Blue Bombers' quarter back Matt Nichols throws a pass during CFL first quarter action in Hamilton on Saturday, August 12th, 2017. (CFL PHOTO - Dave Chidley)
Yes, take an informal poll of the men in the Bombers clubhouse as to who the unquestioned leader is, and there would be some votes for Chris Randle, Andrew Harris and Jamaal Westerman. But the landslide winner would be Nichols, the 30-year-old quarterback in the midst of a career year.
His 2017 numbers speak for themselves:
- He’s the CFL’s top-rated quarterback with a QUAR of 90.2
- He leads the league in TD passes with 26, against just seven interceptions
- His 3,844 passing yards are a career high
- And most importantly, this team that was wallowing in a 1-4 start last season is now 20-6 since he took the first snap behind centre.
But it’s the stuff beyond the huddle – the almost cliché characteristics we expect from a quarterback – that has the men that work with him every day so eager to follow.
“You don’t have to be in the huddle to see it,” said Adams on Thursday, as the Bombers wrapped up final preparations for Friday’s home date with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. “It’s his demeanour, the way he carries himself and the way that he speaks. It means something.
“It’s not just a regular tone of voice… it’s just that when he speaks, everybody listens. We always tell him, ‘You lead, we follow.’”
The Bombers have added some interesting pieces in free agency in the last couple of years, drafted well and made some critically important trades. But clearly, no decision has had more of an impact than handing over the leadership of this team to Nichols.
It’s not just the wins and losses, it’s the stability he’s brought to the most important position on the field. Nichols will make his 27th consecutive start for the Bombers Friday, the longest streak since Kevin Glenn started 30 in a row across the 2006-08 seasons.
This isn’t new, but it bears repeating: Nichols’ backstory – the injury troubles when he seemed on the cusp in Edmonton before the Eskimos sent him here midway through 2015 for a middle-round draft pick – is part of why his leadership style melds so well with this team.
There’s the fiery component of his personality that, combined with a ‘this-is-my-last-chance’ approach, has rubbed off on a collection of players that have lived through the same.
The fact that he’s also in the offices earlier than anyone and just fits the Hollywood typecast of what a quarterback should sound like has also won over his teammates.
“Being in the huddle with him? Fearless leader, man,” said guard Travis Bond. “He just makes sure everybody is on point and ready to go and once the ball is snapped, he wants you to unleash.
“He came in last year so calm and relaxed and was so comfortable being in those shoes. A lot of guys wouldn’t be, they’d be stuttering and tripping over their words and don’t even know how to make the calls. But he stepped in and he was ‘The Guy’ right away. We made him comfortable by keeping him upright as an O-line and he’s made it work.
“I wouldn’t want to be in the huddle with anybody else.”
Interestingly, what Nichols has done this year is force himself into a conversation in which many thought he didn’t belong. No longer is it a slam dunk that Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell or Edmonton’s Mike Reilly are the front runners for the QB spot on the West Division or CFL All-Star Teams.
Nichols has to be in that mix too, not just because of his stats, but because of the 20-6 run he’s led this franchise on since taking over late last July.
“I think he’s getting better, too,” said Adams. “He does things now that people once thought he wasn’t great at, like pulling the ball down and running when no one is open.
“It just goes to show you that all the things he’s been through to get here… it’s not luck. We call it grinding. That’s why I call him an ‘animal’ – it’s all the things, all the adversity he’s been through.
“And look what he’s doing now.”
GAME 14 | TIGER-CATS (3-10) at BLUE BOMBERS (10-3)
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Investors Group Field
TV: TSN, ESPN 3
Streaks: Winnipeg: 3W; Hamilton: 1L
Vegas line: The Bombers are favoured by 13.5 points.
Home/Road: The Bombers are 5-1 at home this year, making it the first time since Investors Group Field opened in 2013 that the club will have a winning record in their own building. Hamilton is 2-4 on the road.
Recent history: The Bombers and Ticats met earlier this year in Hamilton, with Winnipeg exiting Tim Hortons Field with a 39-12 victory back on August 12th.
Winnipeg is on a three-game win streak vs. Hamilton, having swept last year’s season series, 28-24 in Hamilton and 37-11 here in River City.
Game day weather forecast: Environment Canada: Sunny and clear on Friday with a high of 18 and low of 8.
PLAYOFFS? DON’T TALK ABOUT PLAYOFFS… YOU KIDDING ME?
