Grass is greener in Bomberland Chance at three-peat, tight-knit atmosphere has players passing on free agency to remain with Blue and Gold

It might be buried under approximately 50 feet of snow right now, but there’s no question the CFL grass is definitely greener here in good ol’ River City.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/02/2022 (244 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It might be buried under approximately 50 feet of snow right now, but there’s no question the CFL grass is definitely greener here in good ol’ River City.

How else to explain the job president Wade Miller, general manager Kyle Walters and head coach Mike O’Shea have done this unrelenting winter keeping the Blue Bombers band mostly intact despite nearly every player being able to test the (completely frozen) free-agent waters beginning next week.

Although they have to play by the same set of salary cap rules as their cohorts across the land, the so-called “Canadian Mafia” have seen a flood of fan favourites coming back to kiss their Grey Cup rings.

Quarterback Zach Collaros has led to Bombers to two straight Grey Cup wins and will be around to try and win at least one more. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Zach Collaros, Willie Jefferson, Adam Bighill, Jackson Jeffcoat, Stanley Bryant, Jake Thomas, Patrick Neufeld, Geoff Gray, Drew Wolitarsky, Winston Rose, Rasheed Bailey, Michael Couture and Johnny Augustine are among the players who would be hot commodities on the open market. And yet, all have signed on the dotted line to remain in the fold, with the goal of trying to turn back-to-back championships into a rare three-peat. And, in the process, make a compelling argument that we might just have a modern-day football dynasty in the making.

It’s remarkable when you think just how far this franchise has come. For the longest stretch, they were the laughingstock of the league that seemingly couldn’t do anything right. Now, they are the crown jewel of the three-down loop that some are literally willing to take pay cuts in order to play for.

The on-field success is the primary reason, of course. Everybody loves a winner, but it’s a lot more complicated than that. As much as they wished they could have, Miller, Walters and O’Shea didn’t just flip a switch and right the ship overnight. There was dysfunction, countless dark days and instability that preceded their arrival in 2013 and couldn’t immediately be erased. This was a long, at times painful process, one which required plenty of patience that had already worn rather thin around here.

Credit to the trio for keeping their eyes on the ultimate prize, ignoring the outside noise and never straying off course. We often hear in sports about the importance of building a winning culture and a positive environment. Look no further than what they’ve established down at IG Field, which has become a regular talking point over the past couple of weeks whenever the latest big name has come off the open market.

“As far as maximizing value, no, I don’t think I maximized my value. I think the only way you can do that is by going to free agency,” Bighill, the CFL’s reigning top defensive player, candidly admitted last month.

“There’s a lot more that goes into it for me… I do like being in Winnipeg and I love the fanbase, I love the community, I love being a big part of this franchise. I put a lot of value into those, I guess is what I am saying, as opposed to contract dollars in some respects. There’s a comfort in knowing how green your grass is as opposed to looking elsewhere. There’s that sense of comfort knowing you don’t have to adapt and adjust and go through a different process of acclimating somewhere else.”

Defensive lineman Willie Jefferson and his family are house hunting in Winnipeg. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

As cliched as it may be — and at the risk of getting overly warm and fuzzy in what is often a cold, cruel business — there really does appear to be a tight-knit family atmosphere surrounding the organization. That’s not easy to achieve in a sporting environment, where big egos can get easily bruised, competition is fierce and there’s always someone gunning for your job.

Somehow, someway, they’ve found the magic formula and been able to bottle it up.

“I felt like Winnipeg really showed that they cared about me and wanted me to be in Winnipeg. I think that’s more important than any amount of money that I could get if I went to free agency and went to another team,” said Jeffcoat.

“I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else and, for one, start that entire process over again, but I just can’t imagine there being better people to be around to chase after these goals that we have,” added Collaros.

Some, like Jefferson, are planting permanent roots, as he, his wife Holly and their young daughter, Kelley go house hunting this spring. When your best ambassadors are your best players, you know you’ve created something pretty darn special.

It can’t all be sunshine and rainbows, of course. There’s still only so much cash to go around, and nobody would begrudge an athlete for trying to take advantage of their all-too-short careers by making their paycheque the top priority. The Bombers could very well lose a few key players once free agency begins next Tuesday, with Kenny Lawler and Andrew Harris being at the top of the list.

Linebacker Adam Bighill re-signed with the Bombers. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Lawler, who led the league in receiving yards last season, reportedly has a $250,000 offer on the table from British Columbia which would make him the highest paid non-quarterback in the CFL. The Bombers, as much as they’d like to, simply can’t match that kind of payday for the 27-year-old.

Assuming he’s not ready to hang up his cleats, the 35-year-old Harris still has plenty to offer provided he can stay healthy. But with Augustine re-upping on Thursday, and local product Brady Oliveira also needing a new deal, Walters recently admitted keeping all three running backs in the fold “would be a tough one.”

“Yeah, it’s a painful process. It’s not fun,” Walters told scribes in a recent chat about trying to ensure everyone gets their fair share of a limited pie. Success, as he rightfully noted, brings about it’s own set of problems.

“Going through this every single year and trying to piece your team together, it’s beneficial for the teams that maybe didn’t have very good years and need to flip their roster… But it is tough for the teams that have had some success to try to keep everybody together,” he said.

Still, the Bombers have plenty to offer that the other eight teams simply can’t. A blueprint for recent success that is unmatched, an atmosphere that has the vast majority leaping at the opportunity to stay, a community that truly feels like home and no shortage of first-person testimonials. Throw in a reasonable cost of living and the potential of playoff bonuses padding their salary, and the Bombers should be able to nicely fill any roster holes that emerge through free-agent shopping.

And once all this white stuff eventually melts — it’s bound to be gone by opening night in June, right? — there’s no reason to believe the Blue & Gold won’t be seeing plenty of green once again this coming season.

Defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat has been on the team since 2017. (Alex Lupul / Winnipeg Free Press files)

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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