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This article was published 29/7/2016 (1475 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
And with that, there is hope, Bombers fans.
Not a lot of things have gone right for Mike O’Shea in his two-plus seasons as head coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, but O’Shea’s decision this week to bench starting QB Drew Willy in favour of backup Matt Nichols came up all cherries Thursday night at Commonwealth Stadium in a stunning 30-23 Bombers upset of the Edmonton Eskimos.
For the first time this season, the Bombers had a QB in the pocket Thursday night who actually seemed to have a genuine interest in looking downfield. Crazy, I know.
And the result was a vindication of embattled offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice and his scheme.
It was the one of the most interesting questions in town through the first five weeks of this 2016 CFL season: Was the problem with the Bombers offence the scheme or the quarterback? Nichols provided the emphatic answer Thursday night — this offence can play winning football if you have the right man at the controls.
With a legitimate downfield threat finally to go along with the steady diet of swing passes Willy had been serving up all season long, the rest of the pieces the Bombers had put into place in the off-season all fell into place as well.
With a vertical threat to respect, the short stuff became more effective. And with the passing game firing on all cylinders, the running game opened up for tailback Andrew Harris in what will be remembered as the Winnipeg native's coming-out party as a member of the Bombers.
And with the Bombers offence marching up and down the field in long, sustained and effective drives, the Bombers defence was both rested and inspired and put forth their best effort all season long in overcoming a litany of injuries to shut down the best QB in the CFL, Mike Reilly.
Nichols doesn’t play defence, but make no mistake: he was as much a part of this defensive effort as a Bombers front-seven that got a big push all night long and a secondary you’d have thought had been playing together all season long instead of for the first time ever.
By night’s end, even O’Shea had to admit the obvious: it is Nichols, not Willy, who is the right man to be leading this team right now.
Not that he’s necessarily happy about it. O’Shea is the president, CEO and chief bottle washer of the Willy fan club and he was dragged kicking and screaming — by desperation and a 1-4 record — into giving Willy the hook and letting Nichols start in Edmonton.
And so asked after the game Thursday night whether Nichols will be his starter when the Bombers host Hamilton next Wednesday, O’Shea actually grimaced.
"Yes," O’Shea said, before turning his head and mumbling the rest of his answer to no one in particular. "Yeah, he’s gonna keep playing."
And with that, we have finally found something that O’Shea hates more than admitting he made a mistake — losing.
The night was also sweet vindication for Nichols, who has waited his whole professional career for a chance to play not because the regular starter was injured but because he was actually the choice to lead a team’s offence.
Presented with the opportunity, Nichols seized it, forced it to the ground, choked it out and finally — in a memorable moment during the second half — stood over the body and stared in the direction of the Eskimos sideline.
Nichols, remember, stood on that Edmonton sideline for five-plus seasons before the Eskimos traded him to Winnipeg last year — just in time for him to miss out on a chance to hoist the Grey Cup with his former teammates.
If you didn’t think Thursday night was extra special for Nichols, you weren’t paying attention. "You get fired up in the game," explained Nichols, "and maybe there’s a little bit of a chip on your shoulder anytime a team lets you go. You want to prove to them they were wrong."
Nichols was asked if he perhaps also proved something to the Bombers locker room Thursday night.
"Yeah, especially in me telling them I’m going to do all I can to help this team win and say all those things — to be able to back that up on the field, I think that’s what builds trust.
"I think a lot of times, you talk, talk, talk, but if you can’t back it up, guys are going to stop believing you."
Hmmmm, who does that sound like?
We’ll probably never know for sure if Nichols saved O’Shea’s job Thursday night. TSN’s Gary Lawless — yeah, him again — quoted anonymous team sources this week saying that O’Shea still had the support of the Bombers front office and isn’t going to be fired anytime soon.
That’s interesting, but I’d argue it’s even more interesting that no one in authority at Investors Group Field has been willing to say the same thing on the record.
I asked to speak to Bombers CEO Wade Miller on the subject last week and he turned me down. This week, I asked to speak to Miller again and after initially agreeing to do an interview, Miller promptly changed his mind and walked away when I told him what the subject was.
"I’m not talking about that," said Miller.
So draw your own conclusions about what would have happened Thursday night if Nichols hadn’t put this team on his back and the Bombers limped home from Edmonton at 1-5, instead of 2-4.
Whatever the case, O’Shea now has some breathing room and an effective quarterback.
And Bombers fans? They have hope.
It ain’t much, but it’s a lot more than you had a week ago.
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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