The CFL released its weekly playoff scenarios earlier this week. Here’s how they relate to the Bombers:
- Winnipeg win + Saskatchewan loss + Edmonton loss = Bombers clinch a playoff berth
- Winnipeg win + Saskatchewan loss + Edmonton loss + B.C. loss = Winnipeg clinches a playoff berth and a home playoff date.
Yet, broach this with the Bombers – who essentially need two wins to play host to the first playoff games in these parts since the 2011 East Final – and they’ll collectively and violently stiff arm the idea to the ground.
After all, as is their mantra – One game, one week at a time…
“That’s still our focus because I’ve been around this league long enough that when there are four and five games left, anything can happen and you’ve got to take care of business and not wait and hope that other teams take care of business for you,” said QB Matt Nichols. “For us to get where we want to be we feel like it’s another must-win week. That’s been how we’ve approached every single week this year. All of our attention is focused on this week and if we do that, we’ll get to where we want to be at the end.
“We want to play a home playoff game because our crowd makes it difficult on teams. This place has become a place that I think teams don’t really want to come and play, especially late in the season. It’s going to be cold, it’s going to be loud, it’s going to be a tough atmosphere for other teams.
“We want to have a home playoff game, but just having a first-round home playoff game isn’t our goal right now. Our goal is to win this football game and we have higher goals than that.”
“I couldn’t tell you the scenarios, nor do I care about them,” added Mike O’Shea. “I care about winning this next game and focusing on what’s going to allow us to win. None of that other information is going to help us or allow us to win games, so it’s irrelevant.”
DON’T SLEEP ON THE CATS
These aren’t the same Tiger-Cats the Bombers faced back in mid-August in Hamilton. Winnipeg was at 4-2 and the Ticats were 0-6 at the time, but since bottoming out at 0-8, Hamilton is 3-2 and the lineup they field Friday will look dramatically different than the one the Bombers lined up against on August 12th.
The biggest change sees Jeremiah Masoli at QB for Zach Collaros, Brandon Banks, Andy Fantuz, Shamawd Chambers are in at receiver, Alex Green is the running back, Abdul Kanneh is back at linebacker, there are two changes in the secondary and, oh yeah, June Jones is now the head knock.
Masoli has led the Ticats to a 3-2 record since the switch and he is 7-6 since 2016. Worth noting: all other Hamilton QBs are 3-15 during that span.
Asked what he sees differently in the Ticats since Masoli replaced Collaros, Bombers LB Maurice Leggett was succinct:
“His athleticism. He’s able to run the ball and extend plays and that can be dangerous for us. We just have to play assignment-sound football.”
“They’re on the rise,” said Leggett of the Cats. “They’re actually winning games now and they’re starting to figure out who they are.
“But we still have to play our game, play physical, smart football… keeping putting points on the board and keep taking away the ball.”
THE HARRIS 1K-1K WATCH
Andrew Harris is assaulting the record books this season. That’s hardly a newsflash in a year in which he has already set a new club record for most receptions by a running back.
But here we are with five games remaining and Harris still has a legit shot at becoming the first player in the CFL’s long and storied history to do the 1K-1K trick: Finish a year with 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving. He needs to average 56.4 yards receiving and 41.4 yards rushing to make history.
“I’m in reach of it, but we’re getting down to the end of the season and there are going to be games where I might possibly not even play at the end of the season,” said Harris earlier this week. “So I’m just trying to get us in the best situation possible for the playoffs and part of that is me being an impact player and getting touches and yards.”
There’s more…. With 84 receptions, Harris is also chasing the CFL record for most receptions by a running back – 102, set by Saskatchewan’s Craig Ellis in 1987.
And if he should crack the century mark, he would become just the fifth Bombers player to do so after Eugene Goodlow (100 in 1981), James Murphy (116 in 1986), Gerald Wilcox (111 in 1994) and Milt Stegall (106 in 2002).
“That’s regular for us,” said receiver Clarence Denmark when asked about Harris. “We see that every day. He practises at that level and when he gets in a game he hits another level, man. It’s amazing just to be out there and be a part of it.”
- Matt Nichols starts for the Bombers and is now 20-6 since taking the No. 1 QB chores late last July. Nichols is the CFL’s top-rated quarterback and has thrown for 3,844 yards and a league-leading 26 touchdowns against seven interceptions.
- Jeremiah Masoli will start for the Ticats. He replaced Zach Collaros on Labour Day and has been at the controls for all three of their wins this season, throwing for 1,437 yards and six TDs against four interceptions.
