It's been exactly 620 days since the Winnipeg Blue Bombers hoisted the Grey Cup following a 33-12 victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at Calgary's McMahon Stadium.
No one could have imagined back then a global health crisis was on the horizon, with the spread of COVID-19 ultimately shutting down the 2020 season and creating a nearly two-year delay before another CFL game was played. Alas, the wait is finally over.
The Bombers and Ticats will mark the official return of the three-down game, battling in a Week 1 season-opening matchup at IG Field Thursday night. The long-awaited unveiling of the 2019 Grey Cup banner is how the evening will begin, eventually making way for what should be a spirited rematch of that championship game.
"This will be a meaningful game, not just to me, but to a lot of people, just in this province alone. This is what we’ve been waiting on," Bombers defensive end Willie Jefferson said Wednesday.
"Got a chance to sit out a whole season and see what it was like without football, and it was boring. It sucked. I'm happy to be here; CFL football is going to give you guys a show."
Grab your popcorn, buckle up. Here are five storylines you need to know heading into Week 1 of what should be a fascinating start to the 2021 CFL season.
How many guys does it take to replace Andrew Harris? We may just find out.
After missing almost the entirety of training camp, and unable to get back on the field this week owing to a nagging calf injury, the Bombers star running back has been ruled out of action. It remains unclear when exactly Harris will be able to return.
In the meantime, getting the start will be another made-in-Manitoba tailback in Brady Oliveira. Oliveira has had a solid camp and has shown no signs of slowing down due to a gruesome ankle injury that ended his 2019 season.
Part of the reason Oliveira is getting the start is availability. Unlike fellow running back Johnny Augustine, who opened camp with an injury, Oliveira has gutted it out every day. Another reason is curiosity: could Oliveira be the future? What a great story that would be.
Either way, I wouldn't rule out Augustine getting touches. He played well in relief of Harris for two games last season and is familiar with the playbook. There's also receiver Nic Demski as a possible option, creating what would be for the first time in some time a three-headed monster behind centre.
LIFE AFTER MEDLOCK
The reason the Bombers signed Justin Medlock ahead of the 2016 season, and why they continued for years to make him the highest paid kicker by a country mile, was because they were tired of losing close games. Having a consistent kicker to salvage stalled drives and not leave points on the board was a major piece of the Bombers success in recent years.
So when Winnipeg decided to turn their backs on a tried-and-true philosophy by bringing in Marc Liegghio, a rookie kicker, to replace a sure Hall of Famer in Medlock, eyebrows certainly were raised. Whether it was an abundance of confidence in the University of Western product — Liegghio did set records in university— or a cost-cutting measure, or both, what was once a strength of the club is now a major question mark.
After Liegghio impressed on his punts but struggled to convert field goals consistently, the Bombers signed Tyler Crapigna to the roster. Crapigna, who was cut by the Montreal Alouettes before joining Winnipeg, will handle the field goals Thursday, while Liegghio will be on punt and kickoff duty.
We're going to see if two for the price of one is really all it's cracked up to be.
I sometimes wonder what Vegas is thinking when determining CFL betting lines. And Thursday is a prime example.
Though the Bombers will be without Harris and top receiver Darvin Adams (Charles Nelson will draw in), the Ticats are even more shorthanded — and on both sides of the ball.
On defence, Hamilton will be without all-star safety Tunde Adeleke and defensive tackle Ted Laurent. On offence, prized free-agent offensive tackle Chris Van Zeyl, as well as running back Don Jackson and receivers Bralon Addison and DeVier Posey are also sidelined.
That's a lot of firepower missing for Hamilton, and yet the Grey Cup runner-ups are 3.5-point favourites on the road. Talk about disrespect for a team that was the last standing and remain mostly intact from that 2019 championship run.
"If we cared about all that, then we wouldn’t have won a Grey Cup last year with the route that we took and how we did it," Bombers linebacker Adam Bighill said. "Feel free to count us as underdogs for the entire season for all I care. We’re gonna go out and do what we do."
While both sides have a fair amount of depth, where I see things lopsided is the battle in the trenches between the Bombers Jefferson-led defensive line and the Ticats offensive line. Consider: Bombers offensive tackle Stanley Bryant has 156 career starts in the CFL — 59 more than the combined 97 starts for the entire Ticats O-line.
A NEW-LOOK SECONDARY
The Bombers biggest makeover this season is in the secondary. The team's last line of defence lost Winston Rose (NFL) and Marcus Sayles (B.C.) over the offseason, and strongside linebacker Mercy Maston suffered a torn Achilles in training camp that likely marked the end of his 2021 campaign.
Where you'll likely see the most growing pains is on the boundary side, where Rose and Sayles used to patrol. Taking over that often-contested area is a pair of rookies in Deatrick Nichols and DeAundre Alford, both of whom will be playing in their first CFL game.
With receiver Brandon Banks, the CFL's reigning most outstanding player, likely to spend a lot of time in that part of the field, it feels a bit like trial by fire. Both say they're up for the challenge and Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros has seen enough the last month to feel excited about their potential.
Still, I can't help but to envision a return of those days of Richie Hall's defence struggling to defend the long knockout passes downfield. Let's hope the communication they've been stressing for weeks is where it needs to be.
Collaros tempered concerns about his health after leading the Bombers in 2019 to four straight wins, including snapping a 28-year Grey Cup drought. But now that the confetti has fallen and a new year is here, some of those same old questions are back in the forefront.
There is nothing to suggest Collaros' history with head injuries or anything else has slowed him down. In fact, he's looked solid in his first training camp in Winnipeg and for the first time will have full access to new offensive co-ordinator Buck Pierce's playbook. He also has the league's top O-line in front of him as protection. With Harris out, expect Collaros to test down field more often, with Kenny Lawler as a prime target.
On the other side, Jeremiah Masoli gets the start for Hamilton after regaining his No. 1 role by beating out Dane Evans. Masoli was arguably the league's top pivot in 2019 before a torn ACL in his right knee ended his season. Don't be fooled by the long layoff; if Masoli can regain anything close to what he was, and there's no reason to think he won't, the Bombers could be in for a long evening.
That's if his O-line can stop the Bombers attack. This is the area where the game will be won or lost.
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.