Five takeaways from Bombers’ best playoff push since 2011

It was another disappointing finish to a CFL season for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, whose bid for a Grey Cup vanished late Sunday following a 22-14 loss to the Calgary Stampeders in the West Division final at McMahon Stadium.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/11/2018 (1540 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was another disappointing finish to a CFL season for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, whose bid for a Grey Cup vanished late Sunday following a 22-14 loss to the Calgary Stampeders in the West Division final at McMahon Stadium.

The Bombers were considered underdogs, but given how the regular season unfolded and with a solid victory in enemy territory over the Saskatchewan Roughriders, their fate still seemed somewhat undeserved.

Calgary advances to its third-straight appearance in the Grey Cup this Sunday, a rematch of the 2016 title game with the East Division champion Ottawa Redblacks once again providing the opposition.

Winnipeg finished the regular season at 10-8, worse than the two previous years (12-6 in 2017 and 11-7 in ’16). Still, a late surge down the final stretch pushed the Bombers into third place in a competitive West, and a victory over 12-6 Saskatchewan in the semifinal only strengthened the case that, perhaps, this was the year the decades-long championship drought would end.

Instead, it’s now 28 years and counting since the Bombers last hoisted the Grey Cup. While next year will surely bring a new sense of optimism for breaking that dreadful streak, it will take some time before the thoughts of what could have been finally subside.

Until then, here are five key takeaways from the Bombers’ 2018 campaign.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Winnipeg Blue Bombers defence huddles up at practice.

A STRONG BOND

For years, players have talked about the close bonds formed inside the Bombers locker room and how special the football culture is under head coach Mike O’Shea.

When the Bombers re-shaped their team in 2016, adding some key pieces – including running back Andrew Harris, receiver Weston Dressler and safety Taylor Loffler, among others – it marked the start of turnaround in River City. Two straight years the Bombers made it to the playoffs after a four-year absence, and the club truly believed this time around, with those lesson learned from the previous seasons, would propel them to a championship.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Andrew Harris is consoled by teammate Thomas Miles after losing to the Calgary Stampeders in the CFL West Final in Calgary, Sunday.

“Completely different. That’s the biggest thing that hurts is you know that it’s not going to be the same,” Harris said, when asked about this year compared to the other two seasons he’s been in Winnipeg. “You get to know guys for three years, you get to bond with them, you get to share experiences and you fight through adversity. I’ve been talking about it being more than football since I’ve been here and it truly is more than football to me. I just feel like I let people down today, we let a city down today and it’s a lot of burden right now.”

The team grew together when it was dealt an early blow, losing No. 1 quarterback Matt Nichols for the first three games to a knee injury. The group stuck together through a midseason, four-game losing streak that dropped it to 5-7 and last place in the West. And again the Bombers rode the emotional rollercoaster hand-in-hand back to a playoff spot with a five-game winning streak that followed.

It will be a tough task to keep many of the faces around next year. With a collective bargaining agreement set to expire next May and players weary of inking contracts before a deal is reached, the Bombers have a total of 32 players that are pending free agents. They’re not alone in having to re-sign dozens of guys, but that doesn’t mean they won’t face a major facelift next season.

ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Bombers defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall saw Winnipeg’s defence become one of the league’s best this season.

D FINDS ITS GROOVE

Bombers defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall likely saved his job after guiding a stellar Bombers defence the past seven months. Back in May, as training camp opened and with the first game still weeks away, fans were consistent in their criticism of O’Shea’s decision to for retaining Hall another year.

After all, the Bombers defence was ranked near the bottom in every statistical category besides turnovers the previous two seasons. With a number of all-stars in the lineup during those years, many argued it was scheme and not personnel that was the problem. This year, however, Winnipeg’s defensive unit rose to become one of the league’s best, transitioning from a slow starter into a fierce finisher in 2018, including another impressive performance on Sunday against the Stampeders where it limited a prolific Calgary offence to just 274 net yards.

Under Hall, the defence remained ball hawks, tying Calgary with a plus-13 turnover ratio. Winnipeg recovered the most fumbles (18) meanwhile and its 20 interceptions tied Edmonton for third most – just one fewer than both Saskatchewan and B.C.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Taylor Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Brandon Bridge tries to evade Winnipeg Blue Bombers linebacker Adam Bighill during the West Division semi-final in Regina.

The defence made major improvements in other areas, too. The Bombers averaged 50 fewer yards-against per game, jumping from second-last in the CFL in 2017 to middle of the pack this year. Last season, Winnipeg averaged a CFL-worst 321.6 passing-yards against, but that number dramatically improved to 267.4 yards this year.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Bombers averaged two more rushing yards against per game compared to last year, jumping from to 99.2 from 96.7 in 2017. But that was more a reflection of the entire league allowing more damage on the ground, as the Bombers jumped to third-best against the run this year compared to third-worst last season.

