and we’ll see where we end up.”
Still, what gives here?
“I don’t have an answer for that,” said Bryant. “What was the last time we won there, 2017? I know there were a couple of games where we were up big and then didn’t finish. I don’t want to say we’ve struggled there lately, but we haven’t finished. We’d have a great three quarters in a couple of those games but then didn’t finish out the game. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”
3. A DARKER ‘DARK SIDE’ D
Some numbers, courtesy the CFL stats crew, that highlight Winnipeg’s defensive dominance:
- The Blue Bombers have allowed one touchdown drive on 41 possessions this season. Their current streak for not allowing a touchdown has reached 39 possessions in a row. In 2021 the longest streak was 44, also by Winnipeg.
- The ‘Dark Side’ defence has allowed fewer than 20 points in 13 of 17 games since the start of 2021 and are 12-1 in those games.
- The defence has only allowed 12 points in the second half – no touchdowns – and only six points allowed in the fourth quarter.
The scary part for opposition offences? The defence – especially in a week when Tyquwan Glass is replaced in the secondary by Demerio Houston – is still without all-star safety Brandon Alexander.
“The feeling is we’re getting better every week,” said Adam Bighill. “The first two weeks we weren’t happy. The outing against Hamilton was much better by our standards. Still improvement to be made but it’s never too high, never too low, it’s always steady, climb the hill and get better every week.
“It’s what we expect to come out and do and it’s fun to watch guys make plays and keep people out of the end zone. At the end of the day, that’s our job and I’m happy that we’re being stingy.”