September 24, 2020

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Nichols and greatness a Grey Cup win apart

JOHN WOODS / CANADIAN PRESS FILES</p><p>Durability alone over the last two-plus seasons is enough to etch Matt Nichols' name alongside some of the team’s greats.</p>

JOHN WOODS / CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Durability alone over the last two-plus seasons is enough to etch Matt Nichols' name alongside some of the team’s greats.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/10/2017 (1062 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

Matt Nichols will be making his 30th consecutive start for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers Saturday afternoon when he takes the field at Investors Group Field against the B.C. Lions.

That fact alone puts Nichols in the rare company of some of Winnipeg’s all-time great QB’s.

Only six other men in the long and glorious history of the Winnipeg Football Club have started 30 straight games under centre — and five are in the club’s hall of fame — Ken Ploen, Don Jonas, Dieter Brock, Tom Clements and Khari Jones.

The sixth QB to hit the 30-game mark for the Bombers — Kevin Glenn — is still playing (miraculously) for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, but don’t be surprised if sometime soon after Glenn retires, the Bombers Hall comes calling in recognition of the three prolific seasons he put up for from 2006-08, piloting Winnipeg to a Grey Cup appearance in 2007, a game he missed after breaking his arm in the East Final.

All of which is to say if Nichols does nothing else the rest of his career in Winnipeg, his durability alone over the last two-plus seasons is enough to etch his name alongside some of the team’s greats.

Didn’t see that one coming? Don’t feel bad — you’ve got lots of company.

Indeed, the only thing more stunning to me than how quickly Nichols has morphed into the franchise quarterback this team had been searching for in vain since Glenn left has been how quietly Nichols has done it.

Ask any casual CFL fan today who is the highest rated passer in the league and odds are they will answer, incorrectly, either Bo Levi Mitchell or Mike Reilly, with a handful of erroneous votes also headed Ricky Ray’s way.

It’s none of those guys, of course, because the correct answer is Nichols — and it has been the correct answer for almost this entire season. With an 86.4 QB rating heading into Saturday’s contest, Nichols is ahead of, respectively, Edmonton’s Reilly, Ottawa’s Trevor Harris, Calgary’s Mitchell and Toronto’s Ray.

While that may come as news to casual fans of the three-down game, ask someone who actually knows what he’s talking about and Weston Dressler will tell you the fact Nichols is the best passer in the Canadian game right now is finally becoming the league’s worst-kept secret.

"There’s no doubt in my mind," the slotback told me Friday afternoon after the Bombers went through one final light practice in advance of facing the Lions.

"Matt is just seeing the field exceptionally well right now. How quickly he is recognizing what the defence is doing and getting through his progression — he’s doing it better than anyone I’ve played with to this point, as far as the speed and his reaction right now.

"He’s getting to third reads in a play within the second step of his drop. And that helps everything out — it helps our O-line out and our protection, saving us from the QB staying in the pocket too long and taking sacks.

"As a receiver, when you’re not a primary target, you’re still always running hard because you don’t know how quickly he’s coming to you.

"You’re the third progression in a play and that ball is still coming to you right out of your break."

To review: One of the most prolific receivers in CFL history — a straight-talking guy who is bound for multiple Halls of Fame the moment he retires — says some of the things Nichols has been doing this season are the best he’s ever seen.

So how come Nichols doesn’t seem to get the same love a guy like Mitchell or Reilly does? Indeed, even here in Winnipeg, Nichols’ emergence this season as an elite quarterback has taken a backseat to other story lines, most notably tailback Andrew Harris’s quest to become the first CFLer to gain 1,000 yards in a season both through the air and on the ground.

Part of the answer, I think, can be found in a quirky feature TSN did on Nichols prior to the start of the season in which they described Nichols as having a reputation as a "game manager," a term many in football consider a pejorative for a quarterback who dumps a lot of balls to receivers out of the backfield but is unable to stretch a defence or make big plays in the big moments.

There is no doubt some truth in that tag on the blue-collar Nichols, although I’d argue it's also partly because a game manager is exactly the kind of quarterback that fits best in the offence of co-ordinator Paul LaPolice.

While everyone digs the long ball, the fact is it’s hard to argue with the results this season — Winnipeg leads the league in points scored, a first for the Bombers since way back in 2001.

All of this is also a roundabout way of explaining why what has happened to Nichols and the Bombers offence over the last three games is so worrying, with playoffs looming and Grey Cup expectations running higher than I can remember in a long time in a town that hasn’t seen one hoisted since 1990.

CFL statistician Steve Daniel dug up all kinds of interesting numbers on Nichols this week — he was the one who found that 30-start stat. Among the others were a series of damning statistics that suggest Nichols has been a completely different QB the last three games than he was the first 13 of the season:

His QB rating has plummeted from 90.2 to 64.2; his yards passing per game have dropped from 296 to 199; offensive points are down 30.5 per game to just 13.3; and Nichols has thrown just two TD passes the last three games, versus 26 through the first 13.

If you’re wondering why a team that won 10 of its first 13 games has lost two of the last three, those numbers tell part of the story. But it’s only part of the story, with the other part being key injuries to the likes of receiver Darvin Adams and running back Timothy Flanders that have given Nichols less weapons to work with in recent weeks.

Then there was the hand injury Nichols sustained a couple of weeks ago, and he was still wearing a special glove at practice this week.

Quick tangent: Whose starting receiving corps would you rather have Saturday afternoon: the Bombers Clarence Denmark, Julian Feoli-Gudino, Chris Givens, L’Damian Washington and Dressler — or the Lions’ Manny Arceneaux, Brian Burnham, Shaquille Johnson, Marco Iannuzzi, Nick Moore (and Chris Williams the next man up)?

It’s not even close — yet it’s the Bombers who are 11-5 heading into Saturday while the Lions are 6-10. The Crazy Football League.

While the field looks tilted in Winnipeg’s favour heading into this one, there is also a lot more on the line for Winnipeg than B.C. The Lions' season is over, while the Bombers need a win to lock down the first home playoff game in these parts since 2011.

"This is a huge game for this club," Harris told reporters Friday, "and for this city."

For this quarterback, too.

There is one other reason why guys like Mitchell, Reilly and Ray all get more respect than Nichols — they’ve all stood under centre in a Grey Cup and led their team to a championship.

Nichols knows it. "It’s a playoffs-type urgency for us," he said Friday. "If you want to get where you want to be and be a championship team, you’ve got to win games that are must-win…

"With what we’ve got on the line, we’ve got to show it (on Saturday), play a good football game and get a win."

If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.

And in the CFL, that test comes when the snow flies.

It was looking pretty white out there this week.

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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