Sloppy defensive effort costs Bombers chance to end Grey Cup drought (& 12 other thoughts)

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were defeated in this year’s West Semi-Final by the Edmonton Eskimos by a score of 39-32 in front of 27,244 fans at Investors Group Field on Sunday afternoon. Below are my thoughts on the game.

1. Football is the ultimate team game; to blame one player, position or unit for a win or loss is often a foolish assertion made a fan or pundit who lacks an understanding of the comprehensive, team-centered nature of the game. With that said, I believe the 2017 West Semi-Final qualifies as one of the rare occasions on which it is appropriate to lay the blame almost solely on one facet of a team. The Winnipeg Blue Bomber defence cost the club an opportunity to advance to next week’s West Final in Calgary. Winnipeg’s defence gave up more yardage than any other team in the CFL during the regular season, a shortcoming that was mitigated by the consistent creation of turnovers and working alongside the league’s high-scoring offence. On Sunday, however, Richie Hall’s unit failed to record a takeaway and allowed seven receptions of over 25 yards. The complete breakdowns in coverage that resulted in long scores to Brandon Zylstra and Adarius Bowman were disastrous — for breakdowns of that nature to occur in a playoff game is simply unconscionable. It’s Hall’s job to ensure that his defence is prepared, focused, and well-equipped to make plays. After a rough season capped by an awful performance in the playoffs, the Bombers need to make finding a new defensive coordinator its number one priority this off-season.

2. Matt Nichols and the Bomber offence had a solid outing on Sunday afternoon despite the absences of Darvin Adams and Travis Bond. These are Nichols’ statistics in two career playoff starts as a member of the Blue Bombers: 61-of-88 passing for 761 yards, five touchdowns, and no interceptions. Nichols still has his critics, but there’s no arguing with what the guy’s done in the post-season.

3. Speaking of Nichols, Darrin Bauming of TSN1290 reported after the game that the veteran pivot played the final month of the season with a broken finger. I can add that veteran receiver Weston Dressler played the final three games of the season with a broken bone in his hand. What those two accomplished in the West Semi-Final is all the more impressive when you take these serious injuries into account.

4. Mike O’Shea is taking a ton of heat from fans and pundits across the country for his decision to try a fake punt early in the third quarter. While the unsuccessful fake didn’t help the Bombers’ chances, suggesting it was the deciding factor in Sunday’s game is lunacy. O’Shea told CJOB 680 after the game that the decision was made in an attempt to keep Mike Reilly off the field in the second half, a key to Winnipeg’s game plan. When you consider that Reilly led the Eskimos to four consecutive touchdown drives following the fake, O’Shea had a good reason for pulling out all the stops to try to keep Reilly off the field. I also don’t buy the argument that the failed fake punt permanently shifted the game’s momentum. Winnipeg went on a 55-yard scoring drive on its first possession after the fake; Nichols connected on a 20-yard strike to Matt Coates, while Andrew Harris and Timothy Flanders chipped in runs of 17 and 13 yards, respectively. You can argue that O’Shea shouldn’t have tried the fake, but in the end its effect on the game is almost negligible compared to the multiple breakdowns in Winnipeg’s secondary.

5. A word of caution to the “there’s always next year” crowd — yes, while optimism will inevitably reign next season in Bomberland, success in the CFL is fleeting. Between free agency, injuries, player development, and coaching changes, teams are now changing more from year-to-year than ever before. The Bombers appear set-up for long-term success, but so did B.C. last year following an impressive 32-31 come-from-behind victory over Winnipeg in the 2016 West Semi-Final. If you know any Lions fans personally or on twitter, ask them how the 2017 went on the Left Coast.

6. The Bombers sold 27,244 tickets for the West Semi-Final, leaving more than fifteen percent of the seats at Investors Group Field unaccounted for. I was surprised to learn this week that the Bombers had fewer than 23,000 fans at three of the club’s last five home playoff games — 22,843 in 2007, 22,110 in 2003, and 22,508 in 2002. With this in mind, Sunday’s attendance doesn’t look half-bad — still, though, it’d be nice to see the building more full for such a critical contest.

