Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bombers exorcise demons

Key to success for Blue is lack of locker-room killjoys: players

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It's an image that still causes many to vigorously give their head a shake and rub their eyes before a second look.

Right there in the black and white of the CFL standings are the Winnipeg Blue Bombers atop the West Division with a 5-1 record. This is the same organization, it bears reminding here, that won all of three games last season and was an absolutely pathetic 9-27 over the last two seasons.

And so as this squad has reached the one-third mark of the 2014 campaign there are any number of theories being floated as to what has sparked the Bombers' astonishing turnaround.

The easy answer is to point at quarterback Drew Willy, named Tuesday as the CFL's Offensive Player of the Week for the second time already this season.

Lots of folks, and rightfully so, are also tipping their caps in the direction of head coach Mike O'Shea, GM Kyle Walters and big boss man Wade Miller for their imprint at the top of the football operations department.

But here's another take, courtesy of defensive tackle Bryan Turner, a man who survived last year's disaster to offer an intriguing comparison:

"This really is one of the best group of guys I've ever been around," began Turner after practice Tuesday.

"We have no cancers. We have no one going against the system. Whatever we say we want to do, no one goes against it. Everybody is hands in and for it.

"You can say that's happening just because we're winning, but I don't think that. Everybody here has been around football teams all our lives. You can find the guys that go against things whether you're winning or losing. We don't have those guys. We've looked for them in our room, but we haven't found them and we won't find them.

"We just don't have them."

It's true, losing can bring out the ugly in folks. And winning can be contagious. So while it might seem like early-season hyperbole, excuse some of those who have survived the nightmares of the last couple of campaigns if they don't wish to soak up these moments for all they're worth right now.

"It's night and day. It's fun this year," said receiver Clarence Denmark. "Coming to work every day is fun. It has to be, even though it's a job and it's stressful.

"The whole atmosphere was changed right from the first day of training camp. You could see a change, you could see things being done differently.

"Our attitude this year, it's a winning attitude. It's way better. We work hard in practice and then on game day we expect to win."

That's been a common refrain through the first six weeks of the season, as the Bombers have touched on immeasurable intangibles such as buy-in and work ethic.

It's the kind of stuff that gets tossed out when a ship is riding high and is lost when the crew is panicking to plug holes in the hull.

But as the club is through a third of the season, here are some of the more-concrete numbers behind the Bombers' 5-1 start:

 

THREE KEYS TO 5-1

QB1

-- Pardon us for playing the role of Captain Obvious here, but Drew Willy has done in six games what the Bombers have spent the last couple of years desperately seeking: he's brought stability to the most-important spot on the depth chart.

Willy has already thrown for 1,662 yards with seven TDs against four picks. A year ago, the Bombers headed into their seventh game by handing the starting QB chores to Max Hall -- this after Buck Pierce (4) and Justin Goltz (2) had started in the first six games.

No one player better represents the upward arrow than the Bombers' new QB1.

 

MORE THOROUGHBREDS

-- The quote that best described 2013 -- and helps explain the start of 2014 -- came from former Bomber coach Tim Burke last summer when he said, "You can't win the Kentucky Derby with a mule."

Management made the deal to land Willy this winter, traded for shutdown corner Chris Randle, welcomed back defensive lineman Jason Vega and signed receiver Nick Moore in free agency to bring in some 'name' CFL talent. But it's the play of some of the less-heralded additions -- Matt Bucknor, Bruce Johnson, Moe Leggett, Nic Grigsby, Lirim Hajrullahu, among others -- that has considerably cranked up the overall talent level.

 

A DEFENSIVE IDENTITY

-- Building a dominant defence isn't complicated, although the Bombers certainly made it seem so over the past couple of years. Teams need a shutdown corner -- hello, Chris Randle -- they need to pressure the quarterback -- Winnipeg's 20 sacks is second to Saskatchewan's 21 -- and be solid up the middle to stop the run -- the Bombers are third-best against the rush.

Gary Etcheverry's defence may be difficult to describe, but it's a nightmare to line up against.

 

THREE TRENDS TO KEEP AN EYE ON

THE TURNOVER RATIO

The Bombers are -1 in the takeaway/giveaway category, a surprising total in their 5-1 start. There's a playing-with-fire element to this number, based on history. Consider that the Bombers are 3-1 in games in which they've committed more turnovers than they've forced this year. And what's significant about that total? All told, the nine CFL teams are a combined 3-21 this year in games in which they've turned the ball over more.

 

SPECIAL PENALTIES

-- Winnipeg averages 85 yards per game in penalties, the fewest in the CFL. That's a good thing. What's disturbing is this: of the 57 infractions the Bombers have committed, 25 have come on special teams (17 on offence; 15 on defence). That's a whole pile of field position lost.

 

GROUND CONTROL

-- Willy & Co. have flashed a flair for the dramatic, twice passing for late scores in wins over Montreal and Hamilton. But when the leaves turn, running attacks are critical and the Bomber ground game has been spotty. In fact, Winnipeg ranks dead last in rushing yards per game at 73.8 and it's not just the inability to consistently move the ball along the ground that has been an issue, it's moving the pile in those critical short-yardage situations.

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 6, 2014 D1

History

Updated on Wednesday, August 6, 2014 at 1:00 PM CDT: corrects typo

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