during the game between the Montreal Alouettes and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at Investors Group Field on Wednesday June 8, 2016 in Winnipeg, MB. (Photo: Johany Jutras)
Tait’s Take is presented by Anderson’s Hitch ‘N Post
It’s an ugly, dirty word; ‘drought.’
It’s most often used to reference a long stretch without water, but is also used liberally in the sporting lexicon, whether it means scoring droughts, hitting droughts and, of course, championship droughts.
All of which brings us to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and, as the lid lifts on the 2016 Canadian Football League season, their own Grey Cup drought that dates back to 1990.
That’s been the common topic of discussion in these parts for years now and it was the theme of a number of interviews conducted with Bomber players leading into Friday’s home opener against the Montreal Alouettes at Investors Group Field.
“It’s tough, when you’re passionate about a team like the fans are here, to go through that,” said Bomber running back Andrew Harris on the drought topic Thursday. “They’re optimistic and they’re excited and for us, we’ve just got to deliver.
“We’ve got to rally around them like they rally around us. I’m expecting this building to be electric tomorrow.”
Funny thing about this ‘drought’ chatter, though. It’s an albatross, to be sure, but this current Bomber squad also features 16 players who were born after the franchise’s last title, back on Nov. 25, 1990. It also includes Grey Cup champions like Weston Dressler, Andrew Harris, Stanley Bryant, Macho Harris, Chris Randle, Jeff Keeping and Chad Rempel. GM Kyle Walters has a ring. Ditto for head coach Mike O’Shea, who has three as a player and one as an assistant coach. Richie Hall, Danny McManus, Avon Cobourne, Paul LaPolice… they’ve all got rings, too.
The point here is that while there is a generation of Bomber fans who haven’t experienced a Grey Cup hangover – check that, a Grey Cup hangover after a Bomber win – the whole thing might not really resonate with many of the men trying to end this quarter-century drought.
“I mean, pretty much every team wants to win right now,” began Dressler. “It doesn’t matter what happened in the past. We want to win now and that’s our goal. Just knowing the history and the past few years here and the way things have gone, you’re definitely aware of it. But, as players, this is a different locker room from last year, a different locker room from five years ago.
“It’s a new team and we’re excited about the team we have right now.”
That’s a good bridge to the present. While the Grey Cup drought will hover over the franchise like a gigantic black cloud until it wins another championship, there is a different vibe about the 2016 Bomber squad as the season opens. That comes from a cannonball splash in free agency over the winter and some tweakings to the coaching staff.
And the players have felt that buzz, too.
“There’s more excitement in the city,” said Teague Sherman. “I know from friends and just being out for dinners and hearing the talk from everybody else that people seem very excited for this year.
“It’s a big year for everybody… for us, the city, the organization. So many people want to see us do well. And if there’s one thing we can get better at, it’s being great at home. The city and fans deserve it.”
Now while it’s been suggested that Friday night is a ‘must-win’, the result certainly won’t determine if the Bombers are playing meaningful football in November.
But for a win-starved fan base, it’d be a heckuva good start.
“The good vibe started with the moves made in the offseason, including coaching and players,” said Bombers right tackle Pat Neufeld. “And then once we saw at our offensive mini camp (in April) the offence that LaPo brought in, guys were really excited about it and how different our offence is going to be. All through training camp we just kept building and building.
“We’re ready to finally let loose and play for our fans.”
Near the end of Andrew Harris’ session with the media on Thursday, the Cleveland Cavaliers recent NBA championship – the one that ended a title drought for that city that dated back to 1964 – and the pressure that comes with being a hometown guy, was broached with the Bomber running back.
“I don’t think we have quite the Cleveland drought,” said Harris. “It’s funny… after Cleveland did win a bunch of people mentioned that to me.
“I’m from here. There’s a lot of expectation. I put the same expectation and the same pressure on myself, regardless of the situation. It’s all YOU guys and my family that raise it up. I prepare the same, I play the same. It just makes it that much more exciting, though.”
Finally, as Neufeld chatted on Thursday he nodded toward some of the finishing touches being done to Investors Group Field.
“I think it’s awesome that they just put up that sign that says ‘Home of the Loudest Fans’ because when we’re doing well, this place is rocking,” he said. “It’s awesome here. It is by far the loudest stadium I’ve played in and if we can get this crowd behind us as the 13th man, it is absolutely phenomenal.
“But this is an entertainment, results-based business. And we know we’ve got to deliver for us and for the fans.”
HARRIS IS IN; FLANDERS ON CALL
The Bombers have had their fingers crossed since late in Tuesday’s practice that Andrew Harris, one of the prized offseason additions, would be given the medical green light for the opener.
The starting tailback tweaked something in his leg on a pass route Tuesday, didn’t participate on Wednesday, but was put through a battery of tests early Thursday and declared good to go.
