Nichols throws away Banjo Bowl (& nine other thoughts)

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers lost to the Saskatchewan Roughriders by a score of 32-27 on Saturday afternoon in front of 33,134 spectators at Investors Group Field. Below are my thoughts on the game.

The beginning of the end

Matt Nichols had his worst game as a Blue Bomber — and possibly the worst game of his career — in the Banjo Bowl on Saturday.

Throwing one interception is understandable. Throwing three is not. Throwing two interceptions in the red zone is unforgivable. Having both returned for a touchdown is enough to earn yourself a permanent spot on the bench.

Football is the ultimate team game — holding any player solely responsible for a win or loss is rarely accurate or fair. Saturday’s Banjo Bowl, however, may be the rare exception.

Had Matt Nichols eaten the football while under pressure on either of his pick-sixes — heck, the interception to Samuel Eguavoen took place on first down — the Bombers come away with at least a field goal on both drives. That’s two ten-point swings in a game that otherwise saw Winnipeg generally outplay their opponent.

The final score of this game could easily have been 33-18 in favour of the Bombers. Winnipeg would have kept pace with B.C. in the West Division standings following the Lions’ victory over Ottawa on Friday night and optimism would have been reigned during the Bombers’ upcoming bye week.

Instead, it’s entirely possible that Matt Nichols has started his last game for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

The eight-year veteran has clearly lost his confidence. He looks lost, foggy, and defeated. Every mistake he makes is scrutinized by the hometown fans who prefer his rookie back-up, something that won’t help Nichols regain the poise he’s so clearly lost.

What we witnessed on Saturday, I believe, is the end of the Matt Nichols era in Winnipeg. That isn’t to say that the veteran won’t be with the team for the rest of the year — he may even start some games (though I venture to say that he’d be best-served making those starts on the road).

But every successful quarterback needs to have the unquestioned faith of his teammates and, to some extent, the fans. Nichols has lost that faith. It’s tough to envision him re-earning it.

Maybe it’s fitting that Matt Nichols’ tenure with the Bombers became fractured in the Banjo Bowl. This was the same contest, after all, in which he made his Blue Bomber debut three seasons ago.

Acquired by the Bombers just prior to Labour Day back in 2015, Nichols started the Banjo Bowl after being with the club for just ten days. He led Winnipeg to a 22-7 victory over Saskatchewan, tossing for 283 yards, one touchdown, and one interception.

I recently spoke with someone who asked Nichols about that game approximately a year ago. Nichols told him that he (understandably) didn’t yet have full command of the Bombers’ playbook, saying that he mostly focused on knowing which route Nick Moore would be running prior to each play.

Much has been made about Nichols’ work ethic over his tenure as Winnipeg’s starting quarterback. The film study, the early mornings, the late nights — there’s no questioning the extent of his preparation.

It’s wild, then, to compare his production from the 2015 and 2018 Banjo Bowls versus his ability to prepare for those games. Three years ago Nichols made up the game plan as he went along and came out with a win. On Saturday Nichols looked utterly lost despite his extensive preparation.

Many expected Nichols to take the next step this season and establish himself as a top quarterback in the CFL. Instead, he’s lost the faith of his hometown fans and has probably lost his starting job.

The Bombers need to use the upcoming bye week to install Chris Streveler as their new starter — he represents the club’s best chance at making any noise come playoff time (slim as they may be).

Domestic over imported

Nationals Drew Wolitarsky and Daniel Petermann were the Bombers’ most consistent targets on Saturday, each recording 67 yards through the air.

I’ve been wanting to see Petermann get a look at slotback ever since Adarius Bowman was traded to Montreal. The McMaster product made the most of his playing time as he recorded his first career touchdown from Chris Streveler in the game’s fourth quarter.

I spoke with a West Division scout this week about the Bombers’ receiving corps and his comments didn’t surprise me.

“I like their Canadians — Petermann a lot. Simonise, too. Darvin’s good, but I really don’t like any of their other Americans. I wouldn’t take any of them. Not interested.”

Well, then.

McAdoo about nothing

The Riders threw a hitch screen to Kyran Moore on the club’s second possession of the game that went for a six-yard loss.

“That’s the worst play in football,” somebody said to me after the play. “You never voluntarily throw the football backwards. Best case scenario is a medium gain. Worst case scenario is a pick-six or a one-hopper from the quarterback that becomes a live ball.”

The Riders dialled up virtually the same play on first down of their next possession and Anthony Gaitor took it back for a 55-yard pick-six.

Maybe it’s time that Roughrider offensive coordinator Stephen McAdoo took that play out of the playbook.

Walking wounded

Saturday’s contest saw at least nine players (by my count, anyway) leave the game due to injury over the course of the afternoon.

Slotback Nic Demski, defensive end Gerald Rivers, linebacker Jesse Briggs, halfback Brandon Alexander, and receiver Corey Washington all left the game for Winnipeg momentarily before returning to finish the game. The same was true for Saskatchewan halfback Ed Gainey who missed time in the third quarter.

