November 16, 2018

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Bombers QB errs on the side of caution with post-practice remarks

If Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols has learned anything over the past two weeks, it’s that he has to make better decisions — on the field and off.

Following back-to-back blowout losses to the Ottawa Redblacks and Calgary Stampeders, Nichols has found himself on the receiving end of some intense scrutiny from fans for what has come out of the huddle and also for what has come out of his mouth.

So it came as little surprise that when Nichols took centre stage Wednesday following the Bombers' first practice since being stomped by the Stamps, he opted for an audible. Rather than risk the chance of adding fuel to whatever is left of the fire, he got rid of the ball.

“Honestly, I can totally respect that you guys got a job to do and everything but I’m sticking to talking about Saskatchewan and Labour Day and what kind of an awesome game this is to play in,” he said.

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If Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols has learned anything over the past two weeks, it’s that he has to make better decisions — on the field and off.

Following back-to-back blowout losses to the Ottawa Redblacks and Calgary Stampeders, Nichols has found himself on the receiving end of some intense scrutiny from fans for what has come out of the huddle and also for what has come out of his mouth.

So it came as little surprise that when Nichols took centre stage Wednesday following the Bombers' first practice since being stomped by the Stamps, he opted for an audible. Rather than risk the chance of adding fuel to whatever is left of the fire, he got rid of the ball.

"Honestly, I can totally respect that you guys got a job to do and everything but I’m sticking to talking about Saskatchewan and Labour Day and what kind of an awesome game this is to play in," he said.

Blue Bombers starting quarterback Matt Nichols usually has thoughtful interactions with the media.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Blue Bombers starting quarterback Matt Nichols usually has thoughtful interactions with the media.

"I’m excited to play a football game this week and that’s kind of what I’m going to talk about and only thing I’m focused on right now."

For those requiring an update, Nichols was first criticized following the loss to the Redblacks when he voiced his disappointment after frustrated fans booed his return late in the fourth quarter. That sparked a social-media and radio call-in firestorm; some fans were upset with Nichols' inability to create offence, and others defended the boos as a reaction to head coach Mike O’Shea’s decision to put Nichols back into a game that was already all but decided and after he'd been sacked, appearing to injure his throwing arm.

Then when the quarterback, after a 39-26 loss to the Stampeders in a game Winnipeg’s offence was greatly outplayed, told a local radio station he was unable to find an open receiver after going through four or five reads, the belief — including that of TSN analyst and Bombers great Milt Stegall, who has since backtracked his claims — was he was calling out his teammates. That, coupled with the fact Nichols hadn't stepped up to take any responsibility for the offensive struggles, fanned the flames.

Nichols is helped off the field after being injured in a game against the Ottawa Redblacks at Investors Group Field on August 17.

ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Nichols is helped off the field after being injured in a game against the Ottawa Redblacks at Investors Group Field on August 17.

"I’m obviously not satisfied with this season so far. Obviously I have higher expectations and those expectations on myself are higher enough that I’m going to continue working," Nichols said Wednesday.

"I’m here every day at 5 a.m. working all day long trying to get better and that’s all you can do. Of course I want to go out and play flawless football but I’m just going to keep working and getting better and, of course, I want to play better. To me this season is just kind of getting going and we’re going to find our groove here and we’re going to be good."

Though Nichols will most likely be guarded with the media now — choosing his words more carefully and, therefore, turning what have been mostly thoughtful interactions with the media into stale, cliché-ridden remarks — just to prevent any more flare-ups, it will be what he does with his arm that will ultimately determine how this mid-season drama ends.

Notably, on the eve of Week 12, Winnipeg still leads the CFL in offensive points scored, averaging 29 per game. But it’s the lack of success against upper-echelon teams that has fans doubting whether this outfit can be the one that finally breaks the Grey Cup curse, now 27 years and counting.

'I’m here every day at 5 a.m. working all day long trying to get better and that’s all you can do. Of course I want to go out and play flawless football but I’m just going to keep working and getting better' – Matt Nichols

The 5-5 club has earned all of its wins so far against teams with losing records. And the two losses suffered at the hands of teams with winning records — Calgary (8-1) and Ottawa (6-3) – the Bombers were outscored 83-47.

That’s not to suggest the blame should fall solely on Nichols and the offence. The defence has also struggled mightily at times, and particularly over the last two weeks, surrendering more than 1,000 yards of net offence. But if the Bombers are to be successful, it will be on their ability to outscore other teams, while hoping the defence is able to limit the damage on the other end.

The defence seemed up to the challenge against Calgary, keeping the Stampeders to just 12 points until the last 17 minutes of the game. But Nichols & Co. couldn’t muster much of anything in the final two quarters, including just four first downs on their first six drives to start the second half. The defence finally buckled, weary from being on the field defending against Calgary's dominant attack.

"I want to believe Matt does take the blame. Certainly, first and foremost, it all falls on me as the offensive co-ordinator," said Paul LaPolice. "I’ve got to be better and we’ve all got to be better. It’s not just one guy, but it all starts with me."

As for Nichols, in both instances where he’s been criticized for his post-game remarks, there is reason to believe his words were misconstrued. O’Shea was steadfast in saying that his starting QB is accountable inside the locker room.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice feels he shares the blame: "I’ve got to be better and we’ve all got to be better. It’s not just one guy, but it all starts with me."

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice feels he shares the blame: "I’ve got to be better and we’ve all got to be better. It’s not just one guy, but it all starts with me."

"I think anybody who has been around the game of football understands what’s on a quarterback’s shoulders," O’Shea said. "Guys in the locker room understand completely how a game flows and when you watch the film, because it’s done in such a group setting, they understand the responsibilities and the outcomes of plays. To have somebody step to a mic in front of the media and say something like that, I think it’s irrelevant to the team because the team understands what’s going on inside the room."

What has been harder to explain is Nichols performance this year, and whether what’s been affecting his game is the result of the scheme by LaPolice or perhaps lingering issues from a knee injury that had him sidelined through the first three games.

Either way, Nichols hasn’t looked like the dominant force he was at times last season, when he posted an 11-6 record as a starter, completing 71 per cent of his passes for 4,472 yards and 28 touchdowns compared to eight interceptions. Through seven games in 2018, and a 4-3 record, Nichols has averaged 229 passing yards per game – more than 40 fewer than the 271 yards he averaged through in his first 30 starts as a Bombers, ever since taking over from Drew Willy five games into the 2016 season.

Needless to say, Nichols understands the offence runs through him and he, along with the other players that make up the offence, needs to be better if they want to beat the best teams in the league and compete for a chance at winning at championship.

"I mean we’re on each other all the time to get better each and every week and obviously there have been some weeks where we haven’t been satisfied, for sure," Nichols said. "We always want to get better and we’re pretty disappointed with ourselves as an offence when we don’t go and score 40 points every game. And as unrealistic as that can be that’s where we’re at and we want to keep going in and scoring points. Guys are fired up to go out and answer this challenge and try to put up as many points as we can and that’s all we can do is keep working."

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.

Read full biography

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