Kenny Lawler stood confidently in front of the podium in the media centre at IG Field on Valentine’s Day and proceeded to gush about what it means to return to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
He spoke about the camaraderie here, the commitment to winning, the culture – so many of the core tenets that folks in Bomberland have been preaching over the last few seasons as the cornerstones of success.
Yet it was during the gifted receiver’s 17-minute session with the press on the first day of Canadian Football League free agency that one other aspect Lawler brings to the Blue Bombers – beyond the acrobatic catches and the ability to scare the beejeezuz out of opposition defences – instantly jumped out and took hold.
Namely, it was his contagious and unabashed confidence both in himself and what might be in store for Winnipeg’s offence. Some examples, in no particular order:
“I’m the best receiver in the league and guys around the league know that. They know every time they come to play with me, I’m going to hit them in the mouth, I’m going to catch the ball…I’m going to do all of that and it’s not going to stop.”
“Everything I bring to the game is quite different and I (don’t) believe anyone else can bring to this game. I believe I’m a generational player and throughout the years I just want to show it and I believe all the coaches who have coached me understand that. With that there’s a great responsibility.”
And, finally, when asked where the Blue Bombers offence could go in 2023:
“To the moon. We’re going back to the Grey Cup. We’re going to go take it all. We’ve got unfinished business. With me, yeah, the offence has gained a piece but with everybody around us I feel like there’s even more room to grow. This offence is going to be great. We’ve got Zach (Collaros) at quarterback, we’ve got (Dalton) Schoen, we’ve got an unbelievable O-line, we’ve got Brady (Oliveira) running the ball, Nic (Demski)… we’ve got so many pieces.
“I was telling Zach once we’re done with this run, whenever it is, there’s going to be a 30 for 30 on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.”
What Lawler brings back to the offence is right there in the black and white of the statistics: he led the team in receiving yardage in 2019 and 2021, with the ’21 season a breakout campaign in which he also led the CFL. Shoot, he had 58 receptions for 894 yards in just 12 games with the Edmonton Elks last season, while that club struggled through year one of their rebuild and trotted out three different starting quarterbacks.
The bigger and simpler picture here – above the seamless transition he should make working again with Collaros in Buck Pierce’s offence – is what GM Kyle Walters said in his media session, while confirming that the team tried to land Lawler last year at the trade deadline before a shoulder injury ended his season.
“He’s good,” Walters said with a chuckle. “I guess the simple answer is, in our opinion, he’s the best receiver in the CFL. We’re familiar with him. Our quarterback was certainly lobbying for Kenny, the offensive co-ordinator was lobbying for Kenny and we’re happy to have him back. He’s really good at what he does.”
Lawler said he didn’t regret leaving Winnipeg for Edmonton in free agency last season, but the year away essentially did open his eyes further as to the uniqueness of the Blue Bombers locker room. It’s not just the brotherhood, but the expectation of winning that comes from three straight Grey Cup appearances and five consecutive double-digit win seasons.
And so, when the CFL’s negotiating window opened last week and his agent began taking calls, his mind truly was fixated on a return to Winnipeg. That was hammered home not just because he put his name on a two-year deal here, but that in Year 1 of his deal he’ll be making less than he did last season in Edmonton.
“Quite frankly, I don’t want to play with any other team in the CFL. I want to stay here; this is home,” Lawler said. “I’m pretty sure there were a lot of guys calling my agent, but my agent knew if it wasn’t Winnipeg, we weren’t going to go there unless we really couldn’t get the deal done.”
This isn’t just talk, either. Upon arrival at IG Field on Tuesday – and after the bro-hugs to whoever was around the facility – Lawler put in a workout session in the gym. He also hinted he could soon by flying to Toronto to get some work done with Collaros. Asked what that conversation with his QB would have included, Lawler grinned.
“Just about what this offence can do. From me being back and the pieces that we’ve got,” he said. “Just being able to go out to Toronto, get some throwing sessions in to redevelop that chemistry and just get on the same page. Really just about the heights and the limits that there aren’t for this offence.
“This offence, like I said, the sky, the stars are the limit and it’s really not the limit because it can go so much further. That’s really what we’ve talked about, it’s just ‘can’t wait to see you, can’t wait to give you a hug and be in the building with everybody working again’.”
DAY 1 – ONE AND DONE?
Having made the commitment to bring back as many players as possible from last year’s team – a subject we broached in this piece – the Blue Bombers made their big splash with Lawler and will likely be spectators for the rest of free agency.
Some nuggets did come from Walters in his session: Dalton Schoen’s NFL window did close, meaning the CFL’s leading receiver and Most Outstanding Rookie will return this year:
“The (NFL) window closed today and there was no official signing,” said Walters. “He had a bunch of workouts, and a bunch of teams were kicking the tires, but I guess nobody was willing to pull the trigger.
“You just feel bad for Dalton because I’m sure with that much interest his group was probably thinking there’s a chance and are probably a little bit defeated or disappointed that they didn’t get an opportunity to go down there, but we’re obviously happy to have him back.”
Walters also indicated that QB Dakota Prukop, who so effectively ran the short-yardage package last year and is a free agent, is heading to the USFL. With Collaros and Dru Brown under contract, the club will now look a specific type of pivot to run that package.
“It’s interesting because we’ve had some discussions about the quarterback position, where you’ve got your starting quarterback and the guys competing to be your starting quarterback, Zach and Dru, and we’d like to bring another one in that we believe can be a starting quarterback,” Walters said.
“But then we started that with Chris Streveler and that type of body and where in our organization that third-down guy is almost a different position. We’re talking, this off-season, about having a starting quarterback spot, and a short-yardage quarterback spot and vastly different skill sets and evaluation processes. We are targeting some interesting guys for that third down spot. If you watch training camp, they’re not going to be competing with this other group, but in a different competition for a Streveler-type guy.”
And on the kicking situation, where only Marc Liegghio is currently under contract:
“That will be a priority for us,” he said. “Now we can say ‘This is the way our roster is looking.’ We’ll regroup after this week and start saying ‘How do we fill out our training camp roster, where are the battles?’ There are a lot of contracts still to be offered for training camp and the kicking situation certainly is one area where we expect to have a bigger competition in rookie camp – maybe a Global, an American, another Canadian. We have a wide range of options to go out there and compete to see who is going to be our kicker and punter.”