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Opinion

CALGARY – It was classic case of so-close-yet-so-far for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who went into McMahon Stadium on Saturday needing a win only to leave with another loss, falling 37-33 to the Calgary Stampeders.

After weeks of taking solace in having at least some control over their fate, the Bombers no longer have a say in where they'll end up in the West Division. The loss squashed nearly all hope of finishing first – technically, there's a slim chance of a three-way tie at the top but it's not really worth exploring at this point – and if the Bombers can't beat Calgary at home next week in their regular-season finale they can kiss any chance of hosting a playoff game goodbye.

As for the Stampeders, a spat of injuries and inconsistent play earlier in the year has become a distant memory. They sit in first place in the West, at 11-5, and it almost feels like a forgone conclusion they’ll win their next two games and not have to leave the comfort of their own city for what will likely be another fruitful playoff run (the Grey Cup is in Calgary).

But before we look too far ahead, here are five takeaways from Saturday's loss.

Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press</p>
Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Chris Streveler (left) gets away from Calgary Stampeders’ Mike Rose during CFL play in Calgary on Saturday.

Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Chris Streveler (left) gets away from Calgary Stampeders’ Mike Rose during CFL play in Calgary on Saturday.

1) If one thing is clear this season, the Bombers don't know how to win close games.

They are 1-4 in matches decided by four points or less, with the lone victory coming in August against a Stampeders team that was without Bo Levi Mitchell, the reigning league and Grey Cup MVP. And even with its star quarterback watching from the sidelines, Calgary was edged only slightly by Winnipeg, 26-24.

Killer instinct? Playmakers? Whatever it is teams need to finish when the game hangs in the balance, the Bombers just don't have it.

Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press</p>
Calgary Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell plays air-guitar as he celebrates a touchdown pass during first half CFL football action against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Calgary, Saturday.

Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press

Calgary Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell plays air-guitar as he celebrates a touchdown pass during first half CFL football action against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Calgary, Saturday.

When I asked what that might mean for his team, Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea met the question with an "Oof" before seeing it simply as an acknowledgement his team has been in a lot of games that "net out to a single play."

Here's another theory: the Bombers are a horrible team in the second half.

While they average the second-most points for in the CFL with 27.9, they average fewer than 10 points in the final two quarters. That number only looks worse when you consider of the seven times Winnipeg has outscored their opponent in the second half, four of those were in the first five games of the year. In the last 12 games, a stretch where Winnipeg has gone 5-7, the Blue and Gold have averaged 8.5 points in the final 30 minutes and have been out scored 102-148.

Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press Files</p>
Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Chris Streveler (right) gets away from Calgary Stampeders' Mike Rose during CFL play in Calgary on Saturday.</p>

Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press Files

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Chris Streveler (right) gets away from Calgary Stampeders' Mike Rose during CFL play in Calgary on Saturday.

2) When a game comes down to the wire in the CFL, it's the team that gets better quarterbacking that most often wins.

I've been feeding a fed horse for weeks, suggesting Chris Streveler just isn't the answer – at least not right now – for the Bombers in their pursuit of a Grey Cup. It's become painfully clear that the coaching staff has little trust in the 24-year-old pivot when it comes to stretching the ball downfield.

Just consider: Streveler connected on just 18 passes for 134 yards – an average of just more than seven yards per completion. The average distance downfield for each reception was fewer than five yards, with 46 yards earned after the catch.

The only pass to travel more than 15 yards was Kenny Lawler's 34-yard touchdown in the second quarter, with nine of those yards coming after the catch. Ten passes went for three yards or fewer, with seven either going for no gain or for a loss of yards.

Perhaps what was most frustrating for fans was the Bombers inability to convert on second down with any kind of regulatory. The Bombers were a putrid 33 per cent (7-for-21) in such situations, and were completely ineffective on second-and-long. In 10 instances where the Bombers needed at least eight yards, they converted on second down just once.

Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press Files</p>
Stampeders' Reggie Begelton (left) celebrates his third touchdown with teammate Michael Klukas.

Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press Files

Stampeders' Reggie Begelton (left) celebrates his third touchdown with teammate Michael Klukas.

