June 23, 2017

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Can we get you anything else, O'Shea? No? Godspeed, sir

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea.</p>

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea.

He has a tested, proven, experienced starting quarterback.

He has the best kicker in the league.

He has an experienced offensive line and an upgraded defensive line that will give him a chance to control both sides of the line of scrimmage most nights.

He has a wealth of Canadian talent and a ratio breaker at running back who gives him uncommon flexibility.

He has three years of valuable on-the-job training that now includes the hard lessons learned from a heart-breaking — and, I’d argue, self-inflicted — loss in last November’s West semifinal.

And he has job security, having signed a shiny new three-year contract extension in the off-season.

Add it all up and there’s one other thing Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea also has heading into the 2017 CFL season: a shortage of excuses.

It is "put up or shut up" time for O’Shea as the Bombers head into Thursday evening’s pre-season home opener against the Edmonton Eskimos with a team assembled by GM Kyle Walters that looks — on paper — to be the first legitimate Grey Cup contender in this town in a decade.

Walters has more than held up his end; the question heading into Thursday's action is whether O’Shea can do the same.

And make no mistake, that is still very much an open question.

The esteemed editor of this sports section will tell you that O’Shea is poised to have his coming-out party as a head coach in 2017. I’m more skeptical, but that argument goes like this:

A rookie head coach when he took over the reins of the Bombers in 2014, O’Shea has grown into the job over the course of three seasons, learning from his successes and (mostly) failures to reach a point where he is now battle-tested to lead the best roster he’s ever had to a championship.

Sounds good, right?

Well, he’d better deliver that championship, because I’d argue that both O’Shea and the Bombers have reached a standing in this town where anything less than a Grey Cup party at Portage and Main at the end of November will be regarded as an abject failure by supporters and detractors alike.

That’s a nasty ultimatum — win it all, or you’re a failure — and it’s probably unfair. But it’s also where this team and this head coach find themselves in a community that is showing, through a steady decline in attendance at Investors Group Field the past three seasons, the first signs of finally having its patience worn beyond the breaking point.

And little wonder. There is no fan base in the CFL — and only a handful in all of professional sports — that has been tested the way Blue Bombers believers have during a championship drought entering its 27th season.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have now won five Stanley Cups in less time than it’s been since the Bombers last celebrated a Grey Cup victory — in a CFL that, for most of the period, had just eight teams. Think about that for a moment.

Almost any other fan base would have given up and walked away years ago, yet the Bombers' faithful were asked over the last three seasons to be even more patient by a new regime promising that this time they really would get it right; this time ticket-buyers' patience finally would be rewarded.

Well, tick-tock, fellas.

O’Shea’s record as Bombers head coach his first three seasons is a cumulative 23-31 in the regular season.

The Bombers have still yet to post a winning record at Investors Group Field — even last year’s 11-7 squad went 4-5 at home — and Winnipeg is now 10-17 at IGF under O’Shea.

And then there’s the debacle of last year’s playoff loss to the B.C. Lions, in which the Bombers blew a 25-6 halftime lead and ended up losing 32-31 when — with the game on the line late in the fourth quarter — O’Shea elected a bizarre 61-yard field goal attempt — that would have been historic if it had actually made it through the uprights — instead of simply gambling on third-and-four.

The field-goal attempt was the better part of 15 yards short and Twitter almost crumpled under the weight of calls for O'Shea's dismissal from belligerent Bombers fans.

Instead of heeding those calls, CEO Wade Miller gave O’Shea a three-year contract extension four weeks later, urging fans to be — you guessed it — patient just a little while longer.

All of which brings us to this week and a team that has one more pre-season chance Thursday night to get things right before the season begins in earnest.

All eyes at IGF will be on O’Shea — and not just because he will be wearing the most loathed pair of shorts inside the Perimeter Highway.

In his first year at the helm, O’Shea got a pass for missing the playoffs with a 7-11 record, because the team he took over was historically bad.

And then O’Shea got a pass in Year 2, despite missing the playoffs again by backpedalling to 5-13 because he lost his starting quarterback midway through the campaign.

And then in Year 3, O’Shea got a pass because he was able to argue that regardless of how he handled those final minutes of the West semifinal, his team had taken a major step forward by earning the its first playoff berth in five years.

But the buck stops in Year 4. O’Shea now has every tool a head coach in the CFL needs to be successful, including the rarest commodity of all: job security.

Put up. Or shut up. It's getting close to kickoff.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Read more by Paul Wiecek.

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