What Andrew Harris’ suspension means for the Bombers

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers announced on Monday morning that Andrew Harris has been suspended for two games after testing positive for a banned substance.

The press release included the following statement from Harris, in which he outlines the timing of his drug test and claims his sample was contaminated. To read the full statement, click here.

Throughout my four years playing here in Winnipeg, I have been drug tested more than any other player on our team to the point that it has become a running joke within our locker room. This year alone I’ve been tested three times: The first time on March 1, 2019 in the off-season, followed by July 2nd (blood and urine samples), and finally 10 days later on July 12 through a urine sample.

Somehow on July 12, just ten days after a test that came back completely clean, I was notified that I had tested positive for the first time in my career with very small trace of a banned substance. I’m still in shock and disbelief at the news. I immediately thought there had to be some kind of mistake.

The timeline makes it very clear — I was not using a banned substance for performance enhancing purposes, nor was I aware that I was taking any supplements with any banned substances in them. Based on the fact pattern, this is clearly a case of product contamination.

It’s unfair for anyone to claim whether or not Harris knowingly took methandienone, the banned substance in question. There are compelling reasons to believe the star running back’s story and there are reasons to remain skeptical.

The timeline Harris outlines supports his case. There’s also the matter of methandienone being an old school steroid that was popular with body builders back in the 1970s. If you’re looking to cheat without getting caught, taking methandienone is a little bit like driving 100 kilometers per hour in a school zone — you’re bound to get caught.

With that said, virtually every professional athlete who tests positive for a banned substance pleads innocence. Most have the support of their teammates and most have no previous history of cheating. It’s also hard to ignore the fact that Harris is playing the best football of his career at the age of 32.

The short answer is that we don’t — and probably never will — know if Harris took the banned substance intentionally or not. But that’s not what this article is about.

The Bombers will be without Harris for back-to-back games against the rival Saskatchewan Roughriders, which is borderline disastrous.

The Riders (6-3) have only lost one Labour Day Classic since 2005 and were victorious in last year’s Banjo Bowl in Winnipeg. The club has also rattled off five consecutive wins this season with quarterback Cody Fajardo sprinkling a ‘little bit of Jesus’ on Saskatchewan’s formerly anemic offence.

There’s also the matter of Matt Nichols already being out of the line-up due to a shoulder injury. The Bombers beat the Eskimos last week in a game that saw the club pass for just 89 yards, which is virtually unheard of in the CFL.

Winnipeg moved the ball predominantly on the ground, rushing 28 times for 189 yards. Harris, the focal point of the Bombers’ offence, accounted for 13 of those carries, rushing for 89 yards and a touchdown.

Harris was spectacular the last time Winnipeg and Saskatchewan met in last year’s Western Semi-Final, recording 19 carries for 153 yards and a touchdown. Without his impact, it’s almost impossible to envision the Bombers winning that game.

Andrew Harris isn’t replaceable. With all due respect to the club’s remaining ball carriers — we’ll get to them in a moment — opposing defences have little reason to fear Winnipeg’s rushing attack without Harris in the line-up.

One could argue that Harris is the league’s most versatile player in the way he can run, catch, block, and lead. There’s a reason why the nine-year veteran was considered a front-runner for this year’s Most Outstanding Player award, on pace for a career-high 1,634 rushing yards.

So how will the Bombers tread water until Harris returns from his two-game suspension?

With rookie Brady Oliveira still out with an ankle injury, second-year man Johnny Augustine remains the Bombers’ lone available Canadian running back. The Guelph product has carried the ball nine times this season, rushing for 60 yards.

While Augustine should factor into Sunday’s game in Regina, I expect the club will start John Santiago in the backfield. Santiago was one of Oliveira’s teammates at the University of North Dakota where he rushed for 3,722 yards over four seasons with the Fighting Hawks.

At five-foot-nine and 187 pounds, Santiago is a speed-oriented ball carrier with extensive kick return experience. The 22-year-old has never suited up for a professional football game in the regular season.

The Bombers started rookie Jonathan Kongbo at defensive end in Edmonton last week, giving the club an eighth national starter. Keeping Kongbo in the starting line-up means Winnipeg could play an American running back without making further changes to the ratio. It does limit how much Craig Roh or Jackson Jeffcoat could play, however, should either pass rusher be ready to return from injury.

If there’s one silver lining for Bomber fans it’s that Santiago and Augustine are relative unknowns. The Riders have limited film on both players and won’t yet know how Paul LaPolice will utilize their skills in his offensive attack. Both players also have fresh legs, which can be a big advantage at the midway point of the season.

Even so, it’s hard to overstate the extent to which Harris’ suspension could damage Winnipeg’s season overall. The Bombers (8-2) have a four-point lead in the West Division and recently secured the season series over Edmonton (6-4). The club won its first of three meetings with Calgary (5-4) and is set for the first of three games against Saskatchewan.

The Bombers will need the rest of the club — particularly quarterback Chris Streveler — to be at their best if they hope to avoid losing their next two contests, which would knock the team out of first place.

How Andrew Harris’ legacy will be affected by a positive drug test remains to be seen. But for his team, two stiff tests against the Riders just became a whole lot tougher.

John Hodge is a CFL insider and draft analyst who has been covering the league since 2014.