Nichols has Bombers back on track (& 13 other thoughts)

1. Every few years a game comes along that you just know will be remembered forever — an instant classic that will be discussed, recounted, and treasured for years to come. While this may sound hyperbolic — Wednesday’s Blue Bomber victory over Hamilton was just a regular season game, after all — I can’t help but feel as though this was one of those games: a classic; a hallmark; a legend. A few such Bomber games that come to mind are: the Casey Printers game, a 47-35 double overtime thriller that ended on a Deon Beasley pick-six in 2010 (Printers was released just days later); the Fred Reid game, a 2009 contest that saw Reid rush for a jaw-dropping 260 yards at B.C. Place; and, of course, the Hail Mary game, a 2006 contest in Edmonton that finished on a last-second 100-yard touchdown pass to Milt Stegall (more on Stegall in a moment). An impressive number of Bomber fans in attendance for Wednesday night’s game stuck around through a two-and-a-half hour weather delay (roughly 16,000 by my estimate) to watch a 2-4 team play at home where they have won just seven regular season games in three-plus seasons. That type of fan dedication would be the envy of any team in any league, bar none. And while I feared fans would be let down by the home squad when the contest finally got underway (getting hosed after a massive game delay would be so Bombers, would it not?), Winnipeg put on their most dominant performance in years, beating the Tiger-Cats by a final score of 37-11. This is the contest future generations of fans will refer to as the Late Game. A massive weather delay, 10:00 PM local kick-off, C.J. Roberts’ pick-six, eight missing starters, the return of Clarence Denmark, Stegall’s Ring of Honour induction, and 34 first-half points? That’s the story of the Late Game. May its legend live on in Bomberland forever.

2. Ultimately, the credit for turning around the Bombers’ season — and no, I don’t think it’s too early to make that declaration — goes to Matt Nichols. Nichols followed up a stellar outing in Edmonton last week with another excellent game against a stout Ticat defence. Nichols looked poised against Orlondo Steinhauer’s blitz-happy defence, progressing through his reads quickly and delivering consistently accurate passes to eight different targets. Now 2-0 as a starter this season, Nichols has reinvigorated a Blue Bomber team that was sorely lacking energy just a few short weeks ago. Quarterbacks tend to receive too much criticism when their team is losing and too much praise when their team is winning — in Nichols’ case, however, I believe he’s truly earned the all credit he’s receiving. Nichols’ play has affected the Bombers in all three phases of the game, bringing new life to a franchise that appeared destined to another losing season before he took the controls. Nichols has wanted to be an unquestioned starter since breaking into the league in 2009 and now, seven years later, he’s become just that.

3. An interesting storyline to follow this season will be how the Bombers handle their quarterback situation as time passes. Drew Willy is currently one of the highest-paid back-up pivots in CFL history, an undesirable situation for a team that could be pressed for cap room come season’s end. Having high-priced stars like Weston Dressler, Ryan Smith, and Patrick Neufeld out long-term should help relieve some of the club’s cap pressure (the salaries of players on the six-game injured list do not count against the cap), but Nichols earning bonus money on top of Willy’s salary could get very expensive. As per Garrett’s report below, Nichols is due a lot of extra cash after his sixth start — and while I cannot confirm whether or not Garrett’s figures are accurate, I do know Nichols’ contract is heavily incentive-laden based on playing time. Dominique Davis may or may not be ready to become a second-string CFL quarterback, but I believe it’s possible we may soon find out.

4. Some quick statistics to put Wednesday night’s victory into perspective:

  • The last time the Bombers won at home: September 12, 2015 (22-7 over Saskatchewan)
  • The last time the Bombers won back-to-back games: July 31, 2014 (23-6 over B.C., 27-26 over Hamilton)
  • The last time the Bombers scored more than 30 points in a game: July 11, 2014 (34-33 over Montreal)
  • The last time the Bombers won a game by more than 25 points: July 24, 2010 (47-21 over Edmonton)

5. Milt Stegall, inducted into the Blue Bomber Ring of Honour at halftime of tonight’s game, said on TSN1290 on Wednesday afternoon that, “Cincinnati is where I was born, Atlanta is where I live, and Winnipeg is my home.” What an outstanding sentiment from an outstanding player. In a passing league, Stegall is the greatest receiver ever to play the Canadian game. There will never be another like him and, while I’ve yet to witness a Blue Bomber Grey Cup win, I wouldn’t trade growing up during the Milt Stegall era for anything. Milt was the best. Milt is the best. Milt will always be the best. To me, to the city of Winnipeg, and to the CFL. Period.

