Matt Nichols (15) and Andrew Harris (33) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the game at New Mosaic Stadium in Regina, SK, Saturday, July 1st, 2017. (Photo: Johany Jutras)
OTTAWA – Matt Nichols is standing in front of row reporters in the bowels of T.D. Place here in the nation’s capital, dutifully answering every question with respect and a level of thoughtfulness.
There isn’t a hint of bravado with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback. No bold proclamations or boasts in a straightforward session that lasts just over three minutes.
It’s what we’ve come to expect now from Nichols, who has gone from Drew Willy’s back-up early last summer to the de facto leader of the team by November, parlaying that into a lucrative new deal with the club over the winter.
And yet, some doubters remain.
The Canadian Football League has an intriguing mix of quarterbacks calling the shots right now, from greybeards like future hall of famer Ricky Ray in Toronto to Kevin Glenn in Saskatchewan – debate his hall-of-fame candidacy amongst yourselves – to studs like Mike Reilly in Edmonton, Bo Levi Mitchell in Calgary and B.C.’s Jonathon Jennings (as well as Travis Lulay), to younger guns like Trevor Harris here in Ottawa, Hamilton’s Zach Collaros, who is trying to regain some of his old magic, to a vet like Darian Durant in Montreal.
Somewhere in that pack is Nichols. And yet, there’s more to why he fits so well with the Bombers than what the stats provide in black and white.
“You just need to look back at that run at the end of the fourth quarter in our last game… that describes him. That’s him in a nutshell,” said Harris Thursday, as Nichols spoke to the media over his left shoulder. “He’s tough. He’s feisty. He’s never going to quit.
“He’s a guy who rides out the ebbs and flows of a game by never getting too high or too low. He’s been awesome.”
A little perspective might be in order here now that Nichols has started 18 straight games – the equivalent of a full season – since replacing Drew Willy just over a year ago.
This time a year ago, the Bombers offence was averaging 17.6 points per game, eighth in the CFL, in a 1-4 start. Through five games this year, they are averaging 31.4 points, first in the league. He has led the Bombers on more TD drives, 17, than any other quarterback in the CFL.
Most importantly, the Bombers are 13-5 since he took control of the offence late last July. And given the revolving door at the position for so many seasons, that’s worth repeating again: 13 wins, 5 losses or a winning percentage of .722.
Consider, for some context, the won-loss record and winning percentage of Bombers quarterbacks with at least 18 starts dating back to 1996:
- Khari Jones (2000-04): 44-28-1,.610
- Matt Nichols (2015-present): 15-10, .600
- Kevin Glenn (2004-08): 35-37-1, .486
- Buck Pierce (2010-13): 14-18, .438
- Drew Willy (2014-16): 11-18, .379
- Kerwin Bell (1999-2000): 7-17; .292
Others (ranked by number of starts):
- Michael Bishop (2009): 6-8, .429
- Chris Vargas (1997): 3-10, .231
- Kent Austin (1996): 7-4, .636
- T.J. Rubley (1998): 1-10, .091
- Steven Jyles (2010): 2-8, .200
- Kevin McDougal (1996-97): 3-6, .333
- Joey Elliott (2010-12): 2-7, .222
- Max Hall (2013): 1-8, .111
- Alex Brink (2010-12): 3-4, .429
- Troy Kopp (1998): 2-5, .286
- Justin Goltz (2013): 1-4, .200
- Stefan LeFors (2009): 1-3, .250
- Reggie Slack (1996): 1-3, .250
- Ryan Dinwiddie (2008): 1-2, .333
- Tee Martin (2005): 0-3, .000
- Pat Barnes (2003): 1-1, .500
- Mike Quinn (2006): 0-2, .000
- Brian Brohm (2014-15): 0-2, .000
- Robert Marve (2015): 0-2, .000
- Brian Ah Yat (2001): 1-0, 1.00
- Dom Davis (2015-present): 0-1, .000
As Bombers fans are well aware, that’s hardly a star-studded list. It also says something that the only two quarterbacks who have started at least 18 games for this franchise dating back to 1996 with winning records are Jones and Nichols.
And that’s all that matters to the veteran pivot.
Nichols, not surprisingly, has a singular focus right now and that’s Friday’s matchup with the REDBLACKS and getting an offence that, yes, does lead the league in points per game, to purr along instead of revving then stalling.
“There are some things we do well,” Nichols said this week of the Bombers attack. “The main thing is consistency. We’ve been going on some big runs where it seems like for a quarter and a half we can’t be stopped. And then for a quarter it seems like we have trouble getting going.
