Bombers lose game and, more importantly, Nichols (& 11 other thoughts)

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were defeated by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats by a score of 30-13 in front of 26,204 fans at Investors Group Field on Friday night. Below are my thoughts on the game.

1. Winnipeg’s defence took a massive step back on Friday night following what was arguably the unit’s best game of the season last week in Edmonton. Jeremiah Masoli threw for a season-high 338 yards and two touchdowns, also chipping in 48 rushing yards on eight carries. The Bombers’ defensive dozen failed to force a turnover and generated just six quarterback pressures despite often rushing as many as six players. The unit was also caught completely off-guard when, following an injury to kicker/punter Sergio Castillo, Jeremiah Masoli performed a quick punt on third and two early in the third quarter. The ball was recovered at Winnipeg’s 17 yard-line by an onside Brandon Banks, setting up a quick Ticat touchdown. Richie Hall is already a fairly unpopular figure in Bomberland; the performance of his defence on Friday night will do little to quell his doubters.

2. I took some heat for what I tweeted following Matt Nichols’ departure from the game in the third quarter. To clarify, I was not insinuating that Dominique Davis was incapable of winning Friday’s contest in relief of Nichols. What I was trying to convey was the magnitude of Nichols’ injury in comparison to the result of the game at hand. Winnipeg didn’t need to beat Hamilton — the season series between the two teams is meaningless and the Bombers essentially have second place in the West Division already wrapped up. Win or lose, an injury to Matt Nichols was the worst-case scenario for the Bombers on Friday night… which is what happened. Bomber fans can hope that the decision to remove Nichols from the game was merely made for precautionary reasons, but hand injuries are finicky — particularly for quarterbacks. If Nichols returns from this injury quickly, people will forget about the Bombers laying an egg in a game that will likely have no impact on the standings. If Nichols is out long-term, this injury will completely change the complexion of Winnipeg’s once-promising 2017 season.

3. Speaking of Davis, I thought he played exactly as you’d expect a quarterback of his age and experience level to perform in relief of an established starter. Davis showed off his big arm and impressive mobility, but looked a little bit slow in his decision-making. I think Davis will be a good CFL quarterback — he just hasn’t gotten the playing time a pivot needs to properly develop.

4. Credit where credit’s due: Hamilton was by far the better team on Friday night at Investors Group Field. The Ticats are now 4-2 since promoting June Jones to head coach, which, frankly, is stunning given his lack of experience in the Canadian game. Hamilton has also achieved a lot of its recent success without much tweaking of the roster — Jones simply promoted a few players (Masoli, Adrian Tracy) and repurposed others (Brandon Banks, Abdul Kanneh) to get the most out of his talent. I can’t help but feel the success of Jones and Phil Lolley (who was promoted to the role of defensive coordinator back in August) is an indictment of Kent Austin and Jeff Reinebold. Hamilton started the season 0-8, losing by an average margin of 18 points with a roster very similar to the one fielded in Winnipeg on Friday night. That’s unbelievable.

5. The tweet of the night goes to former Blue Bomber kicker Troy Westwood. The Bombers need to get their defence sorted out — quickly.

6. Matt Nichols wasn’t the only Bomber player to go down with an injury on Friday night. Timothy Flanders left the game midway through the third quarter, while special teams ace Mike Miller appeared to suffer a leg injury near the end of the game. Canadian defensive end Trent Corney also appeared to have missed time, though it’s unclear whether or not he finished the contest.

7. Six years ago I told anyone who would listen that Chad Owens would never make it as a CFL receiver. Lots of teams around the league were looking to deploy their return men (Larry Taylor, Marcus Thigpen, Jason Armstead, and Tim Brown were among the league’s best at the time) as offensive playmakers, enjoying little success. I figured the same would be true for Owens — he was an outstanding returner, but wouldn’t excel as a full-time receiver. As we now know, Owens would go on to become one of the league’s better receivers for the better part of a decade. It appears as though Brandon Banks might be the next player to make the jump from dominant return man to legitimate star receiver. After an awful start to the season on special teams, Banks has 446 receiving yards over his last six games. Projecting that number over a full season, Banks would be on pace for 1,338 receiving yards — almost the exact same number Owens posted (1,328) during his M.O.P. season in 2012.

8. Darvin Adams’ 44-yard pass to Andrew Harris early in the second quarter was Winnipeg’s highlight of the game. Paul LaPolice ran two jet sweeps to Ryan Lankford last week in Edmonton and has moved Dan LeFevour around in past short yardage situations. This play will add to the laundry list of things opposing defences must now prepare for before playing against Winnipeg.

9. Speaking of LaPolice, just five of Winnipeg’s 29 first half offensive snaps were rushing plays. The ground game has been a huge part of the Bombers’ attack all season — why go away from it now? Hamilton, a club that barely ran the ball under Kent Austin, gave Alex Green twenty carries and owned the time of possession battle by a whopping sixteen minutes (38:19 to 21:41). That’s how you play good, fundamentally-sound football.

10. Speaking of Lankford, the first-year Bomber has just eight catches in the last nine games and appeared to be the cause of Matt Nichols’ late second quarter interception. Lankford slowed late in his corner route near the end zone — some suggested he simply lost sight of the football — allowing halfback Richard Leonard to make an uncontested interception. Canadians Matt Coates and Drew Wolitarsky looked serviceable on Friday night, while speedsters L’Damian Washington and Chris Givens are waiting for an opportunity on the practice roster. With all due respect to Lankford, it might be time to give someone else a shot in the starting line-up.

11. It was a shame to see just over 26,000 fans at Investors Group Field on Friday night. The Bombers came into the contest with five-straight home victories and the weather was gorgeous; then again, maybe those who stayed home had a premonition about Friday’s game.

12. The Bombers now sit at 10-4, six points up on the Riders (7-6) and Eskimos (7-6) for second place in the West Division. Any combination of two Winnipeg victories, two Saskatchewan losses or two Edmonton losses will clinch the Bombers the team’s first home playoff game since 2011. Aside from losing Nichols due to injury, the only real drawback of Friday’s loss for Winnipeg is the virtual guarantee that Calgary will win the West Division for the fourth time in five years. Had the Bombers beaten Hamilton, Winnipeg would have entered the final four weeks of the season just three points back of Calgary with one game between the two teams remaining. Now, down five points, it’s hard to see Winnipeg making up enough ground to bring meaning to the clubs’ meeting during week twenty.