The addition of middle linebacker Adam Bighill was the biggest factor, personnel-wise, for the improvement. Bighill registered 105 defensive tackles, behind only Calgary’s Alex Singleton (123) and Montreal’s Henoc Muamba (108). He’s a favourite to win the CFL’s defensive player of the year award next week. But with an expiring contract and a hefty raise due – he was paid $175,000 this year – there’s no guarantee he’s back next season.

OFFENSIVE BLAME GAME

What made this season so disappointing was that it was the offence – a group that carried the Bombers the last two years – that regressed to the point where it relied too heavily on the defence to win games.

John Woods / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols completed 15 of 32 pass attempts in the Western Final, Sunday.

Winnipeg still averaged the most points in the CFL, with its offence putting up 28.2 points per game. It should be noted here, though, that no other offence benefitted more from turnovers than the Bombers, who had a league-best 151 points off takeaways.

Harris, 31, backed by arguably the CFL’s top offensive lines, led the league in rushing for a second straight year and continues to get better with age. Darvin Adams was the best receiver in a rather underwhelming crew at times, posting his second of back-to-back seasons with at least 1,000 receiving yard.

What will be most scrutinized in the coming months is the play of Nichols. The 31-year-old QB’s stats weren’t exactly jaw-dropping in this third season at the controls, recording just one 300-yard passing game this year. He was fifth in the CFL in passing yards (3,146), touchdowns (18) and quarterback efficiency rating (91).

Nichols completed just 47 per cent of his passes (15-for-32) in the West final, good for just 156 yards. None of the strikes went for touchdowns. Blame should also fall on the shoulders of offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice, who appeared to abandon much of what made this offence successful this year, including running a few misdirection plays despite the Bombers practising them every week.

THE YOUTH MOVEMENT

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Bombers sophomore receiver Drew Wolitarsky hauled in five touchdowns this season.

Each season, teams rely on first- and second-year players to elevate their games, and that happened in Winnipeg as a several young players on offence and defence took notable steps in 2018.

Receiver Drew Wolitarsky emerged as a reliable threat in just his second year with the club, and first as a starter. After catching just one ball for 15 yards in his rookie campaign, the 23-year-old reeled in 45 receptions for 650 yards and five touchdowns during the regular seaon and then added a TD in the playoff victory over the Roughriders.

Backup quarterback Chris Streveler, 23, also was a welcomed surprise. He started the first three games of the season, and though he finished 1-2 over that stretch he became the first quarterback in CFL history to come straight from college and throw for three touchdowns in each of his first two games. He finished the season with 11 passing touchdowns – two better than Saskatchewan starter Zach Collaros – and rushed for 10 more as the team’s short-yardage QB.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh Bombers rookie quarterback Chris Streveler was a welcomed surprise.

The Bombers also liked what they got from two Canadian receivers – rookies Daniel Petermann and Raushaun Simonise, both of whom were drafted in May. The organizations expects both to assume bigger roles next year.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Jovan Santos-Knox benefitted from his time playing next to Adam Bighill.

On defence, 24-year-old defensive back Marcus Sayles turned some heads around the league and was named the Bombers’ rookie of the year after a stellar season. He played in 16 games, registering three interceptions, two forced fumbles and 72 defensive tackles, including one quarterback sack.

Linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox also had a breakout season, with the second-year weak-side linebacker certainly benefitting from playing next to Bighill. Santos-Knox, who was ruled out for the playoffs with a broken bone in his left foot, racked up 82 defensive tackles – the eighth most in the CFL – two forced fumbles and six quarterback sacks.

O’SHEA ON THE HOT SEAT?

Messages littered on social media and callers to sport radio shows demanded O’Shea be fired immediately following the loss to the Stampeders. There have been steady cries for change at the end of nearly every one of the five seasons he has stood on the sidelines. But once again O’Shea is expected to return for another year.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Winnipeg Blue Bombers Head Coach Mike O'Shea has a regular-season record of 45-45.

Since taking over in 2014, O’Shea has compiled a regular-season record of 45-45, and has won just one playoff game in three visits to the postseason. He has posted a winning record in each of the last three regular seasons but hasn’t been able to reach a Grey Cup in any of those campaigns.

The biggest argument against replacing O’Shea now is the organization already has a busy off-season ahead, as teams scramble to put together rosters that have dozens of pending free agents. If there’s one thing he has on his side it’s an ability to recruit talent – players want to play for him.

But not many coaches get six seasons to make a notable playoff run. In fact, only two others in franchise history have coached the Bombers for at least six years — the legendary Bud Grant, who coached from 1958 to 1966 and won four Grey Cups, and Dave Ritchie (1999-2004) — and it’s hard to imagine O’Shea getting a seventh if he can’t at least get the Bombers to the Grey Cup in 2019.

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

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