For years, continuity has been a major priority for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. So, it’s no surprise the team that took the CFL by storm in the 2019 playoffs, winning three straight road games en route to capturing the Grey Cup and snapping a lengthy championship drought at 28 years, is mostly intact for 2021.
Bombers at a glance
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2019 regular-season record: 11-7 (3rd in West)
Key pickups: WR Cam Meredith, DE Jonathan Kongbo, LB/DB Tobi Antigha, DB Josh Johnson, K Marc Liegghio
Key departures: QB Matt Nichols, QB Chris Streveler, OL Cody Speller, FB John Rush, WR Daniel Petermann, WR Lucky Whitehead, DT Drake Nevis, DE Craig Roh, DB Winston Rose, DB Marcus Sayles
Indeed, minus a few exceptions, much of that roster from nearly two years ago is back in blue and gold and eager to defend their title. It won’t be easy, as the Bombers weren’t exactly a juggernaut throughout the regular season. And while they might have a number of familiar faces back in the fold, other teams have also improved, not to mention the West Division is always a tight race.
But starting with a group of proven winners and experienced players should provide a notable edge in what will be a unique year without a preseason and a truncated 14-game regular season. So long as age doesn’t catch up to a number of key contributors, many of whom are years into their 30s, the Bombers should be considered a notable threat to repeat. Of course, only time will reveal what’s to come.
Here is an early season preview of the Bombers, in what is the ninth and final installment of a Free Press series titled, Around the CFL.
Three training camp stories
QB DEPTH: The Bombers cemented their starting quarterback when they opted to sign Zach Collaros after he led the team on their brilliant playoff run. That meant saying goodbye to Matt Nichols, the guy who helped them get out a major rut, beginning in 2016, and their pass-yards leader over the past five seasons.
Then there was the exit to the NFL for Chris Streveler, a fan-favourite known more for his crushing hits on opposing defenders than crisp spirals. With Streveler and Nichols no longer in Winnipeg, what used to be a deep quarterback group is now arguably as thin as any.
Sean McGuire is the official backup, and the Bombers like what they got in the 25-year-old former standout at Western Illinois. But he’s only thrown three passes over his brief CFL career, completing one. Also vying for a spot are newcomers Dalton Sneed and Dru Brown, both of whom have never played the three-down game. Add it all up and it could be very bad news if Collaros goes down.
RECEIVER BATTLE: The Bombers have all five starting receivers from the Grey Cup back for 2021. But with rookie Kenny Lawler leading the way with just 637 receiving yards – the lowest total for a leading Bombers receiver since 1975 – there’s certainly room for growth here.
That could come from within, of course. Lawler and Rasheed Bailey should be more comfortable with the transition to the CFL; Darvin Adams, if he can stay healthy, could easily reach another 1,000-yard season; and Nic Demski and Drew Wolitarsky have proven they can be dangerous when given more opportunity.
Still, there’s got to be a desire by the Bombers to unearth that game-changing receiver they’ve lacked at times. And with running back Andrew Harris unlikely to take on the lion’s share of the offence, it could very well come from an unfamiliar face.
Of all the new bodies that will be in camp, former NFLer Cam Meredith is the most intriguing. Meredith starred for the Chicago Bears in 2016, reeling in 66 catches for 888 yards and four touchdowns. But a knee injury derailed his career, possibly setting up a comeback in Winnipeg?
NO MORE MEDLOCK: Justin Medlock handling the kicking duties allowed the Bombers to worry about other areas of the roster. But with Medlock retiring over the prolonged offseason, Winnipeg suddenly needs to pay attention to an important but sometimes underrated part of the game.
The Bombers have one kicker currently on their roster and it’s Marc Liegghio, a rookie who set U Sports records at Western University but has never attempted a single kick as a professional. While collegiate success can be important to future success at the pro level, there’s certainly no guarantee of it.
And while Liegghio might one day become the team’s future foot, asking him to do what Medlock achieved here just doesn’t seem fair. Then again, lots in football isn’t fair. It’ll be interesting to see how he fares in camp before the lights become brightest. Again, the Bombers really like him.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH
1) QB Zach Collaros — he proved he could be durable in last year’s run, but with the kind of injury history Collaros has, including multiple concussions, concerns with his health will always linger. If he can stay healthy, Collaros has a real chance to excel in the Bombers offence. And with a stronger arm and more mobility than Nichols, not to mention a full training camp to work out any issues, Winnipeg’s Collaros-led attack could be deadly.
2) RB Andrew Harris — he’s cemented his place in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and has led the CFL in rushing the last three years. But at 34 years old, and with 16 months away from the game, one has to wonder when he might start to slow down. If he doesn’t, the rest of the CFL is in big trouble.
3) DE Willie Jefferson — there’s a growing concern over how players dealt with the uncertainty over the last nearly two years, and whether they stayed committed to their workout regimen. But from the looks of Jefferson, he hasn’t skipped a beat. The reigning CFL most outstanding defensive player is primed for another big season and, if you listen closely, you might be able to hear him on the grounds of IG Field inviting the rest of the league to, “Come on down to Winnipeg!”
X-FACTOR: Offensive Co-ordinator Buck Pierce
Buck Pierce has been waiting patiently for years to have the chance to run his own CFL offence. He’s turned down opportunities in other cities because he wanted that shot to be in Winnipeg.
Then, after he was officially named the Bombers offensive co-ordinator following the Grey Cup victory, he was forced to wait another year as COVID-19 ravaged the world. Safe to assume he’s ready to go with this group and has the utmost respect from his players.
Pierce is a great football mind and after learning from Paul LaPolice, one of the CFL’s best offensive minds, for four years, it should be really interesting to see how he makes his stamp on this group. They’ll need to be a real threat for the Bombers to repeat.
“I do think that hitting the ground running on a shortened season and getting off to a great start is important. I mean, it’s not the only thing. How we approach things, looking only at what the next day holds in store, but I do always value a veteran presence. And in this particular year, it should prove it’s worth.”
— Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea
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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