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One game, one goal

Bombers will have to answer list of questions when season ends; for now, the only thing that matters is Sunday's semifinal

Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/11/2019 (276 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There has been a popular mantra instilled by Mike O'Shea that has run deep within the Winnipeg Blue Bombers organization since he took over as head coach ahead of the 2014 CFL season.

It's not all that sophisticated, nor is it all that uncommon to hear in professional football or any other pro sports league around the world. In fact, it might just be the cliché of all clichés: focus on one game at a time.

CFL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE

Click to Expand

Sunday, Nov. 10

West Semifinal: Winnipeg @ Calgary, 3:30 p.m.

East Semifinal: *Edmonton @ Montreal, 12 noon

Sunday, Nov. 17

West Final: Winnipeg or Calgary at Saskatchewan, 3:30 p.m.

East Final: *Edmonton or Montreal at Hamilton, 12 noon

Sunday, Nov. 24

Grey Cup (in Calgary): East winner vs. West winner, 5 p.m.

*Cross-over team

It's a philosophy that has created, at times, a nauseating reality for local reporters who are looking to dig up the past or explore possibilities in the future. The present, O'Shea will tell you, is what's most important.

It's fitting, then, that as the Bombers take the field Wednesday for their first formal practice ahead of Sunday's West Division semifinal game against the Calgary Stampeders, all that matters for the Blue and Gold is what's staring them right in the face. Win this weekend and hope of winning the Grey Cup is alive. Lose, however, and there is no tomorrow, only a championship drought that will hit an unfathomable 29 years.

Either way, what happens on Sunday, win or lose, should have major ramifications on what this team will look like in 2020.

Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea dismissed reports he turned down mutiple contract offers, but didn't indicate whether those offers even existed. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea dismissed reports he turned down mutiple contract offers, but didn't indicate whether those offers even existed. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

First, if the Bombers fall short at McMahon Stadium, what might the future look like for O'Shea?

Unlike general manager Kyle Walters, O'Shea isn't under contract for next season. That means team president and CEO Wade Miller will have to make a decision to either commit to O'Shea — likely in the form of at least a two-year extension — or cut him loose.

It's certainly not an enviable situation to be in. While O'Shea has delivered stability to the club after years of chaos under then-GM Joe Mack — evident from his 44-28 regular-season record over the last four seasons – he's also fallen short in other important areas.

Most notably, despite O'Shea being a popular leader among his players, that unwavering admiration in the locker room hasn't translated to playoff success. The Bombers have just one win in four post-season games with O'Shea at the controls, and that lone triumph came last season in a road win over a Saskatchewan Roughriders team that was without its starting quarterback in Zach Collaros, who is now a member of the Blue and Gold.

It's hard to envision a scenario where O'Shea is brought back if he can't at least make it to the West final in Regina, and that's assuming he even wants to return.

On his weekly radio show Monday, O'Shea dismissed reports that he turned down contract offers at the beginning of the season. When answering the question, O'Shea was careful — twice — to mention that he did not "turn down multiple offers."

Defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall doesn't have a contract signed for next season. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall doesn't have a contract signed for next season. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The obvious followup question — whether he was offered any new deal— didn't get asked, and the topic was quickly dropped.

It's no secret other opportunities in other cities could be on the table, including a shot with O'Shea's former team, the Toronto Argonauts. Though Corey Chamblin remains the coach there, his future is uncertain and a spot closer to home — O'Shea grew up in North Bay, Ont. — could be what he and his family are looking for.

O'Shea also made it clear on his radio show that he wanted to stay in Winnipeg. So, if he is back for next season, does that mean his other coaches are safe, too?

Offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice and defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall are both on expiring contracts. What happens with them may or may not determine the future of the other coaches currently on staff. Some, such as quarterbacks coach Buck Pierce, could be promoted to OC.

It's unclear if any resentment still exists between LaPolice and the Bombers after Walters denied him a chance to interview for the head coaching job in Saskatchewan back in January.

