The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are soon going to have a problem.
It’s one with which these players, coaches and management have no experience.
The Bombers will need a strategy for playing meaningless games down the stretch since their next win or a Saskatchewan loss will clinch first place in the West Division for Winnipeg, meaning a home playoff date on Dec. 5 for a trip back to the Grey Cup.
How much should the starters play? How much rest is too much rest? It’s a problem every team would love to have and one the Bombers can put in play with a win over BC Saturday night, rendering their final three games of the regular season meaningless.
This is rare space for a franchise that hasn’t hosted a Western final since 1972. (In part because for 21 seasons between 1987 and 2013 the Blue Bombers competed in the East Division.)
In a season where there has been so much change, with so many unique variables into the mix, the Blue Bombers have been a model of consistency, rolling on from their championship 23 months ago to a 9-1 record.
So how did we get here? How did a team that has historically been a chaser end up with a gigantic lead in what is always the CFL’s more competitive division?
There’s no magic formula here. Just good drafting, smart trades, and successful dives into free agency, the same three key components for the construction of any team.
It’s in free agency where general manager Kyle Walters has outdone his competition the most, making a series of signings of what have become bedrock players among this current group.
It starts with Andrew Harris, the superstar running back who has carried this franchise on his back since signing before the 2016 season after six years as a BC Lion. However, the Bombers imagined Harris’ return to his hometown might go, it’s been better than that. He is the engine that makes the Bombers go.
Adam Bighill is a difference maker on defence, signed before the 2018 season after returning from a year with the New Orleans Saints, which followed his six seasons with the BC Lions.
The middle linebacker has been a model of leadership on and off the field, the quarterback of the defence with a presence as powerful as the hits he delivers.
After taking a significant pay cut due to the league’s COVID-19 economics, Bighill has responded in a way that’s made him a candidate to be named the league’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player.
That is if teammate Willie Jefferson doesn’t win it. Jefferson is another Bomber free agent strike from 2019, the reigning Most Outstanding Defensive Player, who has proven capable of taking over a game with his ability to rattle quarterbacks.
Nic Demski, who will be in the conversation for Most Outstanding Canadian this season, is another player who was added via the free agent market before the 2018 season.
Free agency can be a perilous place to do business in pro football, where teams often end up overpaying for reputations and getting shortchanged on performance.
But not in Winnipeg’s case.
Tackle Stanley Bryant, a Bomber since 2015, has teamed up with Jermarcus Hardrick to set the model in Winnipeg on the offensive line, with its two huge American tackles on the outside and three tough Canadians in the middle.
Consistency on the roster from 2019 is a big part of what’s helped Winnipeg lead the pack this season, something that’s reflected in the play of the Bomber defence.
During November of 2019, the Bombers surrendered an average of 13 points during their three-game run to a Grey Cup win.
So far this season, the defence is surrendering an average 12.6 points per game, with six games in which opponents have failed to score in double-digits. And while some defences have fattened their stats against Ottawa’s struggling offence this season, the Blue Bombers are the only team in the CFL that does not face the Redblacks this season.
The fourth quarter is where Winnipeg’s defence has really shone, surrendering a total of six points through 10 quarters when the game is often on the line.
Adding 2019 CFL interception leader Winston Rose, as they did this week, feels like an embarrassment of riches. Rose, who spent last season with the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals, returns to a secondary that has continued to flourish in his absence, but the Bombers thrive at using their entire roster.
It's a big part of why their defensive line has remained so fresh this season, particularly late in games.
Trading for the rights to former New York Jets kicker Sergio Castillo, also a former Lion and Ticat, was a necessary move to address an area of need. But it was a move the Bombers didn’t have to hurry, thanks to their record.
With Rose and a reliable kicker in Castillo in the fold, the Bombers are essentially the same team they were two years ago, plus the addition of starting quarterback Zach Collaros for an entire season.
The trade that brought Collaros to Winnipeg may have been all about the “now” at the time, but Collaros made such an impression in such a short time during that Grey Cup run that the club felt compelled to hitch its wagon to him.
It is reaping the rewards of that decision.
Winnipeg is now 14-1 with Collaros as its starter, which is why ensuring he remains healthy for the playoffs must be the priority down the stretch – especially considering the lack of experience behind him. No. 2 Sean McGuire has completed just three passes between this season and 2019.
Getting him more experience down the stretch “just in case” dovetails nicely with the need to keep Collaros out of harm’s way.
It’s a luxury the Bombers can use and one they most definitely have earned.
Harris is an Alouette
The most intriguing question in the aftermath of Trevor Harris trade to Montreal is where his career goes from here.
Harris said this week upon arriving in Montreal that, at 35, he still feels that his best football is ahead of him. That isn’t an outrageous thing to say, especially since Harris has managed to avoid serious injuries through most of his career.
At the end of the 2019 season, Harris completed 36 of 39 passes against the Alouettes in a masterful performance that demonstrated the degree of accuracy he is still capable of.
While this season’s play wasn’t up to his usual standard, the Elks moving on from him seems like an aggressive move, given that latitude normally given to so-called franchise quarterbacks.
Harris slots in with Montreal behind Matthew Shiltz, the former backup who ascended to the No. 1 job recently, earning a victory in relief and won as a starter.
The Als like him and believe he can do the job. What they didn’t like was having no experience behind him, which is why they made the deal for what amounts to renting quarterback insurance for the rest of the season.
Harris is due a salary of more than $500,000 next season with an off-season bonus of $300,000.
There’s virtually no chance the Alouettes pick up the final year of Harris’ contract, which means he’ll be free to sign with whomever he wants to come the winter.
The question the market will have to answer is this: Is Harris still worthy of a starting quarterback job?
On the surface, there’s not a team with an obvious need for a starting quarterback besides Ottawa, the team that let Harris go via free agency after the 2018 season in a move that evidently didn’t work for either side.
Circling back to Harris would seem like an odd thing for Ottawa to do, given some of the acrimony that existed in the wake of his departure and the fact that he will be 36 next season.
Of course, stranger things have happened.
CFL decides playoff travel policy for unvaccinated
The CFL decided this week that players unable to travel with their teams to road playoff games in December aren’t going to be able to play at all.
The issue is that the federal vaccine mandate, which goes into effect Nov. 30, restricts unvaccinated people from travelling by air or rail in Canada. So, the CFL is saying “no” to players finding another way to get there, fearing the idea of players driving themselves great distances to games in December.
The impact of this is far greater in the East than the West, based solely on geography.
In the East, the proximity of all four teams to one another makes travelling by bus a practical option for the Dec. 5 division final. That will apply to the Dec. 12 Grey Cup game in Hamilton as well.
In the West, it’s believed that B.C., Winnipeg, and Saskatchewan have very few unvaccinated players. Calgary is believed to have several unvaccinated players, but the Stampeders are apparently not considering bussing either to the West Division Final or the Grey Cup, if they make it that far.
NFL guys returning north
Within the past two weeks, Duke Williams, Tre Roberson, Rose, and Castillo have all made their way back from north from the National Football League.
Why all the sudden? A couple of reasons.
For one, by mid-October, the chances of a player getting an opportunity in the NFL season are remote.
And while pro-rated wages in the CFL this season aren’t very attractive, they are when combined with playoff money, which is the only player compensation that was not scaled back for this season.
A player on a Grey Cup-winning team earns $24,000 for three playoff games, so it’s no coincidence that those making their way back are all landing with playoff-bound teams.