May 23, 2019

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Fragile fans ride the wave of anxiety after Nichols' less-than-stellar outing

Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/8/2018 (282 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

So I’m driving home from Investors Group Field Friday night after what I thought was an impressive Winnipeg Blue Bombers win and the first caller into Bob Irving’s post-game show on CJOB demands the team gets rid of starting quarterback Matt Nichols.

Knuckles was as incredulous as I was, but the guy doubled down, offering to bet his house that the Bombers will never win a Grey Cup with Nichols as QB.

Now, it may very well be the Bombers won’t win a Grey Cup this year. It may even be they won’t win a Grey Cup until years after Nichols has retired. And all of that may actually be a reasonable bet, given that this franchise is the owner of a CFL-long 28-year Grey Cup drought and hasn’t won a playoff game in seven years.

But what it won’t be is the fault of Nichols who, for my money, is very much part of this team’s solution, not its problem.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/8/2018 (282 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

So I’m driving home from Investors Group Field Friday night after what I thought was an impressive Winnipeg Blue Bombers win and the first caller into Bob Irving’s post-game show on CJOB demands the team gets rid of starting quarterback Matt Nichols.

Knuckles was as incredulous as I was, but the guy doubled down, offering to bet his house that the Bombers will never win a Grey Cup with Nichols as QB.

Is Nichols-hating now a new trend in town? (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press Files)</p>

Is Nichols-hating now a new trend in town? (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press Files)

Now, it may very well be the Bombers won’t win a Grey Cup this year. It may even be they won’t win a Grey Cup until years after Nichols has retired. And all of that may actually be a reasonable bet, given that this franchise is the owner of a CFL-long 28-year Grey Cup drought and hasn’t won a playoff game in seven years.

But what it won’t be is the fault of Nichols who, for my money, is very much part of this team’s solution, not its problem.

And so I dismissed the guy as a crank talk-show caller — is there any other kind? — and got on with the rest of my weekend which, like the rest of you, involved the pursuit of sedentary activities in the shade.

But all weekend long, I kept hearing similar refrains from other people I ran into: Nichols isn’t getting it done.

Now, maybe it was just the company I was keeping and the radio I was listening to. Or maybe it was the heat that had people cranky and not thinking straight.

But it got me wondering: is Nichols-hating now a new trend in town that I’ve missed?

To be sure, it would not exactly be breaking new ground in these parts if the locals had a hate on for the local starting QB.

The most popular man in Winnipeg for the better part of the last 30 years has consistently been the Bombers' backup QB, and if you could somehow harness the angst this city has directed toward a long line of underachieving starting QBs — I’m looking at you, Drew Willy — we could stop building those billion-dollar dams that are bankrupting Manitoba Hydro.

But what is new — or at least is new to me — is this idea that Nichols has now joined the long list of former starting QBs that at least some fans want to run out of town.

Now, near as I can tell, the case against Nichols goes something like this: "Yeah, he seems like a nice guy and all, but he hasn’t been the same QB since he injured his knee in the pre-season and, besides, what’s wrong with giving backup Chris Streveler another chance to start?"

Lots to unpack there. Let’s go in order:

First, you’re right, Nichols is a nice guy. He’s humble and that’s not something I could say about every previous Winnipeg quarterback — again, I’m looking at you, Drew Willy. And he is the undisputed leader in the Bombers' locker room. So we agree — nice.

Second, you’re right again, Nichols doesn’t look quite the same this season as he did in a career campaign last year. And yes, that knee injury — and the training camp and first three regular-season games that it caused him to miss — might still be having lingering effects.

And that would include in that 29-23 win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats Friday night when, after a quick start, Nichols seemed to struggle to find any traction in the second half and the Tabbies made the game a lot more interesting than it should have been.

Maybe we’ve just been burned by this team too many times that we forgot how to handle success.

Still, it needs to be said: Nichols comes into this week with a higher quarterback rating than anyone other than Edmonton’s Mike Reilly and Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell among the league’s current starters, so it’s not like you can say he has been bad. And if you believe otherwise, then what do you think about current flavour of the month, Jeremiah Masoli, not to mention Trevor Harris, Travis Lulay and the rest, all of whom have lower ratings?

And finally, there would be plenty wrong with giving Streveler another chance to start right now.

Look, I’m as big a fan of Streveler as anyone in town. What he did in holding down the fort for the first three games of the regular season while Nichols was convalescing was impressive as hell and it’s great to know the Bombers have a competent backup.

But you don’t take away a guy’s starting job lightly and you especially don’t take it away from the franchise guy who has led his team to three straight victories and wins in four of Winnipeg’s last five games.

That’s crazy talk and it’s no less crazier simply because I kept hearing it over and over again on a weekend so hot that people’s brains may have been frying just like that egg In Nancy Reagan’s old illegal drug PSA.

We can debate the minutiae of what has and hasn’t been working for Nichols this season, but if you want to know what Nichols means to this team, just ask head coach Mike O’Shea.

The CFL released a stat last week that said it all: O’Shea had a 13-28 record as Winnipeg's head coach before Nichols was named the starter on July 28, 2016. Since then, O’Shea and the Bombers have been 27-12.

Now, does Nichols get all the credit for that turnaround? No, the entire team has improved during that period and GM Kyle Walters gets a lot of credit in my books.

But the guy who plays the most important position on the field is Nichols, and even on an off night such as Friday, he gives his team a chance to win.

For all the hand-wringing in town that I heard over the last few days about how the Bombers almost gave away a win, what I saw looked a lot like a well-rounded football team in which the defence and special teams rose to the occasion on a night the offence was struggling.

You know what other teams do that kind of thing? Teams that go on to win Grey Cups.

It says something about how far the Bombers have come that a 5-3 record and a share of second place in the West seem to be generating as much angst as enthusiasm.

Maybe we’ve just been burned by this team too many times that we forgot how to handle success.

Look, I have no idea if this is the team that ends that Grey Cup drought. And I’m on the record in these pages about my skepticism for O’Shea’s in-game management and his track record of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in big games.

But Nichols? There seems to be some doubt creeping in among the locals, but I don’t get it and I don’t buy it.

Would I bet the house on him? No, this is Winnipeg and the Bombers we’re talking about.

But I wouldn’t bet the house against him, either.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter (retired)

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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