It’s their best start in nearly 60 years, they’re excelling on all three sides of the ball and they sure look like a team capable of ending Canadian football’s longest Grey Cup drought.
Yes, it’s been a good summer so far for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who roll into Hamilton Friday as the league’s only undefeated team at 5-0.
Winnipeg has dethroned Calgary as the most feared team in the CFL, the evolution of a plan that began under general manager Kyle Walters after he took over on an interim basis during a 3-15 season in 2013, then survived some lean times before turning things around with 11-7 season in 2016.
In recognition of their 5-0 start, here are five reasons the Bombers are the CFL’s best team:
1. Stability – In a league where five of the nine teams have different head coaches than they did a year ago, the Blue Bombers are in year six under head coach Mike O’Shea and year seven under Walters. Both the offensive and defensive coordinators are in their fourth seasons with the club. It’s hard to overstate the importance such stability in the coaching staff and front office because football is a game in where success is impossible without everyone being on the same page. But that rarely occurs overnight. There’s a belief that Winnipeg wasn’t far from blowing things up during a tough first half of the 2016 season.
2. Offensive balance – There is no offence in the CFL harder to anticipate than the Blue Bombers. The team combines a balance of pass/run with sharing the football among an array of playmakers who have combined for the second-most offensive points so far this season. Winnipeg has thrown the ball 131 times and run it 120 times this season. The team has been incredibly efficient through the air, leading the league in passing touchdowns and completion percentage while ranking second last in pass attempts, completions and yardage.
There are five Blue Bombers at double-digits in receptions, but none more than running back Andrew Harris, who has 23. That’s tied for seventh in the CFL, while no Blue Bomber receiver is among the top 19. Beyond being diversified in how they distribute the football, Winnipeg is the only team that’s integrated a second quarterback (Chris Streveler) into the weekly game plan.
3. Smart free agency – Free agency in football is a vastly overrated proposition that results in as much disappointment as satisfaction. But the Blue Bombers have used it to find two players who’ve shaped the identity of the team. The first is Harris, who came to his hometown following the 2015 season and after wearing out his welcome in B.C. He promised to bring a winning culture to Winnipeg and has done just that while demonstrating that, week to week, he might be the most important offensive player in the league who isn’t a quarterback. The Blue Bombers have a running back as the face of the franchise. The other is linebacker Adam Bighill, who returned from the NFL before the 2018 season like a man on a mission with a chip on his shoulder from being marginalized in New Orleans. He’s created a dynamic, athletic presence that’s become both the backbone and the identity of the defence.
4. Homegrown talent – Success in the draft has improved for Winnipeg under Walters, whose stamp on the team has included a greater emphasis on Canadian scouting. Of the 21 Canadians on the Blue Bombers’ roster, 13 are draft picks. That’s a strong showing when you consider the amount of roster shuffling in today’s CFL. The Blue Bombers have had success with players who are from, or who played university football in, the province: Harris, Nic Demski, Kienan LaFrance and Geoff Gray are just some of the Manitoba guys who have been important pieces.
5. The evolution of Matt Nichols – It’s time we give Nichols his due. Consistently rated below the league’s elite tier of quarterbacks, he’s never been about gaudy stats or seen as the kind of player who could lead a quick-strike offence. That’s changed this season as the Blue Bombers have nine passing plays of 30 yards or more so far this season and a league-leading 13 touchdowns through the air. None of that willingness to push the ball down the field has come at the expense of ball security, as Nichols has a stunning 12:1 touchdown to interception ratio this season.
Kavis Reed’s Montreal Legacy
It’s ironic that the firing of Kavis Reed occurred in the midst of Montreal’s first three-game win streak since he took over as general manager before the 2017 season.
After years of struggle, the Alouettes are rounding into a legitimate playoff threat in the East Division, knocking off Hamilton, Ottawa and Edmonton in succession.
