November 21, 2023

Upon Further Review | 110th Grey Cup

It was long ago billed as ‘garbage bag day’ because it’s that moment at the end of the year when players gather for a last time in the locker room before packing up for a long offseason.

And when you’re the Winnipeg Blue Bombers – a team playing dominant football, but which has lost the last two Grey Cups by a combined five points after winning two championships in two seasons before that – well, garbage bag day just stinks.

After all, this is what happens when you plan for a parade and instead get a funeral. Your own funeral.

What’s worse is this team – the core of which has gone 51-17 over the last four seasons and been to four consecutive championship games – is guaranteed to look different in 2024.

“That’s the worst part of this, always – it’s the best game in the world, but the worst business in the world,” said veteran guard Pat Neufeld, taking a moment to glance around the locker room. “It’s a business about people, but it’s also a business about change and the unfortunate reality is there’s a number of guys who won’t be in this locker room again for whatever reasons. You just try to move forward and maintain those relationships, because they don’t leave when they leave the building. I’ll hang my hat on that.

“The sun came up today, so that’s a bonus,” he added. “Another day to be around my teammates and for a last time with a lot of them with so many guys getting out of here for American Thanksgiving. Any chance to get to be around this group of people is pretty special, so I’ll embrace today and take as much out of this moment as I can.”

So well said, as always, by the big man.

There’s a ton to get to in our final edition of UPON FURTHER REVIEW, for 2023 so let’s get after it…

KEEPING THE BAND TOGETHER… is always a topic in the immediate aftermath of a season and particularly when a team has been so dominant for so long. And as much as it would be intriguing to see what that might look like, it’s a given there will be change – especially when you see the list of prospective free agents.

Here’s the unofficial list, by position:

QB: Dru Brown, Dakota Prukop

RB: Brady Oliveira, Mike Miller, Johnny Augustine

OL: Pat Neufeld, Chris Kolankowski, Jermarcus Hardrick, Geoff Gray, Stanley Bryant

Rec: Drew Wolitarsky, Brendan O’Leary-Orange, Greg McCrae, Rasheed Bailey, Dalton Schoen

DL: Willie Jefferson, Ricky Walker, Jake Thomas, Jackson Jeffcoat, Thiadric Hansen, Cam Lawson

LB: Shayne Gauthier, Jesse Briggs, Brian Cole, Malik Clements, Tanner Cadwallader

DB: Brandon Alexander, Demerio Houston, Winston Rose, Deatrick Nichols, Redha Kramdi, Nick Hallett, Alden Darby, Jr.

Specialists: KR Janarion Grant, K Sergio Castillo

RELATED TO THE ABOVE… some voices on currently being pending free agents:

Willie Jefferson:

“Right now, I just want to take some time to be with the family and relax and when Kyle gets everything situated, when Coach O’Shea wants to talk or Wade wants to talk about next year, I’m here. I’m not necessarily looking for somewhere else to be. I love it here. I love it with the guys. I love the culture that we’ve built. I love the fans. This is my home until otherwise.”

Pat Neufeld:

“I’ve always been open about this: I don’t want to leave here. I’ve always done it year by year so hopefully in 2024 I’m a Blue Bomber again and hopefully they’ll have me back.”

Jackson Jeffcoat:

“Being in this business, you kinda get comfortable with the uncomfortable. I know that everything will work out. I just talked to the D-line about my story – how I got here, how I had to battle adversity in every aspect and that’s just how it is; that’s what this business is about.

“That’s why it’s so important for life here to be able to do this and be able to play this sport and this game that we love and have it as a job because when you get outside here, and you’re done playing it helps us for any situation we might face outside of here. I’m comfortable where I am. I’m comfortable knowing there’s a lot of uncertainty. I’m comfortable being able to spend time with my family; sad about the outcome but even though we didn’t get the end goal that we wanted; we still did some really special things this year. And as always, we’ve built some really strong bonds.

“I’m not ruling out anything. Retirement’s not on the top of my mind, but everything’s on the table right now. It’s the offseason; it’s time to really look and evaluate everything.”

Rasheed Bailey:

“I give my all to this city, I give my all to this team. This is the only team I ever want to play for. I hate the feeling that you want it to mean something when you make a sacrifice like that. I love playing for this city and I hope things can work out where I’m back, but I don’t control that.”

Brady Oliveira:

“You look at the talent in this locker room on this team and guys are young in their career that deserve to look at what they want to get when it comes to a contract. There’s that and then you’ve got guys who are maybe near the end of their career – I don’t know that, maybe they think they can squeak out another year or two. You never know. It will be interesting.”

AND ALSO RELATED TO THE ABOVE… is which players might now head south. We saw it work for Dee Alford and Chris Streveler, and Schoen was among those who had a look last year.

Oliveira, the CFL’s rushing champ and just 26 years old, said Tuesday his agent has been talking to some NFL teams.

“That whole NFL thing has been a dream of mine my entire life,” he said. “Ever since I started playing football it was to play at the highest possible level. The NFL stuff would of course be a dream. Obviously, this is where I want to be if the NFL stuff doesn’t work out. I want to be in Winnipeg. With that being said, you never really know what’s going to happen when you’re going to be a free agent. The last two seasons I’ve put together were good – good enough to get what I deserve. But we’ll see.”

