Nichols feeds critics in Labour Day Classic loss (& nine other thoughts)

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were defeated by the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Sunday afternoon by a score of 31-23 in front of 33,350 fans at New Mosaic Stadium.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Pivotal problem

Matt Nichols has been the subject of criticism recently for post-game comments that he made following the club’s losses to Ottawa and Calgary in late August. Regardless of whether or not Nichols’ comments were blown out proportion and/or taken out of context — I see some validity on both sides of the argument — his play over the past month is fully deserving of criticism.

Following an uninspired performance in the Labour Day Classic (14-of-26 for 166 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions), Nichols is now averaging just 221 passing yards per game through eight starts this season. He’s also averaging just 1.38 touchdowns per start to 1.12 interceptions — both of which compare unfavourably to his averages from a season ago (touchdowns, 1.65; interceptions, 0.47).

Nichols is currently generating the type of production that one would expect from a decent backup quarterback. The problem is that Nichols is a high-priced veteran who was in the conversation for the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player award at the midway point of last season.

A loss in next week’s Banjo Bowl would put the Bombers’ playoff hopes in doubt. Nichols has repeatedly stated that he needs to play better in order for his team to be successful — and he’s right.

While benching a veteran in place of a raw rookie is a classic sign of desperation, the Bombers are quickly becoming a desperate football team. Now 5-6, Winnipeg has two remaining games versus the Riders to go along with dates against Montreal, Ottawa, Edmonton (twice), and Calgary. Even with the game against the Alouettes, that’s a tough schedule.

The Bombers need to finish the season with a better record than B.C. and two East Division teams in order to qualify for the playoffs via crossover. Winnipeg has secured the tie-breaker over the 3-6 Lions, but would not hold that advantage over the 3-6 Argos or 3-8 Alouettes in the event of a tie by virtue of the league’s crossover rules.

The course is clear. If Nichols struggles in the Banjo Bowl — a game in which the hometown crowd will not hesitate to boo his errors — the Bombers should use the following bye week to install Chris Streveler as the club’s starting quarterback.

Nine games is a solid sample size. Whether he’s hurt, fatigued, or unable to develop a rapport with his new receivers, Nichols simply isn’t getting the job done.

The Bombers have been riding the quarterback carousel for the better part of two decades. Potentially advocating for change at the game’s most important position was unthinkable as recently as four weeks ago.

There’s a reason that Calgary doesn’t make a change at quarterback every year or two. Then again, Bo Levi Mitchell has never played mediocre football for a month straight.

It’s better to make a change too early than risk making one too late. And a change at quarterback might soon be in order for the blue and gold.

Ho-hum Harris

Andrew Harris was the best player in Sunday’s game, racking up 158 rushing yards on fifteen carries. It’s possible that the 31-year-old would have seen his production climb into the 175 to 200-yard range had he not required attention from the training staff in the game’s third quarter.

A brilliant rushing attack should open up a ton of options in the passing game — the defence needs to respect play-action and remain gap-disciplined in order to fill run lanes. Instead, the Bombers failed to take advantage of Harris’ outstanding performance.

Now sitting at 963 yards on the season, look for Harris to eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing mark in next week’s rematch.

Quit yankin’ my chain

I’d like to hear an explanation from the league’s football operations department about this measurement from the first quarter of Sunday’s game.

Newcomer Gerald Rivers appeared to have stopped Zach Collaros on third-and-one at Saskatchewan’s 25-yard line for a turnover on downs. That stop would have immediately set the Bombers up in field goal range and changed the complexion of the first quarter dramatically.

We instead got this curious measurement in which the ball is relatively far from the marker and the chain isn’t pulled taut. I’m not accusing Andre Proulx’s crew of anything nefarious, but I’m not convinced the measurement was well-executed. I hope the league addresses it.

Pulling punches

Maybe it was just me, but I thought that the vitriol between Rider Nation and Bomberland was relatively low during this year’s Labour Day clash.

In the past, we’ve seen team-sponsored billboards, videos from politicians, and vicious chirps from all corners of the internet. This year was very quiet — even Rider play-by-play man Rod Pedersen was on his best behaviour.

Given the tight nature of the West Division standings, this seems like a strange year for the rivalry to be fairly quiet. Maybe things will get amped up for next week’s Banjo Bowl.

Pretty in green

The Riders’ throwback uniforms are excellent — far better than the modern digs they adorn outside of Labour Day.

With the CFL switching to a new licensing partner next season, Saskatchewan should make the switch back to their retro jerseys full-time. The Bombers made the change when Adidas took over three years ago and everyone seems to love them.

Geter done

If special teams play is any indication of future success in the CFL — and it often is — Chad Geter is going to be a very good player. He’s caught my eye a few times this season on Saskatchewan’s punt cover teams and did so again on Sunday, recording two special teams tackles. I’m sure that learning from a future hall of famer in Charleston Hughes isn’t hurting the 24-year-old pass rusher’s development, either.

Not-so-special teams

Speaking of special teams, the Bombers’ return units struggled throughout Sunday’s game and some sloppy tackling led to Kyran Moore’s first-half punt return touchdown. The Bombers are typically very good on specials so I wouldn’t hit the panic button just yet.

Still, Sunday was an unfortunate time for the Bombers to have their worst special teams outing of the season. A solid outing from the ‘teams’ could have won Winnipeg the game despite a sputtery passing game and some late defensive breakdowns. That didn’t happen.

Gettin’ Thiggy with it

Nobody asked me, but the Riders’ best player not named Charleston Hughes or Willie Jefferson is Marcus Thigpen. I get that he’s 32, but he should see more of the football. He’s explosive.

Southern trimmings

Labour Day brings with it not only a slew of electrifying CFL match-ups, but also the NFL’s annual cut-down day.

Winnipegger and Blue Bomber draft pick Geoff Gray was released by the Cleveland Browns and has not been offered a practice roster spot down south. I don’t expect to see Gray sign with the Bombers this season, but it’s possible that he’ll join the club for 2019 should another NFL opportunity fail to arise.

Quinton Flowers, a quarterback out of South Florida, has accepted a practice roster spot with Cincinnati after completing training camp as a member of the Bengals. Flowers is looking to make a career in the NFL as a running back but remains on the Bombers’ negotiations list as a passer.

No pressure, though

A loss in next week’s Banjo Bowl would (essentially) end the Bombers’ hopes of earning a playoff spot in the West Division.

A poor performance from Matt Nichols would further incense a Blue Bomber fanbase that is growing increasingly frustrated with the play of its starting quarterback.

And the Bombers have the opportunity to win a fourth-straight Banjo Bowl for the first time ever.

No pressure, though, guys. No pressure at all.

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