The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were defeated by the Ottawa Redblacks on Friday night by a score of 44-21 in front of 27,602 fans at Investors Group Field. Below are my thoughts on the game.
Boo birds burn Nichols
Matt Nichols shared his discontent after Friday’s game regarding the boos that accompanied his return to the field following an injury to his throwing arm.
While it’s safe to assume that some percentage of the club’s fans were directing their dissatisfaction at Nichols (more on his performance in a moment), I believe that most of the crowd’s anger was actually targeted at Mike O’Shea for allowing Nichols to return to the game. Though I didn’t much care for their booing, I’m going to side with O’Shea’s critics on this one. Allowing Nichols to return to the game was a poor decision for several reasons — five, to be exact.
Firstly, Chris Streveler is a first-year player who needs live reps if he is to improve. Allowing him to play in garbage time would give him the opportunity to grow as a quarterback should be forced into action later this season.
Secondly, Matt Nichols returned to the game mere minutes after suffering what appeared to be a painful injury to his throwing arm. Was that really enough time to determine that the veteran wasn’t at risk of worsening the injury?
Thirdly, all-star right tackle Jermarcus Hardrick was out of the game due to injury. This increased the odds of Nichols taking hits and, in turn, risked further injury to his throwing arm (for the record, Nichols was sacked twice on nine plays following his return).
Fourthly, Winnipeg could have held Nichols’ status in question until the club’s first practice of next week had he not returned to the game. Given that he returned, Calgary already knows that Nichols will start next Saturday at McMahon Stadium.
Finally, some Bomber fans were calling for Chris Streveler to get into the game as early as the second quarter. While I’m not suggesting that Mike O’Shea should acquiesce to the team’s fans, it wasn’t hard to foresee that Nichols’ return would be met with a smattering of boos.
It’s entirely possible that this incident will blow over as quickly as it started. Matt Nichols has won consistently since becoming the club’s starter just over two years ago and had never before experienced a lack of support from Bomber fans as he did on Friday.
With that said, there have been incidents similar to Friday’s that ultimately ended in a messy divorce between a team and its franchise quarterback (think Henry Burris being dealt by Calgary in 2011). At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, is it possible that irreparable damage has been done to the relationship between Nichols and the Bomber faithful? I don’t think that’s the case, but I also don’t think that Nichols’ post-game comments should be overlooked.
Being booed isn’t something Nichols had experienced at Investors Group Field prior to Friday night’s game. I’m intrigued to see the way in which he responds the next time he starts a game in front of his club’s fans.
With all due respect to Nichols, the Bombers’ starter does have to be better. His passing yardage is down 15 percent from last year (263 yards per game to 224 yards per game) and his interception rate has more than doubled from a season ago (1.38 percent to 2.94 percent).
I’m not suggesting that Nichols is a bad quarterback — he’s long-since established himself as a quality CFL starter. But many pundits thought that Nichols was poised to join Mike Reilly and Bo Levi Mitchell in the CFL’s top-tier of passers this season. Right now, he’s not even close to doing that. I’d argue that Nichols is being outplayed by Travis Lulay in B.C., Trevor Harris in Ottawa, and Jeremiah Masoli in Hamilton. All three of those pivots are throwing to better receiving corps than Nichols (more on that in a bit), but none get as strong of protection from their offensive line.
Sixth of nine starters isn’t a good place to be and, while I believe Nichols is ultimately better than that, he’ll have to show that in the coming weeks. Fairly or unfairly, this team carries the weight of a 27-year Grey Cup drought; fielding the league’s sixth-best starting quarterback isn’t a recipe for ending that drought anytime soon.
Redblacks stole Noel, Bombers crawl with Hall
I wrote a year ago about how the Bombers should hire Noel Thorpe to serve as the club’s defensive coordinator. Thorpe was unceremoniously fired by the Alouettes amid last year’s circus and, despite Montreal’s struggles in recent years, the club’s long-time defensive boss is without question one of the top assistant coaches in the CFL.
While a source indicated to me that Winnipeg made a push for Thorpe’s services this past winter, the club ended up sticking with Richie Hall for a fourth season after Thorpe elected to join the Redblacks. Clearly, Winnipeg’s loss was Ottawa’s gain.
Thorpe is doing great things with an Ottawa defence that, aside from an injured Kyries Hebert, is young and inexperienced. Rico Murray (30) and Antoine Pruneau (28) were Ottawa’s oldest starters on Friday night with first-year players like strong-side linebacker Anthony Cioffi (23) and middle linebacker Avery Williams (23) playing well at key positions.
Unless Ottawa elects to tie up less cap space on the offensive side of the football, Thorpe will never have a defence full of high-priced veterans. So far, at least, that suits him just fine — his unit is performing well despite the unproven nature of many of its players.
