It’s the kind of play that should keep rival defensive co-ordinators up at night.
Late in Sunday afternoon’s practice, 6-5, 230-pound Blue Bombers wide receiver Chris Matthews was in full stride when he reached out for a deep throw. He was under duress, with American defensive back Marcus Rios providing tight coverage.
The pass was on target and both players appeared to have a shot at the football, yet it would be Matthews who calmly snatched the ball away from the defender.
It’s the kind of play Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols and offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice were probably envisioning when Winnipeg signed the ex-NFLer and the CFL’s most outstanding rookie in 2012 during the off-season.
"I'm psyched up, man. I'm really psyched up, ready to get out there and play." — Bombers wide receiver Chris Matthews, on the prospect of facing the Eskimos on Thursday
Completing those deep throws in practice is one thing, but with Matthews missing almost a month with an unspecified injury, the 29-year-old has been invisible for most of training camp and the start of the regular season.
That should change Thursday when the Blue Bombers host Edmonton at IG Field. On Sunday, Matthews pronounced himself fit and ready for active duty.
"I’m psyched up, man," Matthews said. "I’m really psyched up, ready to get out there and play. Really get the plays back down and be able to work with Matt and the rest of those guys. Cause they were having a game. Especially in pre-season. I’m not going to lie to you, it was kind of intimidating. Just not being able to go out there and perform.
"Because as receivers, we’re visual people. We’ve got to see the ball in, we’ve got to see the run, we’ve got to see the end zone. We’re visual people, so me not being able to see myself play to the calibre I’m used to playing at — it hurt. But we’re all professionals. For sure, you’re going to see a lot of things from me, hopefully."
Matthews had limited reps with the first team offence Sunday as the Blue Bombers officially returned to practice after an eight-day break for a Week 2 bye. Winnipeg beat the host B.C. Lions 33-23 in Week 1.
Did he feel any rust after his lengthy layoff?
"No, not at all," Matthews said. "I had a great practice today. Limited reps... they just want to make sure you’re good and don’t come out here and reinjure anything. I felt great."
Head coach Mike O’Shea wasn’t anointing Matthews a Week 3 starter, at least not yet.
"We’ll see," O’Shea said. "Yeah, there’s a chance. He had, obviously, a real nice catch down the sideline there today. They’re still monitoring what kind of shape he’s in. But he’s a helluva good football player, and we’ll see how the roster shakes down (Wednesday)."
Matthews, who finished 2018 as an effective late-season addition for the Calgary Stampeders, said the injury didn’t affect his ability to devour the playbook. He also feels like he’s found a good fit with his new team.
"I’m comfortable," he said. "You’ve still got to be in meetings. You still have to talk to the coaches, talk to the quarterbacks, see what they’re seeing. When practice is going on, I was right there in the huddle like I was out there playing, so I got to hear how Matt calls the plays. We’re all from different regions, so we talk a little bit different. Just getting that down pat. I feel like I’ve got that with pretty much all the quarterbacks, honestly. Now, it’s time to go out there and play."
Matthews stayed behind during Week 1, making for what must have been a curious scene at the University of Manitoba dorms where the Blue Bombers bunk during training camp.
"I was here, watching the game on TV and on the iPad, just trying to soak up as much as I can," Matthews said. "It’s funny, at the time I was still staying in the dorms where we stay at training camp. And I’m yelling at the TV, calling out routes, and everybody’s looking at me, like, ‘What are you even talking about?’ They don’t even know that I’m actually playing on the team."
While Matthews’ return seems likely, the same cannot be said for veteran Canadian offensive lineman Patrick Neufeld. Neufeld, a spectator for all of training camp with an undisclosed injury, is still in an active leadership role.
"He’s certainly not getting frustrated with it, which is good," O’Shea said. "It’s hard to get healthy when you’re frustrated. He’s sticking with the process and still leading in his way in the meeting rooms. Between (offensive line coach) Marty (Costello) and the veterans and Patty, those young guys played well and he’s a part of that."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.