Once upon a Banjo Bowl, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers had approximately eight impact starters down, and they still crushed the Saskatchewan Roughriders by a score of 35 to 10. They then went on to win the rest of their football games, and lived happily ever after.
OK, so most of that is a fairy tale — for the time being — but not the part about whupping the team once thought to be their biggest rival in the West. It's safe to say that distinction probably now belongs to the Calgary Stampeders, but you simply cannot overstate how impressive it is to win when a team is this hamstrung with injuries.
Let’s start with the most important position on the field: the quarterback. The quarterback is usually the highest-paid player on the team, because they usually have the most influence on the outcome of games. Unless you are a team with no clearly defined starter, losing your number-one pivot for anything longer than two or three weeks is usually a death sentence to your football season. Not in Winnipeg.
At the most important position on the field, Chris Streveler has now beaten both the Edmonton Eskimos and the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and the only thing that kept him from winning all three games he has started this year was a couple minutes of uncharacteristic play from the defence.
He doesn’t win with finesse, flash, or in conventional ways. He has done it with grit, force of will, and an overwhelming level of physicality. On the post-game show, defensive end Willie Jefferson referred to him as the "juggernaut." This could well have been a reference to the X-Men character, who cannot be stopped once he gets momentum. After watching Streveler "truck" players in the second level and the secondary, this is not the worst comparison or description of his abilities.
The second MVP-calibre player they have won without having on offence is obviously Andrew Harris. This season, there has been no bigger indicator of success for this football team than the stat line of Harris. When he is involved in the offence, getting enough touches both on the ground and in the air, the team wins. It’s never been easier identifying a key to victory.
Yet having the heart of the offence, and the conductor, unavailable at the same time, didn’t even make this team blink.
In stepped Johnny Augustine, who had precious little experience working with the starting offence in the regular season. So far this season, Harris has rushed for 6.4 yards a carry. Augustine, in his first two starts, averaged 6.3 yards a carry. The longest run Andrew has had for the team this year, is 56 yards. Augustine, in only two games, ripped off a 55-yarder. In the win over the Riders, he also proved to be a force in the passing game, just like Harris.
For good measure, two of the most consistent and explosive performers on offence this year, Nic Demski and Lucky Whitehead, also didn’t play in the second game against the Roughriders. Daniel Petermann and Rasheed Bailey essentially told us to hold their beers, as they stepped up and contributed in big ways in the victory. Furthering this argument, the offensive line has operated all year without one of the starters, left guard Pat Neufeld.
Defensively, they haven’t had to deal with as much adversity when it comes to starters missing time, but two of their best players, defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat and defensive back Brandon Alexander, have missed significant time this season, along with last year’s MVP, Adam Bighill.
Players and coaches talk all the time about the "next man up" mentality. It is usually just a cliché response to a question about how a team will deal with their depleted, injured state. In Winnipeg, in 2019, this next-man-up stuff is for real. The only question that remains to be answered, is how good can they be when most of these players return to the front line.
Doug Brown, always a hard-hitting defensive lineman and frequently a hard-hitting columnist, appears Tuesdays in the Free Press.