“We need to have consistency where we’re putting drives together all game long and keeping our defence fresh. That’s a focus of ours.”
A workmanlike answer from a workmanlike pivot. And a guy who is universally respected in his locker room.
“You know, getting to know him off the field and growing with him has been awesome for me,” said Harris. “We’re a bit similar in that we both have that chip on our shoulder and that tenacity.
“There’s no question the team has rallied around him. We know what we’re going to get week in, week out from him and that’s a great thing.”
GAME 4: BLUE BOMBERS (3-2) vs REDBLACKS (1-4-1)
Kickoff: 6 p.m. (CDT) Friday, TD Place, Ottawa
Radio: CJOB 680;
TV: TSN, RDS, ESPN 3
Streaks: Winnipeg: 1W; Ottawa: 1L
Vegas line: Ottawa is favoured by 3.
Home/Road: The Bombers are 1-1 on the road this season and were a league-best 7-2 away from home last season; the REDBLACKS are 1-1-1 at home.
Recent history: The Bombers and REDBLACKS split their season series last year, with Ottawa winning 23-10 in Winnipeg on Oct. 29th and the Bombers grabbing a 33-20 victory a week later, on Nov. 4th, in Ottawa.
All-time series: Winnipeg leads 42-30-1
NEXT MAN UP
OK sure, this is a weekly storyline all across the CFL. Players get hurt, others are called upon to step in and be productive. It’s so common a theme, it’s a ritual. But Thursday the Bombers moved slotback Weston Dressler to the six-game injured list and the impact on the offence could be enormous.
Dressler isn’t just a veteran receiver who led the club last season in catches (80) and yardage (1,003). He is a reliable target for Matt Nichols, a holder on placekicks, and the kind of player who sets a daily tone with his work ethic.
But as we saw last week in the win over Montreal, Ryan Lankford has already proven to be both a quick study and good fit in Dressler’s spot. He caught seven passes for 53 yards in two quarters of work and pulled in the first touchdown in the club’s miraculous comeback. Just as important, he knew the routes and his assignments, even though he hadn’t had much work at that spot – and that’s the kind of response that instantly gains a quarterback’s trust.
“I had been in that position, but not since training camp,” said Lankford. “You’ve got to always prepare as if you are a starter. The beautiful thing about our offence here is it’s conceptual and you really know how and why we run things. It’s just studying over time and understanding what concept goes where.
“It was difficult at first… my head was spinning on that first drive. But once I got it down it was all right. It was, ‘OK, I’ve been here before. Let’s just touch up on some things and let’s play ball.”
The numbers suggest a potential drop-off – Dressler has played in 142 career games with 642 catches for 9,142 yard and 55 touchdowns; Lankford has played in 14 games (including nine with Saskatchewan) with 28 receptions for 234 yards and one TD, but he does bring a similar work ethic and is already developing a chemistry with his quarterback.
“It goes all the way back at training camp and everyone was getting reps with every quarterback,” said Lankford. “We practice, we do routes on air, we have conversations, open-floor meetings where everyone is talking about what they would do here or there. It comes with time, it comes with practice. I’m just happy to be in this situation.”
‘D’ IS FOR DEFENCE, NOT DREADFUL
The Bombers valiant comeback a week ago masked over some defensive deficiencies, namely 183 yards rushing as the Montreal Alouettes racked up 495 yards net offence and averaged an astounding 11.4 yards on 20 second-down plays. ‘Explosion’ plays? Those are nasty enough plays to leave some size-large craters.
“There’s no simple cure,” said Bombers defensive coordinator Richie Hall. “It’s just going out there and playing solid consistent defence because when you do that, you have a chance to win. Yeah, the big plays are going to occur. I understand that. But you want to make them earn it and not give it to them in chunks… make them drive the ball.
“We can’t ask our offence to go out there every week and score 40-plus points to win. That’s being unrealistic. Going out there and asking them to score mid-20s, yeah, that’s attainable. How many times over the last 20 years has an offence scored 40 points or more over the course of a season? None. Defensively we have to be able to shut people down, because we have done it.
“You have to be able to win the fourth quarter if you want to be in contention for the Grey Cup.”
TREVOR, BRAD, GREG ET AL
Ottawa lost some key offensive pieces from last year’s Grey Cup squad – most notably Henry Burris (retired), receivers Ernest Jackson (Montreal), Chris Williams (B.C.), Khalil Paden (Toronto), and running back Kienan Lafrance (Saskatchewan) – but still are scary-good offensively with quarterback Trevor Harris regularly playing pitch and catch with star receivers Brad Sinopoli and Greg Ellingson.
