For all the attention that has been heaped upon Drew Willy in recent weeks, it will ultimately be the five men playing in front of the new Winnipeg Blue Bombers starting quarterback who will determine whether Willy succeeds in 2014 or is just the latest in a long line of failed Bombers pivots.
Now, it's hardly a rare insight to point out the paramount importance of pass protection in the CFL, where passing is at such a premium. And it should also hardly come as news to anyone the Bombers have been sorely lacking in that department in recent seasons, judging by the amount of time former Bombers QBs spent on their backs counting stars -- and not just the ones in the sky.
Willy said Monday he's hoping to stay more vertical than his recent predecessors, but understands some abuse from opposing defenders is just part of the job description when you line up under centre wearing Blue and Gold.
"One thing I've always prided myself on," said Willy, "is being mentally and physically tough enough to take a beating."
Well then, welcome -- you've come to the right place.
And so against the bloodied backdrop of what's happened in recent years to Willy's predecessors, it says here this season of all seasons is the one in which the much-maligned Bombers offensive line needs to put it together and give the man at the controls a fighting chance to actually take control.
Because let's face it -- with just four previous starts in his pro career, Willy is going to be learning on the job this year. And he's not going to learn much if all he sees are the eyes of defensive linemen staring back at him through his facemask.
All of which is why the Bombers brain trust have placed so much emphasis this off-season on building a better front-five.
For starters, they went out and aggressively pursued offensive line guru Bob Wylie until Wylie finally cracked and agreed to come to Winnipeg as their O-line coach.
Then Bombers GM Kyle Walters used the club's second overall pick to select centre Matthias Goossen as the kind of blue-chip Canadian hog they're hoping they can build their offensive line around for years to come.
And lastly, the Bombers coaching staff threw the whole lot into a training camp regimen that was one part blender and one part meat grinder until out the other end came what the club is hoping is a winning combination that will see the return of the veteran left side in tackle Glenn January and guard Chris Greaves, joined by a rebuilt right side of guard Patrick Neufeld and tackle Dan Knapp.
Anchoring the whole thing in the middle -- at least to start the season -- is veteran lineman Steve Morley, who moves over this year from his more customary spot at right guard to buy Goossen more time to learn the pro game.
Knapp -- a former tight end -- gives the Bomber hogs way more speed and athleticism than they've had in recent memory; January and Greaves provide a veteran and reliable presence on the left side where you need it most; and the whole unit accounts for three of the seven Canadian starter spots the Bombers must fill.
Big question marks remain, of course. But if Morley/Goossen can fill space in the middle and Neufeld can prove the Bombers front office were geniuses for taking a shot last year on a player the Saskatchewan Roughriders gave up on, then maybe, just maybe, Willy will get the chance this season to learn and grow into the potential the Bombers envision for him.
Neufeld, who played in front of Willy when both men were in Saskatchewan the past two seasons, says the Bombers pivot displays leadership skills that outstrip his modest football resume. "He's a very confident quarterback. He knows the system well, he leads well and it's exciting. I think he's done a great job so far," Neufeld said Monday following practice at Investors Group Field.
Knapp won his starting job over Jarvis Jones thanks in large part to some startling foot speed, which is on display at the end of every Bombers practice when the O-linemen stage a windsprint competition to wrap up their day. Knapp has not only never lost the race, it's never been close.
The hope is if Knapp is doing more running than Willy this season that will mean the Bombers QB is being nicely cocooned in the pocket.
"When he's back there, he's very assertive," Knapp said of Willy. "He's very good in the huddle, he's very good with the team. As far as I'm concerned, he's a vet and knows what he's doing."
Willy says all he wants out of his O-line is a continuation of what they delivered in the pre-season. "They've done a great job all training camp...They're playing well out there, but obviously we need them to stay healthy."
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