June 21, 2024

The Lede: “I’m ready to go. I’m locked in. I’m dialled. I’m fired up, man.”

Brady Oliveira returns to the lineup tonight -- photos by Cameron Bartlett

Brady Oliveira stood in front of a phalanx of reporters and cameras late Thursday morning and over the course of a four-minute give and take with the media put in an all-star effort at choosing his words carefully while corralling his emotions and obvious frustration.

And yet the image that popped into my head was of a snarling, barking dog being held back by a chain leash.

The Blue Bombers all-star running back — the Canadian Football League’s leading rusher and top homegrown player — will be back in the lineup tonight against the B.C. Lions in an early-season battle royale between two Western Division heavyweights.

Interestingly, he’s listed second on the depth chart behind Johnny Augustine, with Chris Smith added as the kick returner and third at the running back spot.

And while Oliveira hit all the right notes about being excited to be back in his gear and ready to get back to work, as the media session played out it became clear that being listed as the back up clearly had him rankled.

“Right now they have Johnny No. 1 on the depth chart. Osh (head coach Mike O’Shea) made that decision and if that’s what’s best for the team, that’s what’s best for the team,” he said. “I’m ready to go. I’m locked in. I’m dialled. I’m fired up, man. I want to get back out there and play my style, smacking heads and doing what I do best. I feel good. If it was up to me I’m ready to go, I’m good to go.

“I’m a competitor, man. I’ve been the starter the last two years here. I’ve earned that. I don’t make those decisions, though. I’m excited, man. I’m ready to go. I’m fired up and I just really want to go in there and help this team win a game and I know I can do that and I know this group can get it done (tonight). I’m just super-excited for another opportunity.”

Quizzed about the depth chart later in his media availability, O’Shea explained that the decision was based on the amount of time the club’s feature back missed during training camp, plus last week’s loss to Ottawa, and his struggles in the opener against Montreal.

“It’s just a different approach this week, trying to ease him into it,” he said. “And then the second part of that is Johnny’s carried the load all through training camp. He’s taken all the reps and deserves the chance to step out there and do more.

“We’re going to use (Oliveira). We’re going to use him, for sure.”

O’Shea said earlier in the week that Oliveira has been ‘busting his ass’ to get back into the lineup while working with Blue Bombers head athletic therapist Al Couture. This is about managing Oliveira’s return knowing it’s still June and there are kilometres and kilometres of highway still to trek.

On the flip side, an athlete’s pride and his eagerness to get back to doing his thing is also at play here.

“Obviously you hate watching from the sidelines,” said Oliveira. “You want to be out there with your guys, you want to compete and make plays and help this team win games.

“It’s frustrating when you go through injuries but you’ve got to attack it with the right mindset and I think I have attacked with the right mindset and being focussed in my entire time with Al and coming in every day just wanting to get better. I’ve had that mindset since the little hiccup in the Montreal game and I just want to get out here whenever I can.”

Oliveira rushed just 11 times for 38 yards in the loss to Montreal and said he suffered a ‘minor little tweak in that game that maybe set me back a little bit.’

“I didn’t feel myself. I tried to play through it,” he added. “It’s hard in the position we play — the running back position. You need your lower body, you need to feel explosive, you need to feel powerful and I just didn’t feel that. I was trying to do my best out there. I expect a lot more from me, obviously this team does, this organization does. It wasn’t our best game but that’s long behind us and we’re really focussed on B.C. right now.”

That’s a clear and honest answer. Still, this is the kind of storyline that gets magnified when a team is 0-2 and a rival they’ve bested in the last two Western Finals is in town. It gains traction when an offence which has made the running game such an integral part of what it does struggles to dominate along the ground.

And then there’s this: Oliveira is a proud Winnipegger, one of the faces of the franchise and the league’s reigning rushing champ. So, heck yeah, this is a story that has legs until the circumstances around change for the better for the Blue Bombers.

“I’ll get back to it. I’m not worried about my play,” said Oliveira. “I know the level I can get it to and I know there’s even more for me to reach. Obviously with the running back position you’ve got to get into a rhythm and into a groove… that’s what training camp is for, it’s perfect to knock the rust off, to get your eyes right, to get your feet right.

“I think it will take maybe a couple of games just to get me into a rhythm, but my couple of games to get into a rhythm might be better than others. I’m excited. I’m just looking forward to continue to elevate my game. Ultimately I want to play to help this team win football games because I know what I’m capable of and I know when we’re all rolling good things happen for this team.

“I’m going to control what I can control. He makes his decisions and if that’s what’s best for the team, that’s what’s best for the team. I’m excited, looking forward to another game with my boys out there, coming out and competing and just playing my style of football which I know helps this team win games.”

Milestone watch: O’Shea will coach his 161st game with the Blue Bombers tonight, moving him past Bud Grant into top spot in franchise history. He is 96-64 since becoming the Blue Bombers boss in 2014 — six wins shy of tying Grant for the franchise record. Grant finished his days in Winnipeg with four Grey Cups and a 102-56-2 mark before heading to the Minnesota Vikings, where he earned iconic status just as he did here.

“One of the best coaches I’ve ever been around if not THE best coach,” said quarterback Zach Collaros of O’Shea. “One of the greatest people I’ve ever been around. I’ve learned so much from him even dating back to my time in Toronto when he was the special teams coach and I would sit in on those meetings because I was on the scout team for a lot of that stuff and to hear how he communicated and motivated the guys.

“Yeah… he doesn’t want me up here talking about him. I love him to death. Fiercely loyal, crazy competitive… he can also bring you into his office and talk you through a hard time that you’re having. He’s just the ultimate coach, the ultimate communicator and I’m very fortunate to have spent so much time around him in my career.”

Not surprisingly, O’Shea did everything to avoid speaking of that on Thursday. Asked what that milestone would mean — and trust us, this franchise’s history means everything to him — he joked, ‘Wade (Miller) probably made a mistake.”

And then…

“Bud Grant is in a whole other universe. It’s just because I’ve enjoyed some longevity. We’ve had great continuity in our coaching staff and our players and so eventually the numbers just add up to that. But Bud Grant is… through the entirety of North American football, Bud Grant is a legend.”

Return game switcheroo: The Blue Bombers have made six changes to the lineup (info here) and one of the most intriguing is the decision to activate RB Chris Smith to handle the kick return chores in place of Myron Mitchell. Smith had a 109-yard punt return game in the final preseason game, but was also nicked up that night.

Chris Smith

“We liked what he did before. He showed that he was ready now to go,” said O’Shea of Smith. “Game speed is a little different, but he’s got some shift in traffic that looks different in the punt return game.

“Myron steadily improved and showed some great awareness around the goal line which is really tough for young Americans coming up in their first stint in the CFL to grasp and he did that. He fielded the ball well, so there was a lot to like. He’s built differently. He’s a different length of athlete and that changes what it looks like when you’re on punt return.

“With Smitty you believe you’re going to get just a little more shake and a little more vision in really close quarters.”