Walters, O’Shea deserve extensions but Bombers must continue to progress

The Winnipeg Football Club announced three-year contract extensions for general manager Kyle Walters and head coach Mike O’Shea this past Friday. The pair, now signed through 2020 and 2019, respectively, have been a tandem in Bomberland for the past three seasons. Achieving just twelve wins over the 2014 and 2015 seasons combined, the pair made the playoffs in the tough West Division for the first time in 2016 on the strength of an impressive 11-7 regular season record.

Continuity is widely considered an asset in professional sports. Particularly in the CFL, a league in which negotiation list players often wait two or three years beyond their college eligibility before coming north, maintaining front office consistency is important to creating success.

A lack of continuity has certainly been a hallmark of the Winnipeg Football Club since its last Grey Cup victory in 1990. Eleven different men have served as the head coach of the Blue Bombers over the past 25 years, three of whom (Darryl Rogers, 1991; Urban Bowman, 1992; Mike Kelly, 2009) held the position for just one season. Nine different general managers have also served during that time, five of whom had fewer than three seasons to implement their vision for the club (Jeff Reinebold, 1997-98; Ken Bishop, 1999; Lyle Bauer, 2000-01; Dave Ritchie, 2002-03; Kelly, 2009).

Should O’Shea and Walters remain with the Bombers through the end of their respective contracts, each would be among the most well-tenured professionals in the history of the Winnipeg Football Club. O’Shea would join Fred Ritter (1924-1929), Reg Threlfall (1938-1943), and Dave Ritchie (1999-2004) in a tie for the club’s second-longest serving head coach behind the legendary Bud Grant (1957-1966). Walters, meanwhile, would be the club’s fifth-most well-tenured general manager behind Jim Ausley (1958-1964), Joe Ryan (1931-1944), Cal Murphy (1983-1996), and Earl Lunsford (1968-1982).

That isn’t to say there haven’t been flaws in the work of both Walters and O’Shea. The Bombers (23-31) have achieved a slightly better regular season record than the expansion Redblacks (22-31-1) since 2014, but Ottawa’s 3-1 playoff record and 2016 Grey Cup championship render that irrelevant. Marcel Desjardins and Rick Campbell have made it to the big dance twice, winning once. O’Shea and Walters have yet to receive an invitation.

Amidst many high points of his work as G.M. (the masterfully-executed Drew Willy trade; the free agent acquisitions of Andrew Harris, Jamaal Westerman, Weston Dressler, Justin Medlock, and Darvin Adams; giving up just a conditional seventh round pick in exchange for Matt Nichols; the drafting of Matthias Goossen, Sukh Chungh, and Taylor Loffler, etc.), Kyle Walters has also made missteps. Nick Moore, Ryan Smith, and Stanley Bryant failed to meet the expectations of big-money contracts. Drew Willy’s rich contract extension was an egregious overpay. The Bombers have also failed to uncover and develop their own talent at key positions during the Walters era, including receiver, quarterback, and along the defensive line.

Arguably the lowest moment of Kyle Walters’ tenure as general manager of the Blue Bombers was the decision to select Regina receiver Addison Richards eleventh overall in the 2015 CFL draft over Simon Fraser’s Lemar Durant.

Durant, later selected eighteenth overall by the Stampeders, has recorded 572 receiving yards and four touchdowns through two seasons in Calgary, by far the most of any receiver selected in the 2015 CFL draft. The Simon Fraser product also had a strong Grey Cup game, grabbing four passes for 59 yards and a touchdown. Had the Stampeders won, Durant would have been the front-runner to be named the game’s Most Valuable Canadian.

Richards, to date, may be the first receiver in CFL history who has recorded more career drops (2) than receptions (1). The Regina product has never started a game and does not play on special teams, meaning he often doesn’t see the field during games. For a league that allows teams to dress only 44 players, using a roster spot on a player who fails to reach the field is a serious competitive disadvantage.

One of the reasons Richards was selected over Durant was due to concerns about the latter’s character. Rumors swirled during the 2015 CFL combine that Durant had a poor attitude, showing up to interviews late dressed in sloppy attire.

