BUILDING THE BOMBERS Part I: Dominant team we see today was eight years in the making

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It was far from a fluke when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers won the Grey Cup in 2019 and it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that they came back with a team that looks even stronger in 2021.

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This is all part of a building process that started eight years ago under CEO Wade Miller, who established a foundation by hiring general manager Kyle Walters, assistant GMs Danny McManus and Ted Goveia and, most importantly, head coach Mike O’Shea.

All of those personnel are still with the organization today and have played major roles in moulding the Bombers into a team that has made the playoff five years running, won its first championship in 29 years in 2019, and is off to a dominant 10-1 start to the 2021 season.

Winnipeg has already locked up a spot in the West Final and will host that playoff game on Dec. 5 at IG Field. They did it a month before the end of the regular season and six weeks before they’ll play their most important game of the year.

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So how did it get to this point? How was this team assembled and why has it been so successful.

“The first thing is we need to credit Wade Miller for riding out the storm,” said Goveia, who is also the Bombers director of player personnel.

“There were some pretty lean years there early on and we were all finding our way, collectively. The first couple years were tough, just as we were searching for the right formula. A lot of the credit needs to go to the patience of Wade Miller, to sustain that.”

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Miller is clearly a believer in the importance of consistency and continuity. The Bombers missed the playoffs in the first two years under the new management and coaching regime and it certainly would have been tempting to blow things up and start over again.

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But slowly things started to come together in 2016 and the Bombers haven’t looked back, developing into one of the CFL’s model franchises in recent years.

The Bombers success has come from assembling talented coaches and players and keeping them around.

A lot of that speaks to the work of O’Shea, a players’ coach, who has found a recipe for success and sticks to it. He preaches work ethic, character and humility and surrounds himself with people who will follow his lead.

“I genuinely believe guys enjoy the environment,” Walters said. “Mike has set up a culture that we like here.

“We prioritize quality of the individual, I’m sure more than most other teams. It’s a hard job for those coaches but it makes it much more enjoyable when you’ve got a group of people in the locker room that are good dudes and hard-working guys who are not really causing any problems.”

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Middle linebacker Adam Bighill, a 10-year CFL veteran, came to Winnipeg in 2018 after stints with the B.C. Lions and New Orleans Saints of the NFL.

Winnipeg wasn’t an attractive destination for him when he first started in the CFL, but he could see things starting to change shortly after Miller, Walters and O’Shea moved into their roles.

“It all kind of started with a fundamental shift in coaching and atmosphere with Coach Osh coming in, with Wade coming in, with Kyle coming in,” Bighill said. “It didn’t happen overnight. They had to take some time to get the guys in and get the program going. But by the time I came to Winnipeg I had a good feeling about it. From there, we obviously chose to stay in Winnipeg and, for me personally, I tell people that when I came to Winnipeg it was the most fun I’ve had playing professional football.”

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On the field, the building blocks started going in place back in 2013. Walters was brand new to the GM role, having taken over for the fired Joe Mack on an interim basis, when he swung a trade with the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Oct. 6.

The Bombers sent defensive end Alex Hall, who went on to win a Grey Cup with his new team, to the rival Riders, for Canadian offensive lineman Pat Neufeld.

Hall hasn’t been in the CFL since 2015, while Neufeld is in his seventh season with the Bombers and is, to this day, an anchor on one of the league’s best offensive lines.

“That was kind of the start of it, right when we took over,” Walters said. “We were not very good but we thought we’d move on from an asset and see if we could get a good Canadian guy in here and go from there.”

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With McManus, Goveia and their team of scouts uncovering talent on both sides of the border, Walters using his expertise to run the team’s draft program, and O’Shea finding his way as a head coach, Winnipeg started to assemble the kind of players that could help them rise in the standings.

Their fortunes really started to change in 2015, when Goveia signed offensive lineman Stanley Bryant away from the Calgary Stampeders. The Bombers had to throw a lot of money his way to get him to move East — bad teams have to overpay to get good players — and they didn’t even realize at the time just how good of an offensive lineman they were getting.

Bryant has never missed a game in his six seasons at left tackle, has won two most outstanding offensive lineman awards and was a finalist for another, and is a perennial all-star.

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Next, the Bombers signed free agent Andrew Harris, in 2016, bringing home a Winnipegger who had a fine start to his career with the B.C. Lions. All Harris has done is win three CFL rushing titles, a most outstanding Canadian award and a Grey Cup MVP award.

In 2018, the Bombers signed Bighill, a dominant middle linebacker who was coming back from the NFL. He’s been a force in his three seasons in Winnipeg and was named the CFL’s most outstanding defensive player in 2018.

