Shock and disbelief Plenty of blame to go around for Bombers’ subpar Grey Cup performance
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REGINA — It’s a pill that will take months to swallow and game film that will be equally as tough to digest.
Following one of their best regular seasons in the team’s 92-year history, including a franchise-best 15 wins compared to three losses, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers waited for the worst possible time to fall apart.
Costly mistakes, some questionable play-calling and a lack of execution in all three phases cost the Blue and Gold a chance at history. The Bombers bid for a third-straight Grey Cup was spoiled by the Toronto Argonauts, 24-23, in the 109th edition of the CFL’s championship game at Regina’s Mosaic Stadium Sunday.
Indeed, there will be plenty to dissect for the coaches and players in this one, a gruelling exercise that will likely take place over the next few days. The Bombers flew home Monday afternoon and will clean out their lockers by Tuesday morning.
It’s a disappointing end to a promising year and the start of a long off-season that will be confronted with inevitable change. Before we look too far into the future, let’s take a look back at Sunday’s loss in this season’s final edition of 5 Takeaways.
1) The scene in the Bombers dressing room afterwards was predictably somber, as players sat slumped in their lockers struggling with various emotions. Almost everyone had tears in their eyes, with some, including young running back Brady Oliveira and veteran special-teamer Mike Miller, requiring breaks to compose themselves.
While sadness certainly filled the room, there was also a palpable feeling of shock and disbelief. The Bombers never imagined they would lose, especially not against an Argonauts team that was the opposite of them in so many ways.
While Winnipeg takes pride in being boring, sticking to their process and playing disciplined football, Toronto seemed to revel in chaos, much of it self-inflicted. Perhaps what was most surprising was losing such a closely-contested affair; this season, Winnipeg was 7-1 in games that were decided by seven points or fewer.
The lone defeat came against Montreal, 20-17, back in Week 10 after kicker Marc Liegghio missed what would have been a game-winning 32-yard field goal and then another attempt, this time from 37 yards, to tie it in overtime. That breakdown by Liegghio snapped the Bombers season-opening win streak at nine games and foreshadowed what was to come Sunday.
2) Players said it wasn’t one play or mishap that determined their fate, with no one interested in pointing fingers or playing the blame game. For a team that prides itself in how it prepares and stresses the importance of execution, it’s hard not to fault Liegghio for what was another tough night.
Liegghio proved once again the lights were too bright for him, with all areas of the kicking game falling short against the Argonauts. He began with a weakly hit opening kickoff, and then nothing seemed to go smoothly for the 25-year-old from there.
Liegghio’s punting — the part of his game he’s been most consistent with — was also not sharp, and his place-kicking even worse. Liegghio missed a key one-point convert that proved to be the deciding point and with the game on the line in the dying seconds, had a kick that was blocked.
We can debate over the less-than-stellar snap and hold and whether or not the kick, had it not been interfered with, would have been successful. What can’t be argued, though, is who’s to blame for trusting a kicking game that has struggled mightily at times over the year.
Liegghio’s inconsistency on field goals has been a storyline all season and for a club that used to shell out nearly 200K for Justin Medlock because they understood the importance of having a sure foot, it’s mindboggling they would be fine to ride a leg filled with so much doubt. I hope Liegghio gets a chance to bounce back, as anyone in his position would want a shot at redemption, but whether that’ll be in Winnipeg is hard to imagine at this point.
I hope Liegghio gets a chance to bounce back, as anyone in his position would want a shot at redemption, but whether that’ll be in Winnipeg is hard to imagine at this point.
3) The fourth quarter couldn’t have started much better for Winnipeg, with Janarion Grant returning a punt 102 yards for a touchdown, which was the longest return TD in Grey Cup history and gave Winnipeg a 23-14 lead. What followed, however, was a fourth-quarter meltdown unlike we’ve seen during the Bombers dominant run.
What made Sunday’s result so perplexing, among other things, was that the Bombers usually get better as the game goes on, particularly on defence. The D played well, limiting Toronto to just 333 yards of offence, but were unable to come up with a big play when it mattered most.
Give the Argonauts credit, they managed to find a way to win despite losing No. 1 quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson to a dislocated thumb in the fourth quarter. That led to backup Chad Kelly orchestrating an unlikely comeback, given he had completed just 26 passes over the regular season — by far the fewest of any No. 2 pivot in the league.
The Bombers averaged just four points against in the fourth quarter in 2022. The fact the Argonauts more than doubled that, scoring 10, and with a backup no less, shows just how prepared head coach and offensive co-ordinator Ryan Dinwiddie was and resilient his players were down the stretch.
4) Zach Collaros, the Bombers quarterback and the CFL’s reigning back-to-back most outstanding player, wasn’t all that forthcoming about his ankle injury and just how much it affected his ability to run the offence against a physical Argonauts defence.
What we do know is Collaros did not live up to his own high standards, finishing 14-of-23 passing for 183 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. While Collaros didn’t look like his usual self, he also didn’t get much help from his usually stable offensive line.
What’s often been the offence’s bread and butter, the O-line hardly looked smooth in its execution Sunday, the constant pressure leaving Collaros spread too thin to accurately find his targets down field. If not left scrambling for his life, Collaros was stopped dead in his tracks, sacked four times in the game, with two more negated owing to penalties.
Offensive co-ordinator Buck Pierce is among the brightest offensive minds in the CFL, but it was a curious decision to call on Dakota Prukop early in the fourth quarter and have the short-yardage QB, facing a first-and-10 at midfield, throw a ball deep down field. The pass was thrown into tight coverage and intercepted by Shaq Richardson.
What we do know is Collaros did not live up to his own high standards, finishing 14-of-23 passing for 183 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.
Oliveira, who finished with a game-high 82 rushing yards, had just busted for a 13-yard run and the Bombers were finally moving the chains after stalling on the previous two drives. To take the ball from the best player on the team and put into the hands of Prukop seemed almost as unwise as the pass itself.
5) If Sunday proves to be Andrew Harris’ final game in the CFL, what a way to go out for the Winnipeg native.
Having Harris pit against his former team in the final game of the season was a dream scenario for the CFL. And if the 35-year-old decides to ride into the sunset with his fourth career Grey Cup and third straight, it’s hard to imagine a better storybook ending.
Harris was open and honest with media all week about his unceremonious exit from Winnipeg, though he also made efforts to downplay how much a victory might mean to him as far as getting redemption. That animosity was on full display during the game, with Harris at one point flexing directly at the Bombers sideline following a strong run, and you could just feel the jubilation exuding from his body in the post-game celebrations.
He finished with 10 rushes for 55 yards and one reception for another 14, splitting backfield duties with A.J. Ouellette, who scored both of Toronto’s touchdowns. What made Harris’ performance all the more special was that in came after returning early from surgery on a torn pectoral muscle, a comeback that seemed to galvanize the entire Argonauts team.
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.
Updated on Monday, November 21, 2022 8:27 PM CST: minor edit to sentence structure