While character is an important consideration in vetting players, allowing it to become the primary consideration of scouting is foolish. Developing a player’s character can be accomplished with proper coaching and a strong locker room. Developing a player’s talent level is trickier — by the time players reach the pro-level, players are expected to know how to catch, run, block, and tackle.

Durant is a perfect example — he’s put up strong numbers despite being buried in a deep Stampeder receiving corps. He’s got all the talent needed to play pro ball and the physical tools, too. And there has yet to be a single report of poor behavior on his part through two seasons in Calgary — if he does have character issues (and I’ve yet to encounter evidence that he does), they have not negatively affected himself or his team.

Mike O’Shea is a big proponent of character as witnessed by virtually every interview he’s done over the past three seasons in Winnipeg. Ask him what he values in his players and the word “character” will be one of the first from his mouth. He believes in building his team from the bottom up, building its confidence from the locker room outward. O’Shea has yet to publicly criticize a player during his time in Winnipeg — it’s likely he never will.

One area in which O’Shea needs to continue developing as a professional is his stubbornness. O’Shea was far too late to make a change at quarterback this past season in Winnipeg, waiting six weeks into the campaign to bench an ineffective Drew Willy in favor of Matt Nichols.

O’Shea’s stubbornness was on full display following his club’s 32-31 loss versus B.C. in this year’s West Semi-Final. The Bomber boss should have left his offence on the field to convert on 3rd-and-4 late in the contest — Paul LaPolice’s play-calling was outstanding all game and Matt Nichols was stellar, completing 26 of 40 passes for 390 yards and two touchdowns. Instead, O’Shea sent Justin Medlock out with 36 seconds remaining to attempt a 61-yard field goal, four yards longer than Medlock’s self-determined range.

The kick fell well short of the uprights, ending the Bombers’ season in heart-wrenching fashion. O’Shea should have had the wisdom to realize that he made the wrong call — that a 61-yard field goal attempt, only one which has ever been successfully kicked in the century-long history of Canadian football, was simply a foolish decision. Instead, O’Shea defended his call, claiming he’s “comfortable with the decision” and that he’d “absolutely” make it again.

The contrast between O’Shea’s remarks and those made by Calgary Stampeder head coach Dave Dickenson two weeks later was palpable. Dickenson, the reigning CFL Coach of the Year, had just called for third-string quarterback Andrew Buckley to throw a pass on second-and-goal from Ottawa’s 2-yard line with seconds on the clock in the 104th Grey Cup. Trailing by three, the rookie head coach left his two best offensive weapons (CFL Most Outstanding Player Bo Levi Mitchell and CFL Most Outstanding Canadian Jerome Messam) on the sideline instead of allowing them an attempt to gain the required yardage. As we all remember, Calgary ended up kicking a field goal one down later to tie the game before losing it in overtime.

“I regret that call,” said Dickenson after the game without hesitation. He’d made a poor decision and he owned it. It was that simple.

There’s no arguing that Walters and O’Shea have done good work. Inheriting a truly awful roster in December of 2013 — likely the CFL’s worst since the 2003 Hamilton Tiger-Cats who went 1-17 — the Bombers have become a playoff-caliber team in just three years. The roster is young and players seem to genuinely love being in Winnipeg, speaking highly of their coach, management, and the organization as a whole. What was seen as the CFL’s least-desirable destination for free agents just three seasons ago is now one of the most popular places in play in the country.

In the end, however, Walters and O’Shea’s tenure in Winnipeg will ultimately be judged on just one thing: their ability to end the club’s quarter-century-long Grey Cup drought. A Grey Cup victory would earn Walters and O’Shea a place in Blue Bomber infamy, a permanent spot in Winnipeg’s short list of all-time great sports figures. Failure to win a Grey Cup over the next three years is unlikely to earn the pair a second contract extension, the desire for stability and continuity outweighed by the need to deliver a championship to satiate the CFL’s hungriest fan base.

Good luck, Mr. Walters and Mr. O’Shea — you’ve got three years. Please make the most of them.

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