LaPolice has led an offence that has racked up the third-most points in the CFL, averaging 24.6 per game. The Bombers also scored the second-most touchdowns (55) this season, lead the CFL in time of possession (32:02) and are first in the league when it comes to the run game, developing a dominant ground attack that averages nearly 148 rushing yards per week.

Offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice isn't signed next season and it's unknown if any resentment exists after he was denied a chance to interview for the head coaching job in Saskatchewan. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice isn't signed next season and it's unknown if any resentment exists after he was denied a chance to interview for the head coaching job in Saskatchewan. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

But as good as the Bombers have been running the ball, they've been equally bad throwing it: Winnipeg is dead-last in passing yards, averaging a dismal 212 yards per game.

Some of the issues in the pass game can be attributed to losing No. 1 pivot Matt Nichols to a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 10. But even with a healthy Nichols, who averaged 215 passing yards in nine games, the Bombers still had difficulty moving the ball through the air. Not a single Bombers receiver registered more than 700 yards this year.

Winnipeg's luck might have changed with the late-season acquisition of Collaros, who injected some major optimism into mix with a 29-28 win over the Stampeders in the team's final regular-season game on Oct. 25. The 31-year-old veteran didn't throw out the lights, but he did complete 79 per cent of his passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns.

What was most impressive was Collaros's ability to lead the Bombers on a fourth-quarter comeback that included an incredible on-the-go touchdown pass to the back corner of the end zone and a final drive that led to a 34-yard game-winning field goal by Justin Medlock.

The belief is the Bombers will start Collaros in Calgary and Chris Streveler, whose status is currently in limbo after missing the last game with a right ankle injury, providing a unique wrinkle as the short-yardage quarterback.

Its been an interesting few weeks for Collaros since the Bombers made a trade for him with Toronto. What he can do over the next while here could very well determine his CFL future. Once considered to be damaged goods as a result of multiple concussions in recent years, Collaros has the opportunity to play his way back into a starter.

Quarterback Zach Collaros is trying to play his way back into being a starter and could make the fight for the QB job fun if he can take the team all the way. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

Quarterback Zach Collaros is trying to play his way back into being a starter and could make the fight for the QB job fun if he can take the team all the way. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

Which makes the quarterback situation in Winnipeg just as interesting as any other heading into the off-season. Collaros, Nichols and Streveler are all in need of a deal for next season and there's a real possibility that all, some or none of them return. Only Sean McGuire is locked up for next year.

Some other key contributors on offence who will also need to put pen to paper before 2020 include receivers Darvin Adams and Drew Wolitarksy and a trio of offensive linemen in right tackle Jermarcus Hardrick, centre Michael Couture and right guard Patrick Neufeld.

As for the defensive side, it's clear that Hall is also on the hot seat and has been for some time. Though he's proven again this year his defence is capable of taking the ball away — the Bombers are first in forced fumbles with 23, and second to the Stampeders in interceptions (26 to 24) and total number of turnovers forced (47 to 45) — Hall has once again struggled to stop opposing quarterbacks from terrorizing his secondary.

Simply put, there's a reason why teams pass more times (661) against the Bombers than anyone else and run fewer times (256) against the Bombers than anyone else.

Further, things have not looked particularly pretty against Calgary's Bo Levi Mitchell who, in two games this season, has torched the Bombers for 687 passing yards and seven touchdowns against just one interception. Mitchell, the reigning league and Grey Cup MVP, is 12-3 against the Bombers, including guiding the Stampeders to a 22-14 home win in the West final last fall.

Hall has tried nearly everything to limit Mitchell, including using all-out blitzes to force him into quicker decisions and three-man fronts to give more support against Calgary's talented receivers. Sunday will be the third-straight game against Mitchell and the Stampeders, meaning Hall has been looking at film of the same opponent for the better part of the last month.

With defensive ends Willie Jefferson and Craig Roh, defensive tackle Drake Nevis and defensive backs Marcus Sayles, Kyrie Wilson and Chandler Fenner all up for new contracts, Hall may not have a more talented group that this one to turn things around. His job might just depend on it.

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

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.

Read full biography

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