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This article was published 27/5/2018 (504 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Matt Nichols has had games over his nine-year CFL career where the physical toll he’s experienced has been minimal.
In a Week 4 win over Toronto last season, Nichols, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers starting quarterback, even joked afterwards about how clean his jersey was. That night, the Argonauts defence, a unit that had racked up a league-leading 14 sacks through the first three weeks, were not only unable to register a sack but hardly came within breathing distance.
Nichols’ comments weren’t meant to disrespect his opponent; rather, he seized the moment to shine a spotlight on an offensive line that has come to feel as much pain as he does whenever he’s thrown from his feet.
Just ask Jermarcus Hardrick, the Bombers beastly right tackle, about what it means to keep Nichols intact.
"It’s really life or death when Matt has the ball," he said. "Since getting close to Matt and seeing how he leads us…yeah, there’s a lot at stake."
While the top priority of any O-line is to keep the quarterback healthy, the importance of keeping Nichols from harm’s way this season just might actually be a life (snapping a 27-year Grey Cup drought) or death (extending the lengthy drought to 28 years) situation.
With arguably the best roster the team has assembled in years, the Bombers have just one glaring weakness: quarterback depth. With little experience behind Nichols — of the four other quarterbacks in camp, only Alex Ross, has thrown a ball in a regular-season game.
Nichols, it can be argued, is the only player on the team that is truly irreplaceable.
"Keeping him in the game is essential, critical for our offence," said veteran guard Patrick Neufled. "It’s the most important job we have."
It will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to keep Nichols from getting hit this year. Even during a 2017 season, where the Bombers limited defences to the fewest quarterback pressures (71) in the league, Nichols wasn’t immune to injury.
A broken finger suffered against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and a calf injury sustained a short time later against Toronto provided a stark reminder that when Nichols isn’t 100 per cent, neither are the Bombers. With the string of injuries falling in the final weeks of the season, Winnipeg went through near hell and back to ensure their No. 1 pivot would be ready for the playoffs.
In total, Nichols missed six quarters, with his replacements — Dominique Davis and Dan LeFevour — unable to throw a touchdown pass in his absence.
Nichols returned for the playoffs and played extremely well given his limited mobility. But the Bombers lost in the West Division semifinal at home to the Edmonton Eskimos — the experience showing just how important it will be to keep him at optimal health all year and what could happen if they couldn’t.
"Keeping Matt up is a focal point for us because as you saw last year when he went down things kind of went down with him a little," said left tackle Stanley Bryant. "I’m not even going to say if we don’t…we are going to keep Matt up."
Even before veteran quarterback Darian Durant, who was signed in the off-season to provide a safety blanket behind Nichols, shocked the Bombers with his sudden retirement earlier this month, the O-line had started coming up with different ways to ensure Nichols would be available.
Using an online group chat as a means to stay connected over the off-season, they discussed game film, producing various scouting reports on opposing players. They also discussed moments where they missed a key block and what necessary changes were needed to prevent it from happening again.
"They’re definitely passionate about their jobs and their craft and the accountability towards that. They care about it a lot and more than any O-line group that I’ve been a part of and played with," said running back Andrew Harris. "It makes it that much more fun to play with these guys because they take so much pride in their work."
Of course, it won’t be simply up to the O-line to keep Nichols safe. Harris understands that when he doesn’t get the ball it’s his job to provide protection, whether that be picking up a blitz or getting an extra hand on a player that has slipped through the line. Receivers also need to get open by executing plays by offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice.
For his part, Nichols knows he needs to get rid of the ball and not put himself in a position to get crunched when he doesn’t need to.
"I feel like one of the best things I do is my pre-snap reads and understanding looks and knowing where to go with the ball and getting it out of my hands," said Nichols. "A couple times a game I’ll ask them to hold up a little bit so we can strike something down field."
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.