Blue Bombers, Harris appear ready to part company

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers and running back Andrew Harris are currently in a standoff over a new contract, the consequences of which could be drastic for the Canadian Football League team.

With just hours remaining before CFL free agency officially opens Tuesday at 11 a.m. CT, Harris is still without a commitment for the 2022 season. And as each minute passes, the more it seems the Bombers are ready to move on from their homegrown tailback.

<p>In 2019, Andrew Harris was instrumental as the Bombers finally snapped the organization’s 28-year Grey Cup drought, including being named the game’s most valuable player and top Canadian.</p>
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In 2019, Andrew Harris was instrumental as the Bombers finally snapped the organization’s 28-year Grey Cup drought, including being named the game’s most valuable player and top Canadian.

At best, it’s a gutsy move by an organization that owes much of its current success to Harris. At worst, the Bombers are turning their backs on a player who grew up in Winnipeg and whose departure will have a ripple effect throughout the locker room and across Manitoba’s greater football community.

Harris was signed by the Bombers ahead of the 2016 CFL season, his arrival coinciding with the organization’s return to prominence following some very lean years. Since then, Harris has delivered on his promise to make Winnipeg a winning CFL city.

In 2019, Harris was instrumental as the Bombers finally snapped the organization’s 28-year Grey Cup drought, including being named the game’s most valuable player and top Canadian. He was relied on heavily again in last season’s title run, returning just in time for the playoffs and providing an indisputable boost to the lineup en route to winning back-to-back championships.

Choosing the option to move on from Harris is an obvious football decision – which, from that point of view, certainly carries some logic. After all, Harris will be 35 in April, once again defying the odds of Father Time to play in his 12th CFL season.

Health is clearly a concern for Bombers general manager Kyle Walters and head coach Mike O’Shea. When Harris did play last year – which was for just half of the COVID-19-condensed, 14-game regular season, plus playoffs – he was at less than 100 per cent, battling injuries to both his ankle and knee.

These concerns have forced the Bombers brain trust to ask some serious questions. Will Harris be willing to put in the required work this offseason necessary to compete at the level he and the team expect him to? And if he is, what could realistically be expected as far as production on the field?

After pulling up lame just days into training camp last summer, Harris admitted shortly upon his return to the lineup in Week 4 that football wasn’t always his top priority over the winter. But when he did suit up, he looked no worse for wear, playing like his vintage, relentless self.

Harris finished with 623 rushing yards and three touchdowns in seven regular-season games in 2021, six of which he recorded at least 80 yards on the ground. He rushed 23 times for 136 yards and a touchdown in a 21-17 win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders in last year’s Western Final.

Money, as is often the case in professional sports, is also an issue. Harris warrants a salary much higher — around $160,000 per season — than the players Winnipeg has behind him. Winnipeg has already committed to Johnny Augustine and Brady Oliveira.

Oliveira’s signing, announced Monday, sealed in many people’s eyes the end of Harris’ run with the Bombers. Oliveira, also a Winnipegger, has been the starter-in-waiting behind Harris for a year now, with the torch poised to be passed on.

But there is another side to the argument: the potential cost of allowing Harris to walk.

For starters, his teammates want him back. There’s no doubt there has been a more vocal push by Bomber players in recent days, with some quietly voicing their displeasure over a a delay in getting a deal done with Harris. For a team that seemingly understands the importance of instilling a good culture, opting not to re-sign Harris appears to contradict that notion and leads to ruffled feathers.

Then there’s the chance of the unthinkable — the sight of Harris donning another team’s jersey. While hard to imagine, it’s certainly not off the table.

Harris plans to play in 2022 and would certainly garner attention from around the league. The Edmonton Elks, Toronto Argonauts and (gulp) the Saskatchewan Roughriders have all been rumoured to have interest in No. 33.

Just imagine his first press conference, complaining about Winnipeg’s unwillingness to make room for him, while dressed in Riders green. Imagine trying to stop a revitalized Andrew Harris with a giant chip on his shoulder.

The Bombers have built up plenty of good will over the years – winning will do that. But it seems unwise to test that by saying goodbye to, unquestionably, one of the most popular players in team history.

Simply put, Harris is quite likely the only player capable of defeating the Bombers in the court of public opinion.

For it to even get to that point would be a big mistake. The good news is there are some options that could still be in play.

Maybe club president and CEO Wade Miller decides to step in. If there’s anything Miller cares most about, it’s the financial health of the team. Bottom line: Harris puts butts in seats, and no jersey is more prominent at home games than his No. 33.

Or, perhaps, Walters and O’Shea come to their senses and a deal gets done. A Harris-Oliveira duo, mixed in with a dash of Augustine, would make for a solid backfield. Even if it comes with some major surgery on the salary cap.

Either way, time is running out on what will be a significant moment in Bombers history. One that may result in a future without its biggest star.

Twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

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