Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols (15) throws against the Saskatchewan Roughriders during first half CFL Banjo Bowl action, in Winnipeg on Saturday, September 10, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods
It always felt temporary at first, dating back to last year and even at the start of this current Winnipeg Blue Bombers run Matt Nichols has helped author.
He was just keeping the QB1 seat warm for the Bombers when he was parachuted in from Edmonton last year to replace an injured Drew Willy. And even when he stepped behind centre after the 1-4 start this season, it still seemed a little temporary; like he was just filling in until Willy got his mojo back.
Yet, there was Nichols on Friday stepping up to the podium in the media room at Investors Group Field as the Bombers try to extend their win streak to seven games this week.
And there was nothing – absolutely nothing – that felt temporary about it.
“He’s our leader,” said Stanley Bryant, the Bombers massive left tackle after the club completed final preparations for Saturday’s home date against the Toronto Argonauts.
“He controls the huddle. I like his intensity. He’s aggressive and it rubs off on other guys.”
“It’s like he’s always angry, whether it’s the good or bad plays. It’s not that he’s angry in a bad way… after that big run he had last week to get down to the one-yard line. He got up and he was so excited. And then there’s that tackle he made on the kick return, too. That’s how he is.”
“Matty… he’s just ballin’ right now, man. That’s why I call him ‘Matty Ice’, because he’s going out there having fun and enjoying being with this group of guys. We’re enjoying him too. All the linemen, running backs, receivers… we’ve all bought in and we’re following his lead.”
Now, it’s not that some didn’t see this coming. Nichols was first signed by the Edmonton Eskimos back in 2010 after a stint with the Dallas Cowboys and after lighting up the Big Sky Conference at Eastern Washington, and he was in the mix a couple of times to be their No. 1 gun.
By now, most are aware of what happened next: the broken leg, followed by the blown-out knee. And then, with Mike Reilly clearly established as ‘The Man’ in Edmonton, the trade to Winnipeg last year for a fifth-round draft pick.
And with that, minds seemed to close on the idea of ‘Matt Nichols; starting quarterback’.
All of which brings us to the here and now, with Nichols 6-0 since replacing Willy, and having thrown just one interception since taking over – and on a streak of 119 attempts since that lone mistake.
“It was a terrible pick, too. I was so mad at him,” said Bombers offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice with a chuckle this week. “He usually sees those things. But we always talk about how important it is to protect the football and he sees things well and makes good decisions.
“There have been guys who have done that very well. Anthony Calvillo, Bo Levi Mitchell, Dave Dickenson… even Darian Durant went on a long stretch without an interception. That’s what we want, that’s what we keep coaching. We don’t coach scared, just make good decisions.”
It was here where the chat with LaPolice turned to a subject that has become part of the refrain since Nichols took over: that he is a better fit with the offence than Willy.
“Everyone keeps talking ‘fit,’” LaPolice said. “I think he’s a good fit because he’s a good quarterback. I don’t care what offence he’s going to be in, he’s a very good quarterback. Our system or whatever, I think he’s a good quarterback, he just hasn’t had opportunities to play. He’s a guy who hasn’t played a lot. He’s a young quarterback who hasn’t played the games a lot of guys in the CFL have played. He’s done a nice job for his limited playing time.”
“I evaluated him last year in free agency and I loved him because he processed information quickly and he made throws.”
There’s more to it than just that, of course, and this is what Bryant referred to in describing Nichols. Maybe it’s the injury history. Maybe it’s being kicked to the curb for a later-round draft pick. But the 29-year-old still approaches the game with the passion of someone who understands each snap could be his last.
And that can be contagious. It’s also helped him to appreciate his current opportunity.
“It makes me savour every time I’m out on the field,” said Nichols “I’m one of the happiest guys out there every day, I’ll tell you that. Anyone that’s been through injuries or even been released that gets a second chance will tell you the same thing. It’s a little bit of a different perspective. For me to go through the things I’ve gone through in my career… I’m just excited to be out there each and every week with my guys. I don’t take it for granted.”
ARGONAUTS (5-6) at BLUE BOMBERS (7-4)
Kickoff: 1 p.m., Investors Group Field
Streaks: Toronto: 1W; Winnipeg: 6W
Vegas line: The Bombers are favoured by 7.5.
Recent history: The Argos and Bombers met at BMO Field on Aug. 12th and Winnipeg exited with a 34-17 victory, their third ‘W’ in this current six-game win streak.
THE HARRIS WATCH
He has been a key cog in the Bomber offence since the ball was first placed on the tee for the opener back in June. But running back Andrew Harris, who exited last week’s Banjo Bowl win over Saskatchewan before halftime with a lower-body injury, has not taken a single rep at practice all week.
He’s still listed as the starter on the depth chart, but the club has also moved Timothy Flanders to their 46-man roster – just as they did prior to Week 1, when Harris fought off an injury and still suited up to play.