6. Speaking of Stegall, Milt’s first son Chase (11) was born in the States, while his second son Colin (8) was born in Canada. As far as I’m concerned, that means Kyle Walters should already have Chase on the Bombers’ neg list with his club prepared to tank in advance of the 2031 CFL draft.

7. What is there to say about Kevin Fogg? Not only has the rookie impressed at virtually every position in the secondary, but he’s also had two punt return touchdowns called back this season on penalties that, while legitimate calls, did nothing to aid his returns. Fogg is currently the league leader in punt return average (17.9 yards) despite not being the Bombers’ primary punt returner. Demond Washington never quite lived up to the hype he initially generated after his arrival in 2012. Fogg, also a defensive back and return specialist, just might.

8. I couldn’t help but smile when Clarence Denmark was introduced ahead of Wednesday’s contest. Denmark had a disappointing 2015 campaign, sure, but he was a class act during his five seasons in Winnipeg and an effective starting receiver more often than not. His return was strong, recording seven receptions for 69 yards and a touchdown, and should serve as a reminder to all football players that it’s important to show dignity even when being cut — you never know what opportunities may arise in the future.

9. American rookies who suffer serious injuries in training camp are typically released and brought back midseason only if (a) injuries pile up at their position and (b) the coaching staff really liked them to begin with. In the case of linebacker Kyle Knox, the Bombers liked him so much they put him on the six-game injured list after the preseason. The decision paid off when Knox recorded two special teams tackles in his CFL debut and was a big part of the special teams effort that held Brandon Banks to a punt return average of 3.8 yards. Knox was used a gunner on the Bombers punt coverage units, a position typically reserved for defensive backs. Even at 220 pounds, Knox was routinely able to beat Ticat special teamer Giovanni Aprile down the field on punt team. Aprile’s got speed — a receiver by trade, the former Bomber draft pick ran an impressive 4.61 40-yard dash at the 2012 CFL combine — which really puts Knox’s speed into perspective. Khalil Bass and Ian Wild are having solid seasons, but Mike O’Shea and Richie Hall need to find a way to get Knox more involved on defence.

10. For me, the biggest difference between this Blue Bomber team and its two previous iterations of the Walters/O’Shea era is the quality of depth player they have been able to find. Fogg, Knox, Travis Bond, Jace Davis, Thomas Mayo, Terrence Frederick, and C.J. Roberts have all demonstrated that they can all play in this league, a refreshing change from previous years when incoming American talent was simply not good enough. Things have also improved on the Canadian side of the roster with rookies Michael Couture, Trent Corney, and Taylor Loffler receiving major playing time in Wednesday’s victory.

11. Speaking of Loffler, the kid has won the starting safety spot on this team as far as I’m concerned. Recording four tackles and his first career interception versus Hamilton, Loffler brings a level of speed, size, and grit that is unprecedented for a rookie out of the CIS. I’m not suggesting that Macho Harris’ time with the club is over, but Loffler’s been special the past two games. The fact that his passport also allows the Bombers to start three American offensive linemen doesn’t hurt, either.

12. What the heck was Mike O’Shea thinking playing Matt Nichols until the final snap of Wednesday night’s win? Darvin Adams, still fifth in CFL receiving yards despite missing Wednesday’s game, was lost for 6 to 8 weeks due to an upper-body injury he sustained in the final two minutes of last week’s game in Edmonton. This is football. Players get hurt. Nichols has proven that the Bombers are only going to go as far as he can take them — playing him until the final whistle was downright foolish, particularly when third-stringer Dominique Davis could have used the late-game reps.

13. A quick note from the Ticats’ perspective: as ugly as Wednesday’s performance was, going 3-3 to start the season without Zach Collaros is far from a disaster. With Collaros back at the helm possibly as early as next week, there’s no reason why Hamilton won’t still be a 12-win team this season.

14. Wednesday night’s victory was the Bombers’ greatest ever at Investors Group Field. On a night with a massive weather delay and eight starters absent due to injury, the Bombers dominated a talented Ticat team in one of the best performances the Winnipeg Football Club has put forth in over a decade. Now 3-4, the Bombers travel to Toronto next week to take on Logan Kilgore’s 4-2 Argonauts. In a tight West Division (technically, the Bombers are currently only one point out of first place), going into their first bye week at 4-4 would be a stellar mark for a Bomber club that many believed was one loss away from a head coaching change just two weeks ago. Stay tuned.