And in 2019, the big signing was defensive end Willie Jefferson, who won the CFL’s most outstanding defensive player award that season.

The contribution of those four players to the Bombers success can’t be overstated but other key players, like special teams demon Mike Miller, receiver Nic Demski, and offensive lineman Jermarcus Hardrick, also joined the team though free agency.

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In 2016, the team also signed kicker Justin Medlock to a free-agent deal and he wound up being named the league’s most outstanding special teams player that year and putting together three more tremendous seasons, before calling it quits after winning the 2019 Grey Cup.

“The free agents that are on the team have really worked out for us,” Walters said. “The amount of awards that group has won — top Canadian, top lineman, top special teams, and top defensive player. They have really succeeded here.”

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While the free agents have been terrific drivers of the team in recent years, it should be noted that the Bombers are built through a balanced, team approach from the management and coaching staff.

When Winnipeg hammered the B.C. Lions 45-0 on Oct. 23, to run their record to 10-1, the 46 players on the roster included a mix of people acquired by U.S. scouting, the CFL draft, free agency and trades.

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Eighteen of the players on the field that day came to the team through U.S. scouting, 18 were drafted by the team, eight came through CFL free agency and two were acquired through trades.

“You have to be able to build it through the draft and you have to be able to build it through scouting and you’re gonna get some icing on the cake with some nice free agent signings,” said Bighill, who signed a three-year deal with the Bombers before the 2019 season.

“The better the first two are, the better your free-agent signings might be.”

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McManus was a Canadian Football Hall-of-Fame quarterback before he joined the Bombers in a scouting role. He won three Grey Cups and a most outstanding player award during his career and has proven to be an exceptional talent-finder as well.

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He and Goveia are responsible for signing such key players as safety Brandon Alexander and defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, along with receivers Kenny Lawler and Rasheed Bailey, among many others.

Though he lives in Florida and does most of his work in the United States, McManus has seen first-hand just how the Bombers have evolved over the years and believes success has come with experience.

“I think it’s time,” McManus said, when asked what the key was to building this Bombers team. “(Mike and Kyle and Ted and I) have been together eight years and there are a lot of conversations that go on among all of us about what type of player Mike wants, not only in athletic ability, which is important, but also the player’s moral compass.

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“It’s Ted and I’s job to go out and try to find those guys and get them as close as we can to where the coaches need them to put them in a position to succeed.”

The point is, this has all truly been a team effort for the Bombers. Walters, McManus and Goveia provide the right kind of talent and O’Shea identifies the character and moulds it all into a team.

“We’re just the guys that go to the grocery store and get the ingredients,” McManus said. “We don’t get a chance to cook it all. That’s Mike and his coaching staff and the veteran players in the locker room that put it all together. And they want to make sure they don’t put anything that’s rotten into what they’re cooking.”

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Of course, the Bombers star-studded roster would not be the same had the team not made a last-minute, deadline-day trade with the Toronto Argonauts in 2019.

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They acquired Zach Collaros, who wound up getting pressed into action just a week before the start of the playoffs, and never looked back.

Collaros is now 14-1 as the Bombers’ starting quarterback, has a Grey Cup ring, and is the favourite to be named the CFL’s most outstanding player in 2021.

Collaros loved what he saw right away when he got to Winnipeg — the Mike O’Shea culture, the continuity in management, the players’ attitudes in the locker room and talent on the field — and it was something he wanted to remain a part of.

“We re-assured Zach that what he left in 2019 was what he was coming back to in 2021,” Walters said. “I think that made it easy for Zach cause it’s a good setup for him here, with the pieces that surround him.”

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The truth is, the quality of play in the CFL has suffered after the 2020 season was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Bombers are an exception. They have been head and shoulders above everyone else and are Grey Cup favourites because so many of the 2019 pieces are back in the fold, from management, to the coaching staff to the players.

“Us keeping all the players we were able to keep, all the players that were able to come back, all the coaches that were able to stay, the people in the front office who were able to stay, they’re all playing key roles in what we’re doing right now,” Jefferson said. “Everybody is comfortable, but also all wanting to come in and be better than they were in 2019. We don’t want to be the same team we were in 2019, we want to be better, and that’s from Mike, to Wade, to Kyle, to (director of communications Darren Cameron), to the video people, to the coaches, to the players.

“We wanted the team to be a lot better and everyone has stepped up to that expectation.”

Twyman@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/Ted_Wyman

PART II TOMORROW: A mantra about fitting in hangs in the Bombers locker room and is even engraved on their Grey Cup rings. Finding people who fit has been paramount to the team’s success.

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