“I worked out this morning and it felt great,” said Harris, who has been a very durable back through the first chunk of his career with the B.C. Lions. “This is more than just football. It’s an important game on a lot of different levels. It’s one I wouldn’t want to miss for the world. I was excited to clear (medically) this morning.”
The Bombers do have Timothy Flanders listed on the depth chart behind Harris and he’ll see some time on special teams.
ROOKIES IN BOTH AIR DEFENCES
Long-time Bomber coach Dave Ritchie, a man who adored his vets, used to declare that every rookie in the starting lineup equaled one L in the loss column. The CFL, after all, has its share of quirky nuances and dramatic changes to the American game that can make the adjustment for the guys who venture north to make a living, tough.
To that end, the Alouettes are starting two rookie corners in Ethan Davis and Jonathon Mincy, while the Bombers will line up Kevin Fogg and Julian Posey, who has one start to his credit, in their air defence.
“Obviously they’re good enough to be on a good defence,” said Bomber QB Drew Willy when asked if he was salivating at the chance to test the rookie corners. “Montreal has always had a good defence since I’ve been in the league. Coach Popp picked them for a reason.
“We don’t have enough film on them to see how we want to attack them, but we definitely have some veterans that know all the tricks. If the position is out there for us to attack them. If the play is telling me to go the other way, I’ll just have to read the play.”
TO BLITZ, OR NOT TO BLITZ?
Old friend Kevin Glenn will take the first snap from centre for the Alouettes. Now 37, Glenn is 91-90-1 as a starter and when he’s feeling it, he can completely eviscerate a defence. He’ll be working behind a revamped offensive line, but has CFL leading rusher in Tyrell Sutton behind him and a dynamic receiving corps that features Duron Carter, Kenny Stafford, S.J. Green and Sam Giguère.
“He’s seen every defence you can throw at him,” said Bomber defensive end Jamaal Westerman earlier this week. “They’re a big, aggressive team. Their quarterback will put them in the right place, he’ll get the ball out of his hands quickly.
“The one thing quarterbacks hate is pressure in their face. They hate to be hit, they hate for guys to fall on them. They hate to have guys around them. Kevin Glenn, Henry Burris, all the quarterbacks in the league, you just want to put pressure on them because it’s uncomfortable.”
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
- #38 Ian Wild, LB: Was a force in his defensive reps last year after a stint with the Pittsburgh Steelers and has been one of the best Bombers through training camp. He’s listed at weak-side linebacker now, with Khalil Bass in the middle, and is one of those ball hawks who rarely makes assignment mistakes.
- #12 Ryan Smith, SB: Both ex-Saskatchewan Roughriders – Smith and Weston Dressler – could put up big numbers in the Bombers new offence. Smith has already become one of Drew Willy’s favourite targets and with Jace Davis and Darvin Adams also listed at slot, could find some room in the middle of the field.
- #23 Kevin Fogg, CB: He’s a CFL rookie corner which, if you’re Kevin Glenn, is akin to being slathered in BBQ sauce and dropped into a lions’ den. He’s had stints with Pittsburgh and Miami, but being a corner in the CFL can be a lonely gig. Required: a short memory.
#94 Euclid Cummings, DT
He’s a pile pusher who registered eight sacks last year for the Argos and will look to pressure the Alouettes up the middle and be violent against the run. Lines up beside Keith Shologan on a Bomber D-line that has three new faces – including rookie Shayon Green – opposite Westerman.
“The only encore is the Grey Cup, man. That’s the only goal. Only one team felt satisfied last year and that’s the team who held the trophy. No matter the stats, no matter what you do… you want to be the last team standing. At the end of the day having that ring is what’s most important.”
– Bombers DE Jamaal Westerman on what he does for an encore after being named the Bombers Most Outstanding Player, Defensive Player and Canadian a year ago.
The Bombers made another addition to the practice roster on Thursday, bringing aboard former Toronto Argonauts defensive back Travis Hawkins.
Hawkins (5-9, 190, Delaware) appeared in 15 games with the Argos last season, recording 37 defensive tackles and adding two interceptions. He began his pro career as an undrafted free agent with the New England Patriots in 2014, following three seasons at Delaware and two at the University of Maryland.
3-1: The Bombers record against the Alouettes the last two seasons, their best record against any CFL rival over that span.
1: Bomber playoff appearances in the last seven seasons (2011). Winnipeg’s current four-year run out of the playoffs matches the longest in its history (1967-70).
.529: The Bombers’ winning percentage in June and July over the past three seasons (9-8). As for the rest of those campaigns, close your eyes (6-31, .162).
19: The Alouettes went 6-12 last season, ending a 19-year run of playoff appearances.