For the first time in more than 15 months there's a growing optimism around the Canadian Football League.
The COVID-19 pandemic had held a firm grip on the CFL, resulting in a cancelled 2020 season. But Monday brought the news many had been hoping for, an approval by the league's board of governors to hold a 2021 campaign beginning Aug. 5.
What followed was a nationwide conference-call with commissioner Randy Ambrosie, with players also available to speak on the many positives in getting back on the field after an unprecedented layoff. More will come, too, with Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea expected to speak Friday and general manager Kyle Walters sometime next week.
Meanwhile, I figure there's no time like the present to share five things I've been pondering, stuff that will likely be on my mind until training camp begins July 10. Things that you may have been wondering as well, or perhaps should be. Either way, it's great to be talking football again.
HICCUPS IN THE 2021 SCHEDULE
I bring out Negative Nelly to begin, only because I just don't understand some of the choices made on the 2021 CFL schedule released Tuesday. Some of them are just straight-up bizarre.
It's very cool that the season opens in Winnipeg with a 2019 Grey Cup rematch between the Bombers and Hamilton Tiger-Cats. I'm told this wasn't the original plan, so credit to the CFL for adjusting things to make it happen.
But there's another lost opportunity that didn't exactly fall through the cracks, and ultimately couldn't be rectified before Tuesday's release. That being, of course, the Bombers not playing a single game, home or away, against the Ottawa Redblacks.
With Paul LaPolice the head coach and Matt Nichols Ottawa's starting quarterback — two guys who have long histories with Winnipeg and were crucial to the Bombers hoisting the Grey Cup — there would have been no shortage of juicy headlines heading into a game between the two teams. It's weird enough the Bombers won't play a regular season game against a club in a nine-team league, but it's even weirder the CFL wasn't willing to move mountains to create a showdown that would have attracted all CFL fans.
Other eyebrow-raising observations include Edmonton travelling to B.C. twice without seeing them at home, as well as Saskatchewan playing three straight games against the Calgary Stampeders.
Please give me a bit of time before you quiz me on the other eight rosters beyond the Bombers. Despite such a long break from playing, there was still a lot of action in free agency and the amount of turnover for some clubs is enough to make your head spin.
But when it comes to Winnipeg, the Bombers look to be in really good shape as far as returning bodies. Of the 24 starters on offence and defence who dressed for the Grey Cup, only one player on offence and three on defence are no longer on the roster. And a majority of those holes have been suitably filled.
On offence, only centre Cody Speller is gone. While Speller proved to be a great player in the middle of the Bombers admirable front-five, the only reason he got the start in the Grey Cup was because Michael Couture injured himself in the final regular season game. With Couture fully healthy, and Geoff Gray also in the mix, the Zach Collaros-led offence looks to be in stellar shape.
The secondary has taken a sizeable hit with the exits of Winston Rose and Marcus Sayles. Josh Johnson was signed in 2020 and remains on the roster, so that should help. Drake Nevis is with Toronto, but his spot on the interior of the defensive line will go to Steven Richardson. The Bombers also brought back Canadian defensive end Jonathan Kongbo, who had briefly darted for the NFL, to help bolster their defensive front.
Leaving one last question: is kicker Justin Medlock coming back?
LONG LAYOFF, MORE INJURIES?
The Bombers certainly look good on paper, but their collective health may just be the great equalizer.
It's no secret Winnipeg is filled with experienced players, many of whom are getting up there in years. How might this long layoff affect some of their aging stars?
There's a significant concern among the league's medical staffs that with players not being able to compete in games for close to two seasons and having to work their training regimens around strict health protocols, we might see a spike in injuries to start the year. In Winnipeg, players have been going through virtual fitness updates and have had various workouts made available to them that can be of help in any situation.
But there's also the chance players haven't been nearly as focused on their training given many have been forced to find income outside of football. The plan is to slowly integrate the players into camp, with all these things taken into consideration. But even that doesn't guarantee we won't see an increase in injuries, especially with no preseason games.
It was interesting to hear Bombers defensive end Willie Jefferson talk about vaccinations this week and how he at first had doubts before ultimately getting the shot.
The Bombers have been strongly encouraging the public to get vaccinated, and they've done the same with the players. But they can't force anyone to get it, even if it would make life easier for all involved. Teams that hit a certain vaccination rate are expected to enjoy more freedoms, making it a possible competitive edge.
But despite a number of education seminars, the Bombers still have some players resisting. While I certainly understand someone's right to choose, I would also understand the league or teams limiting those player’s freedoms to keep the rest of the team and greater community safe.
I just wonder what the ripple effect might be in a locker room that because of the choices of a few, everyone might be asked to do their jobs differently. That would include strict protocols around meetings, which could be made virtual. Chemistry in a shortened season is going to matter and a divide when it comes to vaccinations could certainly leave its mark.
FANS IN STANDS
The Bombers are already busy contacting season ticket holders and in the next month will begin selling single-game tickets. That's all with the belief things will open up to a point where a significant number of people will be able to attend IG Field come August.
Manitoba is on pace to reach its re-opening goals, which would include at least 25 per cent capacity by Canada Day and at least 50 per cent by August long weekend. There's potential for those limits to grow, depending on greater vaccinations rates and the fact IG Field is outdoors.
There's also a good chance fans wanting to attend Bombers games will need to be fully vaccinated. This makes sense, as it provides a much safer environment for spectators and has a significant role is lessening game-day restrictions. Don’t be surprised if the Bombers go this route to help get more butts in seats.
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.