“Week 1 it was the same type of situation,” said Harris after Friday’s walk-through. “(Saturday) I’m going to come in and test it out. It feels OK now, but we’ll see what happens. I don’t ever like to miss a game. You always want to be there with your teammates, especially with the ride we’re on right now. It’s definitely a game I want to be in and I’ll do everything I can to be in the game.”
If Harris can’t go, it seems the club would activate Flanders – and then use different packages to compensate with the ratio change, with either Julian Feoli-Gudino or Christophe Normand on the field. Flanders, the former Sam Houston State star, hasn’t played since the preseason when he had 29 yards on six carries vs. Ottawa and 18 carries for 80 yards and a touchdown against Montreal.
“I’ll be ready (Saturday),” said Flanders. “It just depends. I really don’t know if Andrew is going to play or not. It’s been tough (not playing) because as a competitor you always want to play. We’ll see how it goes.
“I’m always blessed. Regardless of whether I play or not there’s a lot of people that would die to be in my shoes right now so just having an opportunity is good enough for me.”
DAN & DREW AND THE ARGOS PITCHING CREW
It would make for a heckuva story if Drew Willy were to return Saturday with his new teammates to lead the Argos against his old teammates in blue and gold. But while Willy has always been a quick study and the Argos – particularly the QB whisperer that is head coach Scott Milanovich – are convinced he can establish himself as a bonafide CFL star, it will be Dan LeFevour who takes the first snap.
LeFevour got it done in last week’s win over Hamilton, shaking off months of rust to complete 27 of 36 passes for 329 yards with one TD against two interceptions. He’s big at 6-3, 230+ pounds, and his mobility and ability to run over defenders means he gives the Argos offence a different look than with Ricky Ray at the controls.
“He’s got the ability to beat you both ways because he’s a very effective runner,” said Bombers defensive coordinator Richie Hall. “He’s big, he’s strong and he throws a good football. We haven’t seen him a lot since a couple of years ago. He did a great job last week. He’s the quarterback, but they’ve got some weapons around him, too. What we have to do is go after the quarterback but make sure we take care of (Brandon) Whitaker and all the other guys too, because if you don’t, they’re going to have a big day.”
We touched on this subject earlier in the week – the idea that the Bombers have found their winning template, but it bears repeating. Winnipeg is on a ridiculous turnover rate of late, +22 in its last six games and +23 on the season. That run includes a +4 outing in the win over Toronto in August that saw the Bombers score 24 of their 34 points that day off turnovers. Couple that with their work on special teams and a ball control offence, and it’s a simple but proven formula for winning.
But after watching the Argos pound the Ticats last week, the Bombers are also wondering what kind of Toronto defence they might see on Saturday. Rich Stubler’s crew really came after the Ticats with pressure up front.
“They did a lot of their main things,” said Nichols of the Argos’ D. “Stubler is a guy who has been in this league a long time and what he does works. He believes in his system. There were a few things they did different against Hamilton because of Hamilton’s offence and they were fired up and ready to play. The main thing that showed up (on film) is that they were flying around, they were excited. They have a lot of confidence right now so we expect a very fired-up team to come in here.
“You prepare for every scenario. The main thing is Stubler is going to do what he does, but he’s going to have a few wrinkles like everyone does each and every week. It’s a feeling out process once the game starts. I think our last couple games showed we’re ready for anything. (Saskatchewan head coach Chris) Jones came out and blitzed us 20 times when in the previous three games he had only done that 12 times and then last week they really didn’t bring much pressure and played a lot of press/two-man… you just always have to be prepared.”
- Matt Nichols makes the 26th start of his career and the seventh straight since July 28th. He is now 13-12 overall in his career and 8-5 as a Bomber. This year he has completed 70.7 per cent of his passes for 1,695 yards with seven TDs against one interception for a QB rating of 104.1.
- Dan LeFevour is 2-3 in his career as a starter, and was especially effective last week against the Ticats. He is a dual-threat QB and has drawn praise all week for how quickly he picked up the Argos offence. “Dan played outstanding,” said Argos head coach Scott Milanovich earlier this week. “I don’t know if people realize what he did and how difficult that is to do… having zero reps going into the week, hadn’t thrown with our receivers. I thought he was fantastic.”
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
#25 Bruce Johnson, HB
The arrival of T.J. Heath this week was heralded as giving the Bombers solid depth at a position where they were previously thin. But it also cranks up the heat on the veteran Johnson and impressive rookie Kevin Fogg. Heath isn’t expected to suit up this week, but he’s an excellent cover guy who can also back up Maurice Leggett at outside linebacker. This club has thrived on internal competition all season, and having Heath is only going to crank that up further.
#89 Clarence Denmark, SB
He chewed up the Argos in their first meeting this year, pulling in seven catches for 195 yards and two touchdowns, including a 79-yard bomb. Denmark sat out the Banjo Bowl, but draws back in with Ryan Smith injured. He has 23 catches for 355 yards and three TDs in just four games since his return.
