It’s reached a point where winning the 2019 Grey Cup almost feels old hat to Winnipeg Blue Bombers general manager Kyle Walters — at least when it comes to defending the title.
Don’t think Walters isn’t still basking in the fact the Bombers snapped a nearly three-decades long championship curse under his leadership. There’s no greater accomplishment on his long resume.
Overshadowing the past, though, is what’s on the horizon. With the CFL back and training camps opening in fewer than three weeks, Walters is riding a high simply on the thought of players returning to the field.
It’s been that long, more than 15 months of talking about and planning around COVID-19, enough to make the GM appreciate the small things.
“I haven’t thought about defending the Grey Cup, I haven’t thought about the pressures of the season. I would say there’s less pressure internally this year, and far more excitement,” Walters said.
“But just outside of that type of pressure that obviously built up in this organization for years and years, that’s not prevalent. It doesn’t feel like that this year, so far. It just feels like so much excitement around here that we finally got the word to go ahead and it’s full speed ahead.”
Walters has been busy, despite the coronavirus forcing the CFL to close up shop in 2020. He’s had the unenviable task of renegotiating player contracts, many of which saw significant cuts to salaries after the league was hammered financially by the lost season.
Walters was able to bring back a majority of starters from that Grey Cup winning team, minus a few bodies. Those holes have been plugged with more than suitable replacements.
The challenge now is making sure players are in the right shape come camp. While it’s an asset to have a number of experienced players on a roster, like the Bombers do, a number of those guys are getting up in age.
Andrew Harris, Stanley Bryant, Jamarcus Hardrick, Willie Jefferson and Adam Bighill are all 30 or older, and all will be leaned on to play significant roles in 2021. How might a year away from the game effect their play?
“That’s not an easy answer,” Walters said. “Because you can look at it both ways, that some of those guys that you mentioned having a year off, assuming they’re looking after themselves and training and running and staying fit, yeah, the healing on your body, the rest on your body could be very beneficial. Conversely, of trying to get your body back into contact and accepting contact from being away that long and being able to survive contact, that will be the challenge.”
The Bombers aren’t just worried about the older players when it comes to being in shape. All players have had to face challenges over a prolonged offseason. Some got jobs, taking them away from regular workout plans, while others were locked out of gyms for months due to health protocols.
Walters said he trusts the plan Al Couture, the team’s director of health and performance, has put forth for training camp. It’s designed to ease the players into contact before ramping up the speed as the regular season inches closer.
‘It’s been, what, 17, 18 months or whatever it’s been since we saw our own players,” Walters said.
“It’s an interesting challenge every year when you bring up your young Americans who you saw at NFL training camp a year or two ago. Now you’re saying that about your entire roster, not just your Americans.”
Walters said he is very comfortable with the offensive and defensive lines. He believes quarterback Zach Collaros is a superstar, and No. 2 Sean McGuire has a lot to like, too. Harris, so long as he can stay healthy, is about as good as it gets for a running back in the CFL.
Where Walters sees most opportunity for newcomers is in the secondary. The Bombers are without Winston Rose and Marcus Sayles, their two biggest pieces, both of whom monitor the boundary side.
Josh Johnson signed as a free agent and should help ease the blow. But there’s no debating a sizable hole has been left with the exits of Rose and Sayles. And it’s likely going to be filled by a young — and cheaper — American player.
“The secondary, losing Winston and Marcus, your boundary corner and boundary half who were very good football players, that’s going to be the big focal point I think throughout training camp, is to see, can Mike Jones slide into the boundary?” Walters said.
“Josh Johnson, who’s very versatile, can he move in there. We scout for a reason and bring up a lot of young Americans, and you’re going to have to count on some of those guys to win jobs, particularly in the secondary.”
Walters expects it to be a busy year for him, certainly busier than usual when it comes to keeping an eye on personnel. COVID-19 hasn’t been kind and its full effect on the CFL might not be fully told.
And while he may not have put much thought into being defending champs, the goal is still the same.
“The expectation this year is no different than any other year. The parameters heading in are very different that none of us have ever gone through,” Walters said.
“But from an expectation standpoint, us, like all the other teams, once you step out on that field, regardless of the parameters, whether it’s pre-season, no pre-season, any of that stuff, you expect to go out and win every football game you play. We believe we’re going to line up and compete, put a good product on the field and win every football game that we play.”
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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