3) A majority of the blame has to fall on offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice. LaPolice has talked at length about how skilled his receivers are – a group, remember, that was good enough to cut veteran Chris Matthews – yet there's little chance even one finishes the year with 700 yards.

An argument can be made against the lack of production in the pass game, due to efficiency in the run attack, where the Bombers were pacing the league heading into the weekend's games with an average of 149 rushing yards per week. Everyone and their dog knew if the Bombers were going to have any success against the Stampeders, it would have to establish a run game.

The Bombers were able to do just that against a Calgary outfit that ranked second behind Winnipeg in stopping the run. The Bombers put up 191 net rushing yards on the Stampeders, though much of that production came in the first half (119 yards).

But when it comes to mounting a late touchdown drive to win the game, running a two-minute drill doesn't usually mean running the ball. LaPolice has failed to establish any kind of air attack and unless he can literally run over his competition from start to finish, he's running out of time to get this mess fixed.

Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press Files</p>
Stampeders' touchdown horse Quick Six and rider Chelsea Drake celebrate a TD against the Blue Bombers.

Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press Files

Stampeders' touchdown horse Quick Six and rider Chelsea Drake celebrate a TD against the Blue Bombers.

4) But when it came to making bad calls Saturday, O'Shea takes the cake with how he monitored the health of Streveler, and the subsequent usage of his quarterbacks.

Streveler was nothing short of a warrior on the night, inspiring his teammates with his physical play and refusal to leave the game despite suffering multiple injuries. He had his throwing hand crush by Calgary linebacker Wynton McManis in the second quarter and the many hits he absorbed had him hobbling back to the huddle for much of the game.

Streveler looked in particularly rough shape after injuring his ankle on a three-yard run early in the fourth quarter. He struggled to join his teammates after the play, making it seemingly an obvious time to either call a timeout or have him exit the game.

Instead, O'Shea opted to keep him in for a quarterback sneak on third down and predictably the injury only got worse, with Streveler requiring help from the Bombers training staff after a pileup.

Rookie Sean McGuire was then called on in relief over veteran Zach Collaros, a move that raised some eyebrows but made sense given McGuire's added level of comfort with the team's hurry-up offence. What’s harder to explain, however, was O’Shea somehow believing Streveler, an inconsistent passer and now with limited mobility, was suddenly going to lead the Bombers to victory. Still, Streveler came back in, battered and still ineffective.

Streveler was on crutches after the game and it will be curious to see his status this week. It's a good bet he misses some practice time, and if it's McGuire over Collaros earning first-team reps it will be clear where this team is headed – if it wasn't already obvious.

5) There is no silver lining to end this week's edition of five takeaways, not with only one slot left and the defence still to talk about.

There was some good, including a defensive touchdown by Marcus Sayles and a Winston Rose interception that set up one of four Justin Medlock field goals.

But the bad far outweighed the good with this group – from costly penalties, to a non-existent front push, to a complete breakdown in the secondary.

Mitchell had all day in the pocket to throw the ball and even when he did face pressure seemed to connect with a wide-open receiver. The Stampeders quarterback threw for 337 passing yards and three touchdowns – all to the waiting arms of Reggie Begelton. Credit goes to a stable offensive line, which, among other things, kept Bombers defensive end Willie Jefferson without a defensive stat.

What's most concerning about the secondary is after the game many admitted the struggles had to do with communication issues. Communication is the most important aspect for the last line of defence, and it shouldn't be nearly this troubling 17 games into the season.

Furthermore, playing clean and disciplined football is a must against any opponent, but it's even more crucial when playing the Stampeders.

Yet, Marcus Rios was flagged twice on a drive, including illegal contact on a receiver that negated a sack on 2nd-and-10, eventually leading to a Calgary TD. Rose was called for pass interference that resulted in a 30-yard gain and, three plays later, also ended with the Stampeders finding pay dirt. Finally, Jackson Jeffcoat, with the quarterback already wrapped up, delivered a shot to Mitchell's head that was flagged for roughing the passer.

Jackson's penalty didn't cost the Bombers any points, but it did cost them yards. The Stampeders were pinned in their own end and were set to punt. Instead, they swapped field position, while taking more time off the clock before a punt deep into Bombers territory.

 

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.

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