Reed has to get a strong share of the credit for what’s occurring this season since this roster is his creation, including a core of Canadian players Montreal drafted and developed in-house. If Reed did in fact have a three-year plan, well, that plan appears to be arriving right on time.
But there is reason to believe it could have happened sooner if Reed hadn’t been committed to so many veterans during his first season in charge in 2017, when the Als had the league’s oldest roster and worst record. Perhaps there was pressure from ownership to reach the playoffs that season, but an opportunity was missed to go young sooner and grow from there.
Reed was aggressive in free agency, including spending on American veterans, where there is rarely value on the open market. Still, at least this past off-season, he was able to improve the roster by signing players whose teams could no longer afford to keep them.
Reed may be best remembered for two moves that didn’t pan-out – the hiring of head coach Mike Sherman and the trade that landed quarterback Johnny Manziel almost exactly one year ago.
The hiring of Sherman, a former Green Bay Packers and Texas A&M University head coach, was a shocker because coaches with his resume don’t often end up in the CFL. If the move was meant to impress ownership it certainly did that, as was obvious at Sherman’s introductory news conference.
Unfortunately, Sherman was a fish out of water in the CFL. He never really seemed to embrace or understand his new environment, which is hardly his fault. Quietly, there were those within the organization who hoped he’d leave after one year. When he didn’t, they fired him near the end of training camp.
The Manziel deal was a desperate play by a desperate team, but it wasn’t a completely unreasonable gamble. But given the circumstances of the trade occurring one-third of the way through the season and Montreal’s lack of offensive talent, Manziel had no chance of immediate success. Then he got himself banned from the league last winter before getting a chance to apply what he learned in his rookie season.
Trading for Manziel wasn’t the worst idea in the world, but doing so without mitigating any of the risk was a mistake. Everyone knew Manziel was a risk, including the Tiger-Cats, which is why Reed should have put conditions on some of the assets he was trading to Hamilton.
Montreal would be in a better situation today if Reed had promised a first-round pick if Manziel was on the roster for Week 1 of the 2019 season and another if he was on the final week’s roster.
It wouldn’t have made the trade a good one, but it would have mitigated some of the damage.
Mitchell making progress
Bo Levi Mitchell flew to California this week for a cortisone shot. All indications are he’s progressing well and his pectoral muscle on his throwing side is almost healed. He’s eligible to practice the week leading up to the Aug. 8 game against Winnipeg and play against Montreal on Aug. 17.
Holding him out another week would provide two extra weeks of rest however, as the Stampeders are off after that game until their Sept. 2 Labour Day matchup with Edmonton.
Mitchell’s time on the six-game injured list will save the Stampeders one third of his annual salary off the cap (which is about $133,000, based on $700,000 salary, roughly $300,000 of which was paid in signing bonus), which would certainly come in handy if Alex Singleton is to come free from the Philadelphia Eagles in a few weeks.
Reilly’s late-game heroics
Mike Reilly may be the toughest quarterback in the CFL but he’s not proving anything by finishing games that are out of reach except that he and the Lions aren’t very good at calculating risk-reward.
What is the upside of Reilly playing the full fourth quarter of a three-score game against Saskatchewan last week? You could argue more reps and an opportunity to build continuity, but beyond whatever incremental gain that represents, there would seem to be nothing.
The downside? Picking up an injury and losing any chance of recovering a 1-5 start to the season.
Chapman done with football
It appears that the no. 1 pick of the 2018 CFL Draft will never play a down in the CFL.
Central Michigan receiver Mark Chapman avoided signing with Hamilton last spring, then spent last summer with the NFL’s Denver Broncos. When that didn’t pan out, he signed in the AAF but never put on uniform in that league.
His agent, Fred Weinrauch, and the Tiger-Cats say Chapman isn’t currently focused on football.
The first-overall picks from 2016 and 2017 (OL Josiah St. John and DL Faith Ekakitie) both played in the CFL but are no longer in the league.