Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Posted: 07/17/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0
The Bombers' quick turnaround to open 2014 -- their 3-0 start means they have already matched last season's measly win total -- is a heckuva story. In fact, next to the return of football to Ottawa, it might be THE biggest CFL story to start this campaign.
But even with the club unbeaten through three games and even with Drew Willy looking like the QB saviour fans in these parts have been praying for, the game is not officially a sellout. As of late Wednesday afternoon the ticket total had hit 29,100 -- still short of the 33,500 capacity at Investors Group Field.
All of this says a few things about this town and its football team, first and foremost this: Winning just nine games in the last two years while becoming the CFL's laughingstock is an ugly stain that isn't easy to scrub out of the carpet.
And so, clearly the Bombers have some work to do in selling the fans on the 2014 edition as well as changing fans' habits about the game-day experience at the new building.
Step one in that solution?
"It just means we've got to keep winning until it's full," said Willy. "It's like that in any pro sport. If you win, they'll definitely be there. They want to see a good product and we want to have a good product so let's just make sure we're doing the right things to win the game."
Yes, as much as winning can gloss over a lot of flaws, constant butt-kickings in which even the most faithful fan has his/her loyalty shaken can grind down people. The Bombers have had two sellouts in the first year and a bit of IGF -- the opener last season and Banjo Bowl. But they've also played 11 games at the new building and have just a 3-8 record, albeit 2-0 this season.
"I guess people just want to get to the cabins a bit earlier," said Bomber tackle Glenn January of the early-season fan response.
"We've got fans that have supported us through a lot of down times. This is a place that people are scared to come and play because of how loud our fans can get. I understand there may be some people that are a bit hesitant to jump back on the bandwagon. But our goal is to put forth a quality product.
"And we believe over time we may be able to make amends for our past mistakes."
Both Willy and Eskimo pivot Mike Reilly have earned their places behind centre by working up through the ranks to earn starting jobs after years of being groomed by those ahead of them. The curious part is neither is now calling the shots for the teams that first brought them north to Canada, Willy by the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Reilly by the B.C. Lions.
But now they are getting the chances to run their own shows, the fireworks are flying. Both are willing to take a shot to deliver a shot, both are effective runners in the open field and both have an infectious leadership style.
"They're both leaders, making sure people are in the right places and doing the right things," said Bomber receiver Nick Moore, who played with Reilly in B.C. and now with Willy here. "They're both great players, as you can see. There were questions about both of them when they were getting their first starts. Mike had a rough year last year but he came out on top by being the toughest player in the league and he's bounced back this season.
"And Drew, his play has spoken for itself. Two come-from-behind wins and one very impressive win at the beginning of the year."
No quarterback who wants to live through his next outing will call out the men in front of him along the offensive line. That's an invitation to being fed a steady dose of 'look out!' blocks from the big eaters up front.
But one of the juicy subplots to this Bomber-Eskimo tilt will play out in the trenches. The Bombers have surrendered 10 sacks in three games, third-most, and Willy has taken some jaw-rattling shots.
Meanwhile, Edmonton's defence is second in the CFL with 13 sacks (Saskatchewan has 14) and, as a result of that pressure, they also lead the league with a whopping eight interceptions. Odell Willis, the former Mayor of Swaggerville has three sacks, while Almondo Sewell leads the league in QB kills with five; three coming last week against Ottawa. That was enough to earn him the CFL defensive player of the week honours.
"It's a good feeling," said Sewell. "It felt good for about a day and then I got over it. It's a long season. I've got five sacks now, but I might not get any for the rest of the year. I have to keep my playing at the same level, I have to keep the same ol' routine I do every single morning: wake up at 5:30, at the stadium by 6:15 watching games... nothing ever changes about me."
Seven different Esks have already registered sacks this season as Chris Jones' defence brings pressure from all over the field.
Both Gary Etcheverry and Jones, the respective defensive co-ordinators, should consider the "unusual" and "unorthodox" labels as compliments, especially in a business where ideas are stolen and repeated so often. What makes these defences so unique is where and from whom the pressure comes on every play. That makes quarterbacks squirm and it can put offences on their collective heels. Winnipeg's parts-moving-all-over defence has been well-documented.
"Chris Jones, he's kinda crazy with his defence," said Romby Bryant. "As much as I think I know about it, I don't know anything."
Asked what makes the Jones scheme so "crazy," Bryant grinned and said:
"Have you seen it? You never know what they're going to do. They just line up in a bunch of different places. But at the end of the day, it's football. One man's guarding you, it's either zone or man, that's pretty much what you've got to read."
The Bombers are the only CFL team to win this season when losing the turnover battle in a game. In fact, they've already done it twice this year (in the last two games) after going a pathetic 4-51 since 2008 when committing more turnovers.
What makes that significant is this: Edmonton's 13 forced turnovers -- and +9 ratio -- is by far the best in the CFL. Being that careless with the ball against this crew is like dousing yourself with gasoline and then strolling through a pyromaniacs' convention.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @WFPEdTait
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 17, 2014 D7
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