Winnipeg was plunging towards the abyss the last time they landed at Tim Hortons Field.
Rewind to mid-July 2016 and the Bombers have started with two straight losses after a 5-13 season in 2015: Mike O’Shea’s job security is being questioned, Drew Willy is the quarterback and Winnipeg were 11-point underdogs.
“We were such a new team, Andrew Harris and [Weston] Dressler and Ryan Smith and myself,” kicker Justin Medlock says.
Smith made a no-look, Madden video game-like catch that highlighted a Bombers victory to alleviate the pressure surrounding the team.
Three games later, Matt Nichols was installed as the starting quarterback which seemed to spark Winnipeg on a seven-game winning streak. After being relegated to backup duty, Willy was shipped out of town to Toronto as the Bombers were on the way to locking up a playoff spot for the first time since 2011.
O’Shea and general manager Kyle Walters got contract extensions. Nichols did too. Stability at three major front-facing positions in the organization.
Fast forward to mid-August 2017: Winnipeg made the trip to Hamilton in Week 8 as 2.5 point favourites, a 13.5-point difference from a year ago.
“My friends who bet on the games probably look at it more than I do, but whether we’re an underdog or a favourite we don’t look at that stuff,” running back Andrew Harris said. “We look at what they do on defence or offence or special teams and we game plan. We don’t watch the scores when we’re watching the games, we watch play-to-play.”
The Bombers entered the Donut Box with a 4-2 record right in the thick of it in a rough and tumble West Division. O’Shea’s bunch put together a decisive 39-12 win. Last year in the Hammer, Winnipeg needed to hold on in the fourth quarter; by the time the final frame came on Saturday night the outcome was decided — only the matter of margin was left to be determined.
“We’ve come a long way since then. A lot of that stuff is in the past, we’re not thinking about that day-to-day, but in the grand scheme of things this team has come a long way,” Harris says.
“We’re going in the right direction. There are a lot of positive vibes with everyone in this locker room and organization. With the guys we’ve got in the room, there is no quit in our DNA.”
Canadian defensive end Jamaal Westerman believed in what the Bombers were doing when he signed with Winnipeg in 2015. Every CFL team was after the ratio-breaker, but the new regime won him over.
“That’s one of the reasons why I came here, honestly, because I thought that we could turn it around – I liked what I heard from the coaching staff,” Westerman says. “We have respect for the guys that fight and grind – if you’re not a fighter or a grinder and a good teammate, you’re not going to make it in Winnipeg.”
Westerman admitted that teams in pro football don’t always play hard for the people in charge, which makes O’Shea’s leadership special. Nichols has been a strong extension of that.
“Matt’s our leader — he brings a different type of energy,” Medlock says.
“He’s an unreal leader. I cut back [against Hamilton] and he went and tried to go make a block for me. Most quarterbacks wouldn’t do that, especially when you’re winning in the fourth quarter,” Harris says.
“I couldn’t ask for a grittier quarterback and a guy who’s got more heart.”
One year ago no one on the Winnipeg roster was using words like that to describe Willy. And nobody could put “Grey Cup” and “Bombers” in the same sentence. Over 365 days later, the Bombers have pulled out of a tailspin and reached cruising altitude with a chance to fly higher.