Schoen is coming off a foot injury suffered in early October, but still posted sensational numbers in his two seasons in Blue Bomber colours – 141 catches for 2,663 yards and a whopping 26 TDs in just 34 games.

“Those are conversations to be had in the future with my agent, my family and everything that’s involved in that,” Schoen said. “But obviously, I have had two great years here on in the field and off the field more specifically. I really enjoy being around the guys in this locker room. This is a special place. You look around a lot of professional facilities on both sides of the border and you’re not going to find a ton of places like this.

“Obviously, this is a place I want to be and hopefully we can make that happen moving forward. But there’s a lot of things to look at, you’ve got to look at every opportunity and do your due diligence.”

DRU BROWN DIDN’T TAKE A SNAP… in Sunday’s Grey Cup, but his stock has risen dramatically this season, especially in a league starved for new blood at the quarterback position. His name has already been linked to teams with uncertainty on the depth chart at QB in a year where he completed 69.7 percent of his passes for 983 yards and nine TDs against zero interceptions.

“As a player you just want to get better and try to improve and I think since I’ve gotten here and in this organization, I’ve done that with the help of teammates and coaches,” Brown said. “Any time those things (speculation about his growing options) crossed my mind this year I just shoved them to the back because it wasn’t the priority.

“I’ve got some stuff I need to wrap up family wise (following the passing of his father this summer) so that’s on the forefront of my mind right now and when that time comes, I’ll deal with that. I’m not going to pretend to know the business side of this because this is my first time going through this. If I’m being honest, I just haven’t given it too much thought.”

That said, he studies and practises every week for one thing: to be a starter.

“That’s what I want to be, a starter,” he said. “I like to compete. I like to play. I’m not going to sit here and say I like watching although I think it’s what I needed as a young player. The desire to be a starter is obviously there but I haven’t given a lot of thought as to what’s going to happen in the next few months.”

His biggest fan – and his biggest mentor – is the man Brown is behind on the Blue Bombers depth chart in Zach Collaros.

“Under the right leadership and coaching and play-calling and all those things he could be one of the best if not the best guy in the league,” Collaros said. “I truly feel that way about Dru and I think I’ve told you that since he was a rookie. I just love his make-up. I just think of the person he is – he loves football, he’s a good guy, he’s a great husband and I’m sure he’s going to be a great father one day.

“He’s been really special to me in our (quarterbacks) room. I don’t want to belittle him when I call him a little brother, but I am quite a bit older than him. I look at him as a brother. I’ve never really been in a quarterback room like the one we’re in here with Dakota and Dru. I think we’re truly lifelong friends outside this. I’ve been very fortunate to be around both those men. To answer your question, I think Dru can do really, really great things in this league.”

TONS OF SECOND GUESSING NOW ABOUT THE SCHOEN/BIGHILL… decisions to suit them up, given their injury status, but one stop on the final drive and that narrative would instead be about the inspiration they provided by suiting up.

Schoen, who had three catches on Sunday, was asked on garbage bag day if suiting up was the right decision.

“Definitely, yeah. I wouldn’t have put myself out there without feeling that I was good enough to help this team win and go make plays for the team,” he said. “Like I told you guys after the game it was a collaborative effort between myself, the training staff, Osh and everyone that put together the plan that we felt good enough that I was going to be able to play well enough to help us win.”

Bighill, meanwhile, said his calf injury usually takes four to six weeks to heal but he felt a shot at playing on the day before the game. He was also asked if the injury had any impact on Cole Spieker’s touchdown reception in the third quarter in which Bighill was the closest defender.

“It’s a great question,” Bighill said. “I’ll just put it this way: if you guys in the media were a little bit more savvy watching football than the average person, you’d know that we don’t ask linebackers to cover receivers vertically down the field. Let’s just say I was trying to cover up and help out. It was a miscommunication. Montreal did a good job exploiting coaching-wise. They saw something from the previous game they went in to attack and they made a big play on it. That’s the way it goes.”


The Blue Bombers had a team meeting Tuesday morning, before many of the players – especially those heading home for American Thanksgiving – held their exit meetings with O’Shea.

“It’s tough,” said Schoen. “It’s hard not to feel horrible and that you’ve failed at everything when you lose the final game, the one that matters the most. But as Osh was just telling us in the team meeting… if you think back about the moments there were a lot of positives out of this season for this team. That’s the stuff you’ve got to remember, and you’ve got to remember the process you went through in terms of what you were doing each week to prepare and how you were building as a player and as a team and all of that. But it’s definitely tough in this moment to process that loss just because it’s so fresh.”

Collaros said he had yet to watch the 110th Grey Cup but will – as he does with every game with a critical eye – when he has had the proper time to decompress.

“It’s still hard to process,” he said. “At the end of the season not winning a Grey Cup, you see it as a failure and try to process it that way. We just had a team meeting and spoke with Osh and as he typically does, he provided us with some words of wisdom on just trying to help us on this moment and with the understanding there’s a lot of good men here and you can lean on the days of joy that you stack up during the season working together. That’s hard to find, not just in this league but just in general in any profession. You can take solace on that.”

And one more, from Nic Demski:

“It’s tough to swallow what just happened. Of course, in these next couple of weeks when everything winds down and the emotions get off your chest, I’m sure I’ll backtrack and think about what an incredible year it has been. I got engaged, had a baby, three-year deal, made history. Obviously all that stuff sinks to the bottom when you don’t get that ultimate goal, and so that’s where I’m at right now.”