December 8, 2019

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Just Manny being many

Blue's Matsakis started as RB coach, but he's now also in charge of QBs and the offence

Manny Matsakis chats and QB Michael Bishop have a close working relationship.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Manny Matsakis chats and QB Michael Bishop have a close working relationship.

It's five months into the CFL season and Manny Matsakis still lives out of a suitcase in Mike Kelly's condo.

A desk and a computer near the door in the team meeting room serves as his office. He has no name plate on the door, no bio in the Winnipeg Blue Bombers media guide.

And yet it could be said that the 47-year-old Ohio product has been the most influential and important component to the recent Bomber offensive turnaround that has helped salvage a season that looked about to be flushed less than a month ago.

Indeed, one of the most pressing questions/subplots to the Bombers-B.C. Lions showdown this afternoon at Canad Inns Stadium is whether Winnipeg's suddenly dynamic offence can continue its growth from a pop-gun, one-dimensional attack to something that is actually feared by CFL defences. What makes this tale even more compelling is the fact that Matsakis arrived in Winnipeg in May as guest coach with plans to stay no more than a couple of weeks, while the quarterback running the offence, Michael Bishop, was dusted off the football scrap heap in July.

And now...

"Manny and Mike have probably gotten more free hamburgers in this town than I ever have," joked Bomber head coach Mike Kelly in his pre-game press gathering on Saturday. "The two of them are together all the time and I think that has a lot to do with Mike playing the way he is right now."

A career college coach in the U.S., Matsakis was asked to take over the running backs/offensive quality control position when Andy Cox took ill and was unable to come north. As the summer progressed — and the pressure mounted on Kelly — he opted to take some of the workload off his plate and let Matsakis have a crack at the offence.

The turnaround wasn't instantaneous or magical.

In fact, the Bombers still rank dead-last in passing and seventh in scoring. But in the last six games Bishop has thrown for more than 300 yards three times while the average yards passing per game has jumped 90 yards to 244 per contest.

Again, those are far from overwhelming numbers. But they do represent progress. And, indirectly, they also speak of Matsakis' ability to quickly soak up the CFL game and listen to his charges.

"The No. 1 thing he's done is take input from the players," said Bishop.

"He's doing a great job of listening. A lot of teams, even at the college level, you come in and they say, 'These are the plays. This is what you run.' But in order to be successful you need to have an open mind. You could have a great scheme, but if the players don't like it then it will never work. Everybody is buying into what we're doing now and we're having success on the field, so it's growing."

Funny thing about all that high praise: Matsakis admits that until he came to Winnipeg he had never seen a CFL game.

But what has made his transition to the three-down game easier than some is his work ethic — he's often the first to roll into the office and flick on the lights — his extensive coaching background at big-time U.S. schools like Kansas State and Texas Tech and, perhaps, a rekindled love for the sport and his profession.

Matsakis had taken some time away from the game after being fired at Texas State and entered the publishing business with American Football Quarterly and some regional football magazines in Ohio.

And his passion for coaching only grew the more comfortable he became working in the CFL and its wide-open variation of the game that allowed for more motion and tapped into his own creativity.

And, Ta-da!, just like that the Bombers may have something here.

"I've embraced the game. I love it," said Matsakis. "I have no ambition whatsoever to coach anywhere but the CFL. There was a point in August when I turned on an NFL (exhibition) game and I was truly bored to death. It was like, 'Oh my God... they're just standing there.' I don't think I'd ever want to go back to the States."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca

game day C4-5

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