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June 30, 2024

Upon Further Review | WPG 19 CAL 22 (OT)

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' quarterback Zach Collaros (8) is sacked by Calgary Stampeders' James Vaughters (9) and Micah Awe (7) during first half CFL football action in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, June 29, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

There are no asterisks or ‘yeah, but’ clauses in professional football. It is a bottom-line business, after all, which is based solely on the black and white of wins and losses.

So, while the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have lost their last three games by a combined total of nine points while the infirmary is stuffed with stars and starters, that doesn’t qualify at all as a caveat here.

As the old saying in football goes, ‘you are what you’re record says you are’ and this club is 0-4 and getting in its own way with too many mistakes. That was never more evident than in Saturday’s 22-19 overtime loss to the Calgary Stampeders in southern Alberta.

That’s the in-the-moment snapshot, and it’s ugly.

As for the many outside the building who see this as the first few chapters of a Blue Bombers downfall — the club has already lost as many games as last year and one more than in both 2022 and 2021 — it should come as no surprise that you won’t hear that from anyone living it.

“We’ve got the right kind of people and the right kind of players in this locker room,” said linebacker Adam Bighill Saturday night. “It’s penalties at inopportune times. It’s not being able to take advantage of some of the momentum we were able to get. It’s focus. It’s focussing on making the plays when you’re supposed to make them. It’s limiting penalties and maximizing opportunity.

“There are usually a few plays that can decide a close game and this was one of those games. The team with the least amount of mistakes toward the end of the game is going to win. It’s one or two plays here and there that decide a game. That’s what we’ve got to shore up.

“But these guys in here are winners who know how to win. No one has changed who they are in terms of belief, in terms of the way they work, in terms of the way they play the game.”

That was the common refrain we heard while working through the locker room afterward gathering the thoughts of players. The belief is still very much there, even if that undoubtedly now has the cynics and doubters rolling their eyes.

Again, though, bottom line business and there is nothing more real than the first 0-4 start since 2012.

“I’m frustrated, dude,” said receiver Drew Wolitarsky, who scored the team’s first passing touchdown of the season on a connection with Chris Streveler with 37 seconds left to send the game to overtime. “We gave ourselves a chance with that drive late. I’m really proud of that drive to find a way to give us a chance. But it all comes down to the mistakes and we continue to make too many.

“We’re all sticking together. It’s frustrating because we put so much into this, so much heart and soul, over the last seven-eight years in this organization. In the past we’ve won tight games like this with one or two plays going our way. They just haven’t been going our way this year.

“It comes down to singular focus with every single person. We’ve got to be accountable to ourselves. We’ve got to go through the game in our minds and ask, ‘Why am I losing focus in this moment? What do I have to change to be my best?’ People need to do that personally.

“I’m frustrated today, but we’ve got to keep with it and try not to be discouraged and let it go because we’ve got another game on Friday.”

ICYMI, here is our game recap.

Game Recap | WPG 19 CGY 22 OT

And more on the Blue Bombers OT loss in this week’s edition of UPON FURTHER REVIEW…

WE CAN’T DO A DEEPER DIVE… on the loss without first acknowledging that the big, developing story going forward is the status of quarterback Zach Collaros, who left the game just before halftime after being pile-driven into the turf by Stampeders man-mountain defensive tackle Josiah Coatney, who tips the scales officially at 348 pounds.

Collaros was was 8-of-12 at the time for just 55 yards and one interception, but after the injury Sergio Castillo hit a field goal to put the visitors up 6-4 in what had been a defensive struggle. Chris Streveler relieved him and orchestrated the comeback, but was also hit on his last throw which was intercepted in the end zone in overtime. He finished the game 14-of-24 for 170 yards with the TD to Wolitarsky and the late interception.

Collaros did finish the game on the sidelines in full gear and was still conversing throughout with Streveler and afterwards head coach Mike O’Shea said of Collaros ‘I think he’ll be fine’ and that the decision to keep him out was precautionary. Still, we won’t get a feel on how their QB1 is doing until the team returns to practice on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, related to the injury front… reports surfaced after the game from TSN’s Farhan Lalji of the club brining back receiver Lucky Whitehead, with the veteran receiver all but confirming the news later in the evening.

Already without Kenny Lawler, Dalton Schoen and Keric Wheatfall, the Blue Bombers started a receiving corps that featured veterans Nic Demski and Wolitarsky, CFL rookies Pokey Wilson, Josh Johnson and second-year man Jeremy Murphy. That already depleted corps may have taken another hit, as Murphy did not finish the game and was replaced by rookie Kevens Clercius.

Whitehead, 32, was an instant fan favourite in his rookie CFL season with the Blue Bombers in 2019 when he had 52 catches for 521 yards and two touchdowns while also returning kicks. He left for the B.C. Lions in 2021 and posted three solid seasons with 932, 1,011, and 728 receiving yards but was not re-signed by the Leos this offseason.

THREE NUMBERS THAT STOOD OUT… after a deeper dive into the statistical package, which can be found here:

Saturday’s loss spoiled an excellent bounce-back from the Blue Bombers defence. After surrendering 500 net yards of offence in the loss to B.C., Winnipeg’s ‘D’ limited Calgary to 307 yet yards. The number that stood out the most in that was limiting the Stamps to just 3.6 yards on first down.

Winnipeg forced two turnovers — including the first career interception by Tyrell Ford — and forced seven punts.

2 Clearly the Stamps were not going to let Brady Oliveira be the difference maker for the Blue Bombers, limiting him to 26 yards rushing on 10 carries and five catches for 37 yards. Winnipeg’s leading rusher was Streveler with 27 yards on six carries while punter Jamieson Sheahan had the longest run, sprinting for 18 yards after pulling down a snap that sailed a bit to his right.

3 Related to the injuries in the receiving corps and, perhaps, to the possible addition of Whitehead: Wilson (two catches for 30 yards), Johnson (2-29) and Murphy (0) combined for four catches for 59 yards. Clercius also chipped in with two catches for 27 yards. Demski (6-54) and Wolitarsky (4-43) led Winnipeg’s receivers.

AND, FINALLY… there’s no magic potion for the Blue Bombers here right now. This team hasn’t put together a relatively clean, complete performance since last season and the mistakes are costing them.

So, it’s simply back to work to get this right before the wheels fall off completely.

“We’ll be critical with the film, making sure we’re telling each other the truth and try to figure this thing out,” said guard Pat Neufeld. “Being angry is not going to help us now or fix this. You can’t bring that anger into what we’re doing — you can go on the field angry — but when we’re trying to correct things being upset is not going to help.

“We have to be critical and accountable, but ultimately we’ve got to find a way to make plays when they matter the most.”