Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/6/2019 (348 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When was the last time the Winnipeg Blue Bombers had an offensive weapon that was a threat to score from anywhere on the football field?
Not a touchdown great who could get in behind the secondary and adjust his route to take advantage of coverages, but a player who could hit a proverbial home run from anywhere on the field? If this question brings about an uncomfortable silence, you aren’t alone. When it comes to harbouring a true speed freak or drag-strip vertical threat on the roster, it has been more than a while, but with the addition of Lucky Whitehead to the team, those days may soon be over.
The Bombers have plenty of fast guys on the 2019 roster, and have had them in the past. Brandon Alexander has wheels, and Winston Rose and Charles Nelson easily round out the top four when it comes to players that can flat-out run on this squad. But if you’re looking for the best combination of top speed, acceleration and elusiveness, this is where Whitehead separates himself from this pack.
According to the Dallas News, in a piece written in January 2016 Whitehead was a Cowboy, "When working out for NFL teams, his 40-yard dash times ranged anywhere from a 4.29 to a 4.41. He'd also reach speeds of up to 21.7 m.p.h. on kickoff returns." That is as top-end as it gets when it comes to burners you can find on the football field, in any league.
It’s rare that you come up against this kind of track-level elite speed in pro football. Most of the players that have it are so specialized they can’t do much else at the same time. Run fast in a straight line, and past defenders? No problem. Catch the ball at the same time, turn a corner or make someone miss? Not so much.
But if you can find one of these uncommon commodities who can do it all, it can open up a lot for you offensively. And if there is a co-ordinator in the CFL who knows how to take advantage of having a unique asset like this, it’s Paul LaPolice.
Now, this is obviously a lot to make out of two pre-season games, where Whitehead had a grand total of three catches, and a single handoff to his name. And the learning curve ahead of him is a long and winding road, fraught with mistakes and peril. But the touchdown he scored in the final pre-season game in Saskatchewan was something special.
Whitehead motioned out of the backfield with a stop-and-go slant action, made a difficult catch look easy, and then simply ran away from everybody. Even when he had to change direction, cut inside to avoid a defender and momentarily slow down, nobody gained ground on him. The entire time he possessed the football, he was increasing his separation from the defenders, which is impressive when you consider the baseline quickness required to play in a CFL secondary.
While we don’t know when and how often he will be used, defending against an explosive player of this degree presents all kinds of problems. You can’t play man coverage against them unless you have someone who can run with them and have help over the top. And if you play off them with too big of a cushion, they can gash you underneath. If they catch a football in space and get a single block or seam from one of their teammates, these are the kinds of players that can outrun pursuit angles, and will not be caught from behind.
Indeed, the best defensive approach against players of this nature is to try and disrupt them early, before they get going. If you can get physical with a speed guy within the allowable window of contact, and get your hands on him, and redirect him and his route, then you can interrupt the timing and force the pivot to look elsewhere.
It is way too early in the season to declare Lucky Whitehead the nitrous bottle to an already high-performing offensive scheme. Yet his addition and involvement this year may end up forcing defences to change their approaches just enough to open up things even more for all of the weapons this team already possesses.
Doug Brown, once a hard-hitting defensive lineman and frequently a hard-hitting columnist, appears weekly in the Free Press.
Doug Brown, always a hard-hitting defensive lineman and frequently a hard-hitting columnist, appears Tuesdays in the Free Press.