We begin with the absolutes and the givens – the stuff you already know if you follow the Winnipeg Blue Bombers…
Zach Collaros fronts the only unbeaten team in the Canadian Football League, and over the last two weeks the loop’s reigning Most Outstanding Player and all-star quarterback has posted some gaudy numbers. With 603 yards passing with five touchdowns and no interceptions and a 73.5 completion percentage in wins over the previously unbeaten B.C. Lions and Calgary Stampeders, Collaros now leads the league in passing and has helped the two-time defending Grey Cup champions continue to soldier through the most gruelling chunk of their schedule.
Yet, there was the veteran pivot after practice Tuesday lamenting a moment near the end of the first half in last week’s 26-19 win over the Calgary Stampeders in a tiny snapshot of what makes such a vital stakeholder in the franchise’s recent success.
“The crux of winning – and everybody has experienced this when you win – is that there is a natural inclination as human beings to go, ‘Oh, we did these things well’ and then you sweep some other things under the rug,” began Collaros in a chat with bluebombers.com.
“Last week, for instance, it was this for me: there were 14 seconds left in the first half and I run around and throw an incompletion instead of going down and killing the clock. So, instead of being able to kneel down to run out the half, we have to punt – they almost blocked the punt and then get three points.”
“Those are the things you store away to try and get better. Osh (Mike O’Shea, Blue Bombers head coach) has always been preaching, ‘Find your edge’ all year long. Everybody has been taking that and trying to find their thing.”
The Blue Bombers are still unbeaten today for any number of reasons, from a defence that can still be stifling despite changes, to an efficient offence to steady play from the special-teams units. And front and centre to all that are veteran tone setters, including Collaros – even though he’d be the last guy to draw attention to himself.
“Zach… he’s just so confident,” said receiver Drew Wolitarsky. “Even if he ain’t feeling it, he’s showing it. That’s why he such a pro. We come out here to practice some days and you might not always be feeling it. You’re feeling sick, maybe you’ve got some family stuff at home. But what I really learned from him is to come out here with a consistent behaviour. You’ve got to find it and get it once you step on the field. Once you step on here it’s like a play, it’s like a movie so get in character and have fun. I used to take this all too seriously. There’s so much stress because you want to make it and you put the weight of the world on your back and you don’t have fun. That’s what he’s teaching me.”
The Blue Bombers are now an astonishing 23-2, including playoffs, under Collaros. Critical for the QB – and the rest of the team – has been to seldom look at big-picture numbers like that and truly live in the moment.
And the moment now is prepping for Friday’s matchup with the Edmonton Elks in Alberta.
“I don’t think anybody was over the moon about our last performance, but we did score some touchdowns but, again we need to be better,” he said. “Everybody needs to be better, and our goal is always to try and play flawless football.”
That answer, in many ways, sums up his approach and how that helps influence the team.
“He doesn’t need the attention,” said Wolitarsky of his QB. “He does this because he loves this, and he has a pride in his work. He said that to me once – ‘It’s ain’t about me, me, me. It’s about pride in my work.’ He knows he’s ballin’ out, but it’s not about him seeing his name in the paper or getting all the hype. Your work speaks for itself. He loves what he does, and just he wants people to respect it.”
Blue Bombers receiver Greg Ellingson posted juicy numbers in last week’s win over the Stamps, pulling in 11 receptions for 152 yards with the 11 receptions, FYI, tying a career best.
Those numbers led to the veteran receiver being named a CFL Top Performer for Week 6, along with Edmonton Elks receiver and former Blue Bomber Kenny Lawler and Hamilton Tiger-Cats quarterback Dane Evans. Ellingson now leads the CFL in receptions (34) and yards (518) through the first third of the season.
“He’s been excellent for a long time,” said Mike O’Shea of Ellingson. “He’s been very productive, he’s in the right place at the right time. He makes big catches; big plays and he’s been doing that for a number of years. So, when he becomes available (in free agency) you see if he wants to show up here or not. You’ve got to ask him and we’re thankful he said yes.”
As the Blue Bombers battle through their stretch of five road games over six weeks – 3-0 so far – the club is being careful to manage workloads. Not practisting on Tuesday were OL Stanley Bryant and Pat Neufeld, Ellingson along with injured receivers Nic Demski and Brendan O’Leary-Orange and RB Johnny Augustine, among others.
QB Dakota Prukop, meanwhile, has resumed practising but is still on the six-game injured list along with Demski, safety Brandon Alexander, centre Michael Couture, LBs Jesse Briggs and Kyrie Wilson, OL Drew Richmond and DBs Noah Hallett and Mercy Maston.
O’Shea was asked Tuesday about the production of receiver Rasheed Bailey, who has 18 catches for 166 yards through the first third of the season, ranking him behind Ellingson (34-518), Dalton Schoen (24-357) and Wolitarsky (14-173).
“Any time you look at an offensive player where there’s only one ball to spread around, you can’t just look at production as the be all and end all of what they do,” he said. “Sometimes those stats don’t tell the truth. We ask him to do a lot of blocking around the box, in and out. He runs hard every play. He gets guys open by how hard he works during the play.
“Sometimes the guy who catches the ball just benefits from the guys working around him. Rasheed’s one of those guys who works extremely hard.
“I don’t know that I worry about (Bailey’s production). Personal production is so secondary to winning football games. Do I think that he’s very good? Absolutely. He’s vital, and balls will come his way. I don’t worry about that or say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do more of this.’ That’s not how I think. Inevitably what happens is when teams (defences) start to say, ‘Well, these are the guys catching footballs’ then the other guys should be open.”