On Tuesday afternoon, nearly 60 hours after the CFL’s mandated roster trim Saturday night, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers took the field for the first time as a complete team.
While some things have changed from a year ago — including the exit of a few notable players — much has remained the same. Expectations are still high, perhaps even greater following a 2018 campaign that ended with a loss to the Calgary Stampeders in the West Division final, and the common goal of winning a Grey Cup is still there. After all, the drought has now swelled to 29 years.
Understandably, then, the day brought a mix of business as usual and the typical excitement that comes with a new season. That said, others, including running back Andrew Harris, preferred to take a wait-and-see approach in his overall evaluation. He said he feels good about what the Bombers have done this off-season, but it is hardly the time to make bold predictions.
"I look at last year and I wholeheartedly felt near the end of the season that that was the year. As much as you want to win the Grey Cup, and you say that’s the goal, you don’t really feel that wholeheartedly until you get into the thick of things," Harris said. "So, I definitely have optimism that we have the potential to be that team but to say this is the year right now… obviously that’s the goal but it’s just too early to say that. There’s still a lot of work to be done, there’s still so much that can happen."
Harris added: "The biggest thing is to have that goal in mind and just work towards it and make sure you have the right guys around to get it done."
On paper, the Bombers appear to have their most talented roster in years, which is saying something when you consider Calgary is the only team in the CFL to boast a better record over the past three seasons, at 41-12, than Winnipeg (33-21).
The Bombers’ defence, a group that finally found its groove last year under the leadership of linebacker Adam Bighill, returns mostly intact. The Bombers lost linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox and safety Taylor Loffler, and only time will tell if they will be missed. They added the league’s best pass-rusher in Willie Jefferson, which should help ease the pain.
Winnipeg lost major contributors on offence from last year, including centre Matthias Goossen and right guard Sukh Chungh from what was arguably the league’s best offensive line. It has replaced them with in-house players such as veterans Michael Couture and Cody Speller, 2017 first-rounder Geoff Gray and this year’s fourth-overall pick, Drew Desjarlais.
Winnipeg went out and signed the big-bodied receiver they’ve been missing, inking Chris Matthews to a three-year commitment. The scouting staff appears to have finally made good on their search for cheap American receivers as well, bringing in a crew that has dazzled throughout training camp, coming up with big plays in a 2-0 pre-season.
"There’s a lot I like. The guys we had at training camp, even some of the guys that aren’t here anymore, they competed hard and showed a level of athleticism that was quite interesting to look at every day in practice," said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea. "Overall, we’ve increased our team speed. We lost a little bit of leadership, but we’ve also put some back up. It’s different voices, which is always interesting. It’s a fresh perspective in the dressing room… it all bodes well. We’re going to be a strong team."
Just how far the Bombers go in a league that is ruled by the strength of your quarterback depends heavily on the play of Matt Nichols who is coming off an injury-riddled season that saw his overall numbers dip from the year before. After throwing for career highs in passing yards (4,472) and touchdowns (28) in 2017, Nichols finished last season with 3,146 passing yards and 18 TDs in 14 games.
He had just one game in 2018 with 300-plus passing yards, compared to seven the previous year. Known for protecting the ball, Nichols also saw his interceptions increase from eight to 13 over that same stretch.
Nichols, who turned 32 in March, didn’t need a reminder of his importance to the team’s overall success, nor is he unaware of how last season went. He worked hard over the off-season, trimming down with a new diet, and has looked significantly more mobile in the pocket.
As for the burden of playing the most important position on the field — well, he feels that, too.
"The quarterback position is if you don’t play well it’s hard for your team to win. There’s always that pressure but that’s what I love about this sport, especially this position," said Nichols. "I love having that (pressure). I love being in a position where I go out there with a lot of passion to not let my teammates down and I love that responsibility. I look forward to Saturday."
What the Bombers won’t be able to control is the division they play in. The West is shaping up to be another tough race, with all five teams capable of pushing for top spot.
The Bombers will get their first taste of just how difficult the West will be when they open the season in Vancouver against the B.C. Lions on Saturday night. The Lions, who finished fourth in the West last season with a 9-9 record to earn the cross-over spot in the East, went all-in over the off-season, pulling quarterback Mike Reilly out of Edmonton with a four-year contract worth just below $3 million.
The Eskimos were also big spenders over the winter, signing Trevor Harris to replace Reilly and inking another former Ottawa Redblack and Harris’s No. 1 target in receiver Greg Ellingson.
The Saskatchewan Roughriders will once again lean on their defence, but if quarterback Zach Collaros can recapture some of his old magic the Roughriders could be a sneaky pick. Collaros should get some help from the addition of running back William Powell, who showed well in the pre-season after finishing second in rushing yards the past two years.
The Stampeders might have taken the greatest hits over the off-season, including the loss of close to two thirds of their league-leading defence from 2018. But it remains a fool’s game to count them out, not with the proven track record of general manager John Hufnagel and head coach Dave Dickenson. It also helps to have reigning league and Grey Cup MVP Bo Levi Mitchell under centre.
"I know everyone says the season doesn’t start until after Labour Day, but for us, a strong start is important. Just staying consistent throughout that first bit of the season and collecting wins and collectively just getting better as a team," Harris said, when asked what it will take to finish atop the West. "We just got to keep levelling up every week and making sure we’re moving forward and not regressing as a 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.