Harris leads the CFL with 12 passing TDs, Ellingson is the top receiver with 643 yards, while Sinopoli’s three TDs is tied for second overall.
“The key is focusing on ourselves,” said cornerback Chris Randle. “We have to be better. We have to do things the way we’re supposed to do them, as far as our standards and as far as our technique. Knowing their threats, Ellingson and that receiving corps, their running backs (Mossis) Madu and (William) Powell and Trevor Harris is throwing the ball over the field. We know what they’re capable of doing and have to go out there and be ready for that challenge.”
- Matt Nichols is now 15-10 as a starter for the Bombers – 13-5 in his last 18 – after last week’s win over Montreal. He completed 34 of 43 passes last week for 358 yards and two TDs, numbers that saw his overall QUAR rating jump to 78.8.
- Trevor Harris will be making the 32nd start of his career, he is 15-14-2, and 1-4-1 this year. He has completed 70.2 per cent of his passes this season for 1,939 yards with 12 TDs against three interceptions, but has fumbled a league-high four times. His QUAR rating is 76.4
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
#84 Ryan Lankford, receiver/returner: His contributions in relief of Weston Dressler are mentioned above. The Bombers like the versatility and the speed he brings to the attack, but Dressler is still Dressler.
“You lose so much, not just because of his talent on the field but because he’s a leader, through walk-throughs, coaching other guys, breaking huddles he’s yelling out reminders for receivers, for me,” said Matt Nichols. “He’s a tough one to replace, but we feel like we have great depth at that position and we’ve got some young guys on this team who have a lot of ability and have taken it upon themselves to soak in information. Last week, Lankford stepped right in to Dressler’s position, a position he’s never played before, and made a bunch of great plays for us. We have the guys that can make up for it but it’s still always tough when you lose a future hall of famer.”
#31 Maurice Leggett, linebacker: Returns to the lineup after missing the last two games and the team’s top defender from last season should help with his ability to tackle in the open field, his communication and his experience.
#55 Jamaal Westerman, defensive end: The Bombers veteran had one sack, one pressure and three tackles in the first two games, but in his last three has four sacks, five pressures and nine tackles.
#22 Brian Walker, DB: The young defensive back has shown steady improvement since the start of training camp, flashing a speed to cover gaps and a finish as a violent tackler. But with Chris Randle and T.J. Heath on one side of the secondary, Walker and Roc Carmichael can expect to be busy on the other, with some help from Kevin Fogg.
The Bombers unveiled their 46-man roster Thursday and the big news was the placing of veteran receiver Weston Dressler on the injured list. The other change sees LB Nehemie Kankolongo (who was released earlier this week) replaced by LB Jesse Briggs.
Dressler joins Bruce Johnson, Ian Wild, Shayne Gauthier and Tristan Okpalaugo on the six-game injured list – Johnson and Gauthier are back practicing – and might not be among that group for the duration.
“The six-game is just a business decision,” explained Mike O’Shea. “You find a lot of clubs do that as an insurance policy in case there’s any setback. But I expect him to be available much sooner than that.”
Bombers running back Andrew Harris vs. whoever or however the REDBLACKS try to defend him out of the backfield.
We wrote earlier this week about how Harris is on pace to break a CFL record for receptions by a running back, and the Bombers make no excuses for all the touches he’s getting as a receiver.
“He’s a weapon for us,” said Matt Nichols. “We’re not complaining. We want the ball in Andrew’s hands and the way teams have been playing us the last few weeks, if they want to drop nine and 10 into coverage, then I have no problem giving the ball to Andrew and then good luck tackling him. That’s another threat everyone has to deal with because he runs the ball well and catches the ball out of the backfield so you have to guard six receivers.
“I feel like getting through progressions is one of my strengths and if defences want to drop a bunch of guys out and take things away, then you’ve got to come up and make a tackle on one of the best break-a-tackle guys in the league.”
- Ottawa is the only team in CFL history to have each of their first six games of a season all decided by five points or less.
- YAC attack: the Bombers lead the CFL with 48 percent of their passing yards being gained after the catch is made; Ottawa is second at 39 percent.
- Winnipeg is leading the league with a 31.4 points-per-game scoring average, but also has the highest two-and-out rate in the league at 37 percent.
- Ottawa receivers Greg Ellingson and Brad Sinopoli have combined for 76 the team’s 158 receptions, and have been on target for 47 per cent of passes thrown. In their last game, they were held to just six receptions combined, their third-lowest total since joining the REDBLACKS.