3 BOMBERS TO WATCH
#94 Jackson Jeffcoat, defensive end: Will start for the 12th time this season and continues to pop off the page with a bigger workload due to the season-ending injury to Jamaal Westerman. Leads all Bombers D-linemen in defensive plays with 50: 23 total tackles, 15 quarterback pressures, four sacks, three tackles for losses, two pass knockdowns, a fumble recovery, forced fumble and an interception.
#2 Matt Coates, wide receiver: Makes his first start as a Bomber with the injury to Julian Feoli-Gudino. He’s already proven to be reliable when pressed into duty this year and has four catches for 50 yards. In many ways, they are the same: tough, reliable pass catchers, but not burners.
#9 Justin Medlock, kicker: Coming off a disastrous effort in Edmonton where he missed three field goals and a convert. The Bombers fully expect their money kicker to find his groove again.
Medlock has hit on just four of his last eight attempts, and in the process, has given up – perhaps temporarily – the title as the CFL’s most-accurate kicker of all time. Calgary’s Rene Paredes is on a streak of 18 straight and now has a career mark of 86.8 percent, just slightly ahead of Medlock at 86.2.
#45 Jovan Santos-Knox, linebacker: Led the Bombers with nine tackles in the win over Edmonton last week and looks more and more comfortable with every snap. A question that must soon be dealt with: how do the Bombers utilize both Santos-Knox and Ian Wild, when the latter is green lighted to play again?
The Bombers’ 46-man roster for Friday’s game features just one change, with WR Julian Feoli-Gudino moved to the one-game injured list. Matt Coates will start in his place, with Drew Wolitarsky added to the 46-man roster.
The Ticats have made five changes to their 46, adding WR/KR Willie Quinn, DB Mariel Cooper, former Bomber DB Don Unamba, DE Ryan Mueller and DT Ted Laurent. Out is another former Bomber – DB Demond Washington, who was moved to the six-game injured list as was WR Damarr Aultman – along with DT Jason Neill, while RB C.J. Gable was traded to the Edmonton Eskimos and LB Curtis Newton was released.
Bombers WR Darvin Adams vs. Ticats CBs Cariel Brooks or Don Unamba.
Adams has eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career and is garnering more attention as of the CFL’s elite pass catchers and deadliest deep threats.
Some juicy numbers courtesy CFL stats guru Steve Daniel:
- Six of Adams’ seven touchdowns this year have come on deep throws of 20 yards or more, just one TD behind Toronto’s S.J. Green in that category.
- Adams leads the Bombers with 13 receptions on 30 targeted deep throws.
In case you missed it, Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton has been on the hotseat in the last couple of days after his reaction to a question from Charlotte Observer reporter Jourdan Rodrigue. The Observer’s football reporter asked Newton a question about a receiver’s route running, to which he responded: “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes. It’s funny.”
The Bombers Nichols was asked Thursday for a reaction to that from long-time local football writer Judy Owen, now with The Canadian Press.
“My wife (Ali) knows more about football than most men do and she critiques me all time, so that’s not something that would pop in my head to question, especially with the amount of women that are in sports these days,” said Nichols. “You can be extremely knowledgeable without having played.
“There are plenty of college coaches, even NFL coaches, that never played a down of football in their life. You can still study and know what’s going on out there. She’s my toughest critic and biggest fan.”
- The Bombers 10-3 start to the season is their best since an 11-2 run in 2001.
- Winnipeg has also won five straight at Investors Group Field – and are 9-3 at home since last August. The five-game streak at IGF is the longest in the new building and direct contrast to the 11-26 record they posted in the first 37 games since the building opened.
The five-game streak is the Bombers’ longest since a seven-game run in 2002-03.
“It’s always good to win at home,” said Clarence Denmark. “We just want to give our fans a good show. They always support us, regardless of what we’re doing out there. We just want to give that love back.”
- Bombers HOF QB Don Jonas is in town as part of a promotional visit for the launch of his new book, ‘The Jonas Era, Vol. 2’ written by local authors Roy Rosmus and Scott Taylor. He’ll be signing autographs in the tailgate area beginning at 5:30.
Jonas, after his playing days, was also the first head coach in the history of the University of Central Florida and met with UCF product Brandon Alexander after practice earlier this week.
“It was great to see somebody from UCF and somebody that was a big part of that organization,” said Alexander. “For him to come out here and deliver a message to me was phenomenal. I was glad to see him and glad to get that message.
“He was the one that started UCF and built it. We came in and won the Fiesta Bowl (2014) and he came and talk to us. It was good to see him again.”