The three players who didn’t return to action were defensive back Chandler Fenner, slotback Kenbrell Thompkins, and quarterback Zach Collaros.

Fenner was up and walking along the sideline late in the game, as was Thompkins following his return to the stadium via taxi (yes, taxi). We won’t get an official update on either player for a while, but neither player appears to have suffered a major injury.

Collaros, meanwhile, wasn’t seen again after he took this brutal (but clean) hit from Jeff Hecht.

Count me among those who are concerned for the long-term health and well-being of Zach Collaros. He may only be 30, but Collaros has taken a tremendous amount of punishment over the past four seasons. He’s a bright guy with his entire life in front of him — it was hard to watch him suffer yet another head injury on Saturday.

Nobody asked me — including Zach — but Collaros’ career is beginning to border on Buck Pierce territory. He’s a tremendous athlete who’s had a very solid career. But life after football matters, too. It may be time to reevaluate where his priorities lie.

SAM-I-am

The Bombers paid a lot of money to Maurice Leggett and Chandler Fenner this past off-season to secure their strong-side linebacker (SAM) position. It’s ironic, then, that the Bombers got their two biggest defensive plays of the game from other players in that spot.

Anthony Gaitor got the start at SAM with Maurice Leggett on the six-game injured list and rewarded his coaching staff with a first-quarter pick-six.

Jeff Hecht then got a look at SAM after Gaitor shifted to field-halfback in place of the injured Brandon Alexander. It was during this time that Hecht blitzed freely off the edge and forced the Collaros fumble.

Flanders fizzles

A lot of Bomber fans have been clamouring to see Timothy Flanders in action this season. The 26-year-old was a solid dual-threat for the Bombers in 2016 and 2017, but had yet to crack the roster this season due to the ratio.

Flanders finally made his 2018 Blue Bomber debut on Saturday after injuries to Jermarcus Hardrick and Manase Foketi forced the Bombers to start four Canadians along the offensive line. His numbers were as follows: two carries for six yards; one reception for minus-two yards; and five kick-off returns for 88 yards.

Those don’t exactly jump off the page.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Flanders back on the practice roster following the bye week — and this time not merely as a victim of the ratio.

Western woes

The Bombers are now 1-5 against West Division opponents this season with their lone victory coming against the B.C. Lions back in week four. That says about all you need to know about their place in the West Division standings at the moment.

Playoff picture becoming clear (and possibly without the Bombers)

The old cliché says that the CFL season doesn’t truly start until after Labour Day, but I’d argue that the league’s playoff picture is virtually settled with eight weeks left to play.

Hamilton’s victory over the Argos on Saturday virtually guarantees that the Ticats and Redblacks will both finish top-two in the East Division. Calgary, despite Saturday’s loss to the Eskimos, should finish first in the West with Edmonton and Saskatchewan scrapping it out for the right to host the Western Semi-Final.

That leaves Winnipeg (5-7) and B.C. (4-6) to fight for the crossover spot for the next eight weeks. The Bombers own the tie-breaker over the Lions, but B.C. has two games in hand. The clubs’ schedules are fairly even, though the health of Travis Lulay will play a major role in how far the Lions will be able to go.

The bottom line is that the Bombers need to starting winning. That will have to start with the Montreal game scheduled at Investors Group Field following the club’s week thirteen bye and spill over into some of their tougher match-ups down the stretch.

Reinforcements return

Expect to see Weston Dressler and Jermarcus Hardrick back in the line-up the next time the Bombers take the field.

Hardrick’s re-addition will be a huge factor in re-solidifying the Bombers’ offensive line. I’m not convinced that Dressler will have a huge impact — he’s averaging fewer than 40 yards per game this season — but the club still seems to believe that he’s a game-changer.

Baby, bye, bye, bye

The Bombers are entering their second of three bye weeks this season and won’t play again until the 21st when they host the Alouettes. Even with the Bombers’ resistance to change, I can’t see the club standing pat over the bye week.

The first move the club should make — and I’ve been saying this since week one — is to sign free agent Bakari Grant. The former 1,000-year receiver would immediately upgrade a Winnipeg receiving corps that will probably need an extra player following the injury sustained by Kenbrell Thompkins. And, no — Ryan Lankford shouldn’t be that player.

The Bombers could also look to the trade market to upgrade the receiving corps down the road. Montreal’s been buoyed by a pair of recent wins, but the Als have long-since been playing for next year. Could Ernest Jackson or B.J. Cunningham be pried away from La Belle Province for a mid-to-late-round draft pick?

Time will tell.

Regardless, change is necessary. The Bombers’ season — and with it a potential 28-year Grey Cup drought — hangs in the balance.

John Hodge

John Hodge

John Hodge is a lifelong follower of the CFL who has been writing about the league since 2014. He is a two-time finalist of the Jon Gott lookalike contest.
John Hodge
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John Hodge
About John Hodge (384 Articles)
John Hodge is a lifelong follower of the CFL who has been writing about the league since 2014. He is a two-time finalist of the Jon Gott lookalike contest.