CALGARY -- Just like that, a pre-season that had barely begun for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers is already over. Sort of.
Thanks to a quirky pre-season schedule that saw the Bombers play both their pre-season games in the span of five days last week, Saturday's 23-20 loss to the Calgary Stampeders at McMahon Stadium means the Bombers are done, even as the other eight teams in the league play over the course of the next week.
The scheduling quirk is the result of the addition of a ninth franchise in Ottawa, which meant someone was going to have to go first -- and finish first -- and the Bombers drew that straw.
Winnipeg head coach Mike O'Shea said he thinks there are pros and cons to Winnipeg having its pre-season schedule end so early and having almost two weeks to prepare for their regular-season opener June 26 at home against the Toronto Argonauts.
"Those 12 days (between games) will help us get healthy and help us prepare for Week 1," said O'Shea. "But it will also drag on for the players. The players, once they start playing, they want to keep playing. And play and play and play on a regular basis. And sometimes they don't even mind the short weeks because they just want to play.
"The practising, especially if you're doing it 12 days in a row, can be a little monotonous."
With their pre-season schedule now behind them, this seems like a good time to take inventory of what we've learned about the new Bombers team so far:
1. Drew Willy looks like a starter.
It was the biggest question coming into training camp -- Can Willy graduate from being a guy who started just four games over two seasons in his pro career in Saskatchewan to being the full-time starter for Winnipeg?
The early returns suggest he's not in over his head. Willy played a combined three-and-a-half quarters in the pre-season, most of it against first-team defences, and his combined numbers over those two games -- 20-of-35 for 280 yards -- suggest he can compete.
Yes, he threw only one touchdown pass in the pre-season and, by his own admission, too many of his drives stalled. Willy also didn't throw any interceptions or make any costly mistakes and he showed several times that he has the kind of quick feet you need to get yourself out of trouble in the CFL.
2. The kickers can kick.
The Bombers placekickers -- Brett Maher and Lirim Hajrullahu -- were perfect on field goals in the pre-season, going a combined 7-for-7. Both hit twice from the 40-yard line and beyond and they also showed the ability to make distance on kickoffs, something that was always a problem for the Bombers under previous kicker Justin Palardy.
They also punted for distance and accuracy against Toronto, although it was veteran Mike Renaud who was the clear winner of the punting battle in the Calgary game, nailing three of them for a 49.3 yard average in what was Renaud's pre-season debut.
Yes, Renaud's average was inflated by a 59-yard single in Calgary, but the fact he even got that particular ball away while under siege by the Stampeders' rush was a win for him too.
This looks like one of the toughest decisions the Bombers brain trust will have to make.
3. The backup battle rages on.
With so much attention on Willy as the starter, the battle for who will be his backup this season kind of flew under the radar. If there's anything Bombers fans learned during the years Buck Pierce was the No. 1 guy, it's you'd better have a competent backup in the CFL because odds are your starter is going to get hurt at some point.
So who's it going to be? Well, both Robert Marve and Brian Brohm have impressed at times and led touchdown drives -- Marve against Toronto, Brohm against Calgary. The veteran Max Hall, meanwhile, put up anemic numbers all pre-season and threw a terrible interception late in the fourth quarter against Calgary that may have cost the Bombers the game.
4. The defence has a lot of work to do.
The Argos put up 358 yards against the Bombers defence without even using their Hall of Fame starter Ricky Ray in the pre-season opener.
The Calgary first-team offence did much the same Saturday night, picking apart the Bombers defence at will for much of the first half. (Stamps tailback Jon Cornish had 52 yards on just four first-quarter carries, begging the question, what kind of mind-boggling numbers Cornish might have put up had he stayed in the game?)
It takes awhile to install a new defence -- particularly one as unconventional as the one new Bombers defensive co-ordinator Gary Etcheverry is introducing -- but time's running out.
5. At least they try hard.
It's one thing to be lovable losers who try hard but just aren't good enough to win. It's quite another to be lousy and gutless.
Last year's 3-15 Bombers club was the latter -- a bad team with a weirdly cocky attitude and no heart. This year's squad looks like the worst case will be they're the former -- a bunch that leaves it all out on the field every game and runs through walls for O'Shea, but still comes up short on the scoreboard more often than not.
Will they be better than last year? Probably. Will they try harder than last year? Absolutely.
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