7. Speaking of attendance, hosting its first playoff game in six years should be a nice financial boost for the Winnipeg Football Club in this year’s budget. The first investment the club should make with the extra funds is a contract extension for offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice that makes him the league’s highest-paid assistant coach. The second investment the club should make is a matching contract for Noel Thorpe to take over as the club’s defensive coordinator.

8. One of the controversial non-calls in Sunday’s game saw Andre Proulx’s officiating crew not call the Eskimos for offside on third and short in the third quarter. Two players on the interior of Edmonton’s defensive line jumped, but managed to retreat back from the neutral zone before contacting a Winnipeg player. By the letter of the law, this is the correct call — defensive players don’t have to be ruled offside if they clear the neutral zone without crossing the line of scrimmage. This is not, however, how this rule has been enforced most of this season — as someone who watched all 81 regular season CFL games, I can confirm that defensive players were routinely flagged for offside this year regardless of whether or not they retreated from the neutral zone prior to the ball being snapped. This is the type of inconsistency that drives players, coaches, and fans insane. Sloppy officiating didn’t have an impact on Sunday’s outcome — Winnipeg’s defensive breakdowns saw to that — but it’d be a shame to see one of the season’s three remaining playoff games sullied by the league’s notoriously inconsistent officiating.

9. I had three different people tell me early this season that Matt Coates was the best Canadian receiver on the Blue Bomber roster. While it took the club a long time to find the former Hamilton Hurricane a spot in the starting line-up, Coates used his opportunity to prove what so many people told me five months ago. His eight-reception, 100-yard performance against Edmonton was Winnipeg’s first 100-yard game from a Canadian receiver since Cory Watson reached the century mark on July 4, 2013. Expect Coates to be a week one starter in Bomberland next season.

10. Speaking of receivers, L’Damian Washington likely played his way into a second season with the Bombers following an eight-reception, 74-yard playoff performance that included a touchdown. Clarence Denmark, meanwhile, appears to have played his last game in blue and gold. The seven-year veteran faded down the stretch this season, failing to record more than 70 receiving yards in a single game and making just six receptions in the four games following Darvin Adams’ season-ending shoulder injury. The 32-year-old will likely finish his CFL career with 5,478 receiving yards and 31 touchdowns in 116 games.

11. I need to walk back something I wrote a week ago in my post-game piece. I’d decided with approximately a month remaining in the season that Matt Nichols would be my pick for Most Outstanding Player. He’d had a truly great season to that point — he led the league in QUAR and, though he had 700 fewer passing yards than Mike Reilly, compared favorably to his former teammate in both touchdowns and interceptions. In the end, however, it’s clear that Reilly had the better season. While Nichols missed time late in the season due to injury, Reilly put forward excellent performances against Calgary and Saskatchewan to help his club finish the regular season with an impressive five-game winning streak. I didn’t get the opportunity to vote on player awards, so in the end my opinion is just that — an opinion. Still, I wanted to clear the air — Reilly was fully deserving of the West Division M.O.P. nod he received this past Thursday.

12. Obligatory mention: the Bombers’ Grey Cup drought has now officially reached twenty-seven years. Barf.

13. On a personal note, I want to say a quick thank-you to everyone for another season of your support. I love covering the CFL and knowing that there is an ever-increasing number of people who enjoy my coverage brings me great joy. I will be making some changes to my social media presence over the next few weeks — including the retirement of the @BlueBomberTalk twitter handle — but I want to assure everyone that my coverage of the Bombers will remain largely unchanged heading into 2018. I am unable to attend the Grey Cup this year, but CFL Week in Winnipeg is only four months away. As always, please feel free to engage me in conversation if you see me out in public — getting to meet readers is always a highlight of my day. Finally, a note for Blue Bomber Talk Podcast listeners: our season-ending show scheduled to record on Thursday of this upcoming week (November 16). Cheers.

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