Columnist image
Dave Naylor

TSN Football Insider


Since the very start of the 2021 CFL season, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers were the best team in Canadian football.

And in the 108th Grey Cup game, the Bombers needed the entire game plus overtime to defeat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in a come-from-behind 33-25 win that disappointed a Tim Hortons Field crowed decked-out almost entirely in black-and-gold.

The Bombers, who rarely trailed during the regular season, found themselves down two scores heading in the fourth quarter, after CFL Most Outstanding Player Zach Collaros threw a pair of interceptions that flipped the game in Hamilton’s favour.

But on a day the wind was howling the length of the field the entire game, the Bombers took advantage of having it at their backs for the fourth-quarter to take a 25-22 lead with two minutes remaining.

Against the stingiest CFL defence in half-a-century, Hamilton quarterback Jeremiah Masoli drove his team the length of the field, setting-up for first-and-10 from the Winnipeg five-yard-line with under 30 seconds to play. But the Winnipeg defence held strong, forcing a field goal and overtime, where the Bombers scored a touchdown on their only possession, then intercepted Masoli to complete the first back-to-back Grey Cup win since the Montreal Alouettes in 2009 and 2010.

The Bombers seemed like a team destined to repeat from the very outset, when they opened the CFL’s COVID-19 season with a definitive win at home over the Tiger-Cats.

And while most of the other eight CFL teams spent much of the 2021 season trying to figure things out, the Bombers raced out to an 11-1 record before clinching first place in the West Division.

Although they had scares thrown into them in both the Western Final against Saskatchewan and in Sunday’s Grey Cup game, they managed to make the critical plays when they needed them most in both those games.

When combined with their run of four-straight wins to end the 2019 season, Winnipeg is now 17-1 in games started by quarterback Zach Collaros that matter, since he was acquired in a trade with Toronto in October of 2019.

Where this Winnipeg team belongs in the annals of great CFL teams will be hotly debated, given the shortened schedule, and pandemic factors, including the high degree of turnover across most of the league beyond Winnipeg, due to the one-year layoff.

Hamilton has now lost back-to-back Grey Cup games to Winnipeg and is 0-4 in Grey Cup games since their last victory in 1999, representing the league’s longest Grey Cup drought.

And now comes the uncertainty.

Both quarterbacks Dane Evans, who left the Grey Cup game in the second quarter with a neck injury, and Masoli, who came on to replace him, are pending free agents.

Meanwhile, Hamilton’s head coach, Orlondo Steinauer, is rumoured to be a leading candidate for the vacant defensive co-ordinator position at the University of Washington.

Given the seven-figure salary that comes with that job and that Steinauer and his wife come from the Seattle area, it would surprise no one if the Tiger-Cats are in the market for a new head coach within a matter of days.

In many ways, this Grey Cup game was representative of one of the biggest challenges the CFL faces this off-season – how much to tinker with its game which suffered a decline in scoring and overall entertainment value during the regular season.

So much so that the league is preparing to strike a committee to examine every aspect of the game, including the consideration of playing a version of four-down football. While that doesn’t mean American style rules across the board, any move in that direction is the kind of thing that stirs intense debate among casual fans and anger among CFL loyalists.

The first half of Sunday’s game illustrated all that has been frustrating through much of this season – low-scoring football, dominated by defence and quarterbacks running for their lives while trying to deliver the football.

The second-half, however, demonstrated what so many love about the three-down game, as the game opened-up, with clutch plays on both sides, turning into one of the wildest finishes the Grey Cup has ever known.

How to keep those elements of the game while improving the overall will lead what is expected to be a busy off-season for the league, which also includes negotiating a new collective agreement with its players.

A year ago, no one was sure the 2021 season would be played and the existence of the CFL itself seemed in question.

And while it took a long ride to get here, a few detours and some serious looks in the mirror along the way, on Sunday, the CFL looked like the resilient league we have so long known it to be.