Then there’s Richie Hall’s defence in Winnipeg, which, after an impressive string of games against the Argos and Ticats, looks lost once again. The Bombers allowed 500 yards of offence and 37 offensive points to an Ottawa team that rolled all night long.
I’ve already invested enough time writing about the struggles of the Blue Bomber defence to invest any more in this piece. Winnipeg doesn’t get enough production from its personnel (can anyone explain why Chandler Fenner isn’t even starting?) and any good faith that Richie Hall’s unit won over the past month has been lost in one abysmal effort.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
Here’s a question Bomber fans should be asking: how can Mike O’Shea continue to justify attempting one-point converts?
The fact that Justin Medlock never misses converts is irrelevant; even when kicked with perfect accuracy, a one-point convert is still worth just that — one point. Teams need only to succeed on fifty percent or more of their two-point convert attempts in order to improve on that. It doesn’t take a deep understanding of mathematics to see how the numbers work.
While the Redblacks converted three two-point converts successfully — two of which were aided by Bomber penalties — O’Shea elected to have his club boot singles on all three of their touchdowns. The difference was significant — three points or, essentially, a field goal.
O’Shea’s most bizarre decision came following Darvin Adams’ 72-yard touchdown reception that made the game 38-20. A successful two-point convert would have narrowed the deficit to 16 points, making it a two-score game. In sending out Medlock to kick a one-point convert, O’Shea allowed the Redblacks to maintain a three-score lead with just one a quarter of football remaining.
The decision didn’t hurt the Bombers in the end, but that doesn’t change the fact that O’Shea is leaving points on the field each time Medlock attempts a one-point convert. Eventually that could cost his team a game.
Adams all alone
It’s becoming increasingly clear that Darvin Adams is the Bombers’ only game-changing receiver. Ottawa has three in Diontae Spencer, Greg Ellingson, and Brad Sinopoli, while one could argue that Calgary and Edmonton have as many as five (heck — Vidal Hazelton, who averaged 64 yards per game last season, can’t crack Edmonton’s starting line-up).
Nic Demski, Drew Wolitarsky, and Kenbrell Thompkins are respectable role players, but the club needs to give Nichols more bullets in the chamber if he’s to win in shootout games like the one we saw on Friday.
Dare I suggest…?
With all due respect to a very good possession receiver in Bakari Grant, there’s only one game-changing receiver who’s currently available on the open market. That player is Duron Carter, released last week by the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Carter is known for being a problem in the locker room and has been accused of being a selfish player and a bad teammate. Is there any chance the Bombers kick the tires on the enigmatic star? My gut says no — it’s worth noting that the club has not reached out to Carter since his release — but I think it may be an avenue worth investigating.
Winnipeg plays three of its next seven games against the Riders. If you can add a focused, motivated Duron Carter for the final eleven weeks of the season — at a discount rate, to boot — how can that not be an option worth considering?
Flag on the play
Winnipeg was flagged for eleven penalties on Friday night, seven of which came on the defensive side of the ball. I wouldn’t say that’s Friday’s game was well-officiated — not that it had any impact on the game’s outcome — but to give the officials that many opportunities to penalize your team is ridiculous.
The Redblacks’ braintrust has done an excellent job of building national depth along the offensive line. Veteran centre/guard Jon Gott was left off the roster despite being healthy for Friday’s game, allowing Saskatchewan product Evan Johnson to enter the starting line-up at left guard.
Ottawa dressed five Canadian hogs on Friday night (starting four), all of whom were first-round selections of the club dating back to its first draft in 2013. 2014 remains the only draft year in which the Redblacks failed to select an offensive lineman in the first round. That was the year that saw Ottawa flip the first overall pick in the draft to Calgary in exchange for Gott, making the veteran their de facto first-round offensive line addition.
Ottawa owned the line of scrimmage on Friday night and did it through years of smart, disciplined use of the CFL draft. Kudos to them.
Right tackle Jermarcus Hardrick left Friday’s game with what appeared to be an injury to his left knee. He walked to the locker room under his own power, but it’s hard to imagine the big man being ready to start just eight days from now in the Bombers’ next contest. Winnipeg’s replacement should be Manase Foketi, the same player who started two games at Hardrick’s spot in 2016 when he missed a pair of games. Foketi played well in spot duty then — there’s a reason the Bombers have kept him on the roster ever since — but losing Hardrick is still a blow. He’s one of the most underrated players in the CFL.
The Bombers, now 5-4, are about to enter the toughest two-game stretch of their season with a contest in Calgary followed by the annual Labour Day Classic in Regina. With Edmonton sure to beat Montreal at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday and B.C. looking good with Travis Lulay under centre, Winnipeg can ill-afford to drop to 5-6 with a winless road trip. Stay tuned.