The Winnipeg Blue Bombers won't be playing any pre-season games this year, owing to the CFL's COVID-19 health protocols, but there's still a chance they'll be able to muck it up against their biggest rival before regular-season games begin.
The Bombers and Saskatchewan Roughriders are working on running workouts against one another in training camp, in effort to create "real" competition that would usually come in a pair of exhibition games. The Roughriders spilled the beans earlier this week, and Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea confirmed talks are continuing.
"I don’t think it’s been approved yet, but we’re looking at a practice with Saskatchewan. It’s still in the planning stages and still has to be approved but I do believe it will be a great opportunity for us to look at some young guys and see them compete against someone they don’t already know," O'Shea told reporters in a 30-minute chat Friday.
"By the time you’re a week into training camp, you should know how to steal the other side’s script and know which plays are coming and you should be able to read the quarterback and be better at one-on-ones a week into camp than you were the first day because you should study your opponent. The idea of having a practice against another team certainly should ramp up the competition and we should get a better picture of who we have in camp."
Many of the details are being worked out, and there is a fair chance that the idea doesn't actually get off the ground. But while decisions around travel and personnel remain up in the air, there are some things that have been pretty much decided.
The joint practices will likely only include rookies, and if it is approved — again, that's still a significant IF at this point — they wouldn't happen until the second or third week of camp. There also wouldn't be a game-like setting that would include bringing in league-qualified referees to officiate.
O'Shea seemed perplexed at a potential rule that eliminates any scrimmaging, if only because he has a different definition of the word other than simply playing a game.
"To me, every time we run a drill, where we’re competing against each other, that’s what that is. We run 20 team plays at the end of practice… inside run, that’s what that is. You’re scrimmaging those plays," he said. "Obviously there’s parameters set forth with this new amended CBA for this year and we’ll have to follow all those protocols. Obviously nobody wants to get together in practice and have full tackle, where we bring guys to the ground. We want to be smart and we want to protect our players.
"I imagine doing the same sort of practice plan that we would have and Saskatchewam would have and most teams around the league would have, where you run an inside run and a skelly period and a team period, with all 12 guys, and you run some one-on-ones, and then you run some special teams. It’s just like a regular practice with the guys you’re going against wearing a different colour jersey. All of it is scrimmaging. I guess I’ve never looked up the term to see what it really means. In our practices, when we run a team period and the practice culminates in a 10- or 20-play team period, that’s to me, scrimmaging. We do it every day."
VACCINATION CONFRONTATION: O'Shea has received his COVID-19 vaccinations and he's encouraging his staff and players to do the same.
He knows the more people vaccinated on the team, the easier life will be. The CFL hasn't adjusted restrictions for those who are and aren't vaccinated, but a league source says they're still waiting on team's vaccination rates before making any final decisions.
Vaccines have been a controversial topic, particularly within professional sports, and there are players on the Bombers who aren't convinced they need the shot. A divide in opinions, especially with a hot-topic issue such as vaccinations, certainly begs the question about a potential divide in the locker room.
But O'Shea seemed confident that won't be an issue.
"I don’t expect that the opinions will cause any rift in the locker room. I really don’t. I believe we have, over the course of time here, made sure our team is chock full of respectful leaders that are intelligent and can express their opinion and can respect another person’s, even if they don’t agree with it," O'Shea said. "I would welcome healthy discussion amongst team members. Any time you can learn, not only about your teammate and about how they feel on important issues, that would imply that there’s growth going on and I’m all for that. I don’t imagine that it’s going to be a problem where it’s gonna be the Star Belly Sneeches and the Sneeches without stars.
"It’s gonna get to a point where it’s a regular locker room. Of course we want our players vaccinated so there’s no disruption in our season but I also believe we’re gonna respect their opinion, that the league has done a great job and our team, in particular, has done a great job of educating the players on the science behind it and on the history of vaccinations. Any bit of information the guys have probably wanted, they have access to through doctors, the league, the P.A., through our medical staff and Al (Couture).
"There will come a point where we’ll just be at the number that we’ll be at and it’s not gonna change. More and more of our players have gotten vaccinated once they’ve got their questions answered, once they’ve had time to digest the information a little bit. Overall, it’s been a very healthy growing experience for everybody. Really, a lot of growth in terms of knowledge and a lot of respect in terms of listening to other people’s opinions."
MISSING MEDLOCK: It would appear kicker Justin Medlock won't be returning to Winnipeg in 2021, marking the potential end to what's been a great CFL career.
That's to say a last-minute deal couldn't be struck, but judging by what O'Shea had to say on the topic, it looks like the Bombers are focused on rookie Marc Liegghio as the leg moving forward. The Bombers selected Liegghio in the fifth round, 39th overall, in the 2020 CFL draft, following a four-year career at Western University, where the 24-year-old led all punters in 2019 with a 47.5 yard punt average — a new Ontario University Athletics record.
He also finished with a 92 per cent field-goal percentage, while also leading the league in extra points (31) and total kickoff yardage (1,757).
"You ask any coach this, their answer is likely the same: ‘There’s only one Justin Medlock and it’s really hard to replace him.’ We’re not asking Marc to come in and be Justin Medlock. We’re asking Marc to come in and be Marc," O'Shea said. "He’s very accomplished and he takes his job very seriously and you don’t have that kind of success and numbers in university without taking it very seriously and being excellent at your craft.
"We all know that he hasn’t kicked in a pro game but he’s made a lot of big kicks and punted his team out of problems a number of times. I don’t know that just because the stadium changes and people pay more to get into the stands, how does that affects the kicker? I don’t know that it does. They’re generally very focused and they’re very good blocking out any kind of noise around them. I’m excited for Marc’s opportunity and I’ll miss Justin also."
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.