#33 Andrew Harris/#32 Timothy Flanders, RB
The Bombers rank just sixth in yards rushing per game at 78.5, but the ground attack remains a staple in their attack. If Harris goes, he’ll be attempting to reclaim the rushing lead after falling behind Calgary’s Jerome Messam (704 yards vs. 677). And if Harris isn’t in the lineup, expect Flanders to still be busy out of the backfield.
#26 Tony Burnett, LB
The USC product makes his first start of the season in place of the injured Ian Wild after dressing for the first 11 games as a designated import. Burnett has shown he can make things happen when he is in the defensive rotation. He had three tackles and two knockdowns in relief of Wild last week.
“High energy… an unbelievable athlete. Unbelievable,” said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea of Burnett. “The thing you notice about Tony last year and this year is he just seems to make plays. I remember that game in Ottawa last year when he came up and made an open-field tackle when the ball carrier had some room to go either way and he strikes him right in his heart and dislodges the ball. He had two tipped balls last week. He just seems to make those plays.”
The Bombers have made six changes to their 46-man roster (including two-man reserve), adding running back Timothy Flanders, quarterback Kevin Glenn, defensive backs Chris Randle and T.J. Heath, defensive tackle Jake Thomas and linebacker Shayne Gauthier.
Coming off the 46 are linebackers Ian Wild and Nick Temple, receiver Ryan Smith, defensive backs Terrence Frederick and Brendan Morgan, and quarterback Drew Willy.
RING OF HONOUR
The latest addition is one of, if not THE greatest Blue Bomber of all time: running back Leo Lewis. He was the club’s all-time leading rushing for 41 years after his retirement in 1966 before being surpassed by Charles Roberts, and remains the team’s all-time leader in combined yards (rushing, receiving, returns) with 18,577.
Lewis passed away in 2013 at the age of 80 and will be represented on Saturday by two of his three sons: Leo Lewis III and Marc.
The Leo Lewis story can be found here.
Bombers cornerback Chris Randle vs. Argos wide receivers Tori Gurley or Kenny Shaw.
Randle returns after spending the last six weeks on the injured list. He’s a vet and he’s got impeccable credentials. Still, he figures to be tested by the Argos not long after the national anthem.
“I wouldn’t be prepared if I didn’t think like that,” said Randle. “I put myself through the rehab process to be ready to go out there. But for them to try me after coming back from an injury… that’s to be expected.
“They have a lot of speed and a lot of size. They have a good balance there. (Shaw) is a great receiver and so is (Diontae Spencer), but all their guys can make plays and they’ve got a quarterback that can move around the pocket.”
- The last Bomber QB to crank out seven straight wins was Khari Jones, back during the record 12-straight run in 2001.
- Winnipeg is still just 9-23 all-time at Investors Group Field and 13-20 on the road since the new building opened.
- The Bombers have held four of their last five opponents to 18 points or less and have not given up a 100 rushing yards in their last nine.
- Dominique Davis is listed as the No. 2 QB behind Matt Nichols with veteran Kevin Glenn, acquired Sunday night from Montreal, the No. 3. Both Nichols and LaPolice have raved about having Glenn in their meeting room all week.
“A couple of the easier things: I can really talk to him and he’s been in a bunch of systems,” said LaPolice. “I can tell him this is your go-fer play because I know the terminology in Montreal from my time with those guys as a guest coach. Or I can say, ‘In Saskatchewan this is what you called, ‘Shirley.’ A young guy, you have to teach him everything. A veteran you just have tell him terminology and he would understand the read most of the time once you told him ‘this is the same as…’ You don’t have to go over every detail and he understands what you want.”
- Weston Dressler needs 49 receiving yards to move past Fred Stamps into 30th spot on the CFL’s career list. He has 14 receptions for 212 yards in his last two games.
- Former Bomber PK Lirim Hajrullahu has hit on his last 15 field goals, the longest streak of his career.
- CFL stats guru Steve Daniel noted in his weekly package this week that in-season trades involving QBs are rare in the league. He listed five major in-season QB deals dating back to 1961 and the Bombers were involved in three of them: Don Jonas from Winnipeg to Hamilton in September of 1974; Dieter Brock from the Bombers to Hamilton for Tom Clements in 1983 and, in October of ’83, Nickie Hall was shipped west to Saskatchewan for John Hufnagel.
The other two deals saw Joe Kapp traded by Calgary to B.C. for Jim Walden and four other players in 1961, and Peter Liske being shipped by the Stampeders to B.C. for Karl Douglas.
“We’ve grown. We wanted to win for so long, now that we’re winning we don’t want to go back to that other feeling. That hunger fuels all of us because we know what it’s like when things are bad.” – Bombers cornerback Chris Randle.