The Winnipeg Blue Bombers clinched first place in the West Division in a win over the Edmonton Elks this past week, meaning they have two meaningless regular season games still to play.
Clinching first place early is a nice problem to have, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a legitimate issue. Keeping veterans in the lineup increases the odds of key players getting hurt, while resting too many veterans runs the risk of the team coming out flat in the playoffs. It’s a double-edged sword.
Head coach Mike O’Shea is unlikely to share his plans for the final two games of the season with the media this week, so let’s take a look at how he handled the roster in meaningless games last season.
Winnipeg clinched first place in the West Division last year with a 45-0 victory over the B.C. Lions on Oct. 23 that improved their record to 10-1. The team went on a bye the following week before a home-and-home against the Montreal Alouettes and a season-ending contest against the Calgary Stampeders at McMahon Stadium.
There was a lot of chatter over the team’s bye week regarding the extent to which key players should play over the remaining weeks of the regular season. The limited size of CFL rosters made it impossible to rest every veteran for all three games, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. The West Final was scheduled for Dec. 5 and six weeks is a long time for players to go without seeing any action.
After much internal discussion, O’Shea didn’t rest a single player for his team’s first game against Montreal. If anything, the roster became more veteran-laden as Winston Rose made his first start after returning from the NFL and Sergio Castillo took over the kicking duties after being acquired via trade from the Lions.
It’s worth noting that this game was played on a gorgeous fall evening in the friendly confines of IG Field. Even so, the Blue Bombers had nothing to play for in the standings and fielded a roster that was more veteran-laden than the week prior. That’s wild. Unsurprisingly, with their roster at full strength, they beat Montreal by a score of 31-21.
Winnipeg rested a number of players the following week when they visited the Alouettes for the second half of their home-and-home. Zach Collaros, Stanley Bryant, Steven Richardson, Nick Taylor, Brandon Alexander, and Janarion Grant were all healthy scratches, while Patrick Neufeld, Jackson Jeffcoat, and Deatrick Nichols were added to the one-game injured list with minor ailments.
It’s worth noting that a number of big-name veterans still played in the game, including Kenny Lawler, Nic Demski, Jermarcus Hardrick, Willie Jefferson, and Adam Bighill. Winnipeg lost 28-14 in miserable weather conditions as Sean McGuire, who has since moved on from professional football, threw for 149 yards, one touchdown, and four interceptions.
A number of Winnipeg’s regular starters returned to the lineup the following week in Calgary, though the weather again made it difficult for both teams to produce offensively. Brady Oliveira, Darvin Adams, Jackson Jeffcoat, Jesse Briggs, Deatrick Nichols, and Janarion Grant were held out entirely, while many others didn’t play the entire game.
Collaros was pulled late in the first half after completing seven-of-ten pass attempts for 73 yards. The team clearly felt it was important to give their veteran quarterback some reps — he played four offensive series — without giving him the reigns for the entire game. The Blue Bombers led 3-0 before Collaros was pulled but eventually lost by a score of 13-12.
If Winnipeg takes this same approach in 2022, they would hold approximately one-third of their starters out of the lineup when they take on the B.C. Lions in Vancouver on Saturday, including Collaros. It’s worth noting that Jackson Jeffcoat is already on the one-game injured list due to a hip injury, while Stanley Bryant has been playing through an issue with his ankle.
Dru Brown would presumably take over at quarterback if Collaros sits out, which would be the first start of his CFL career. The Oklahoma State product has played well whenever he’s seen the field this season, though he’s thrown only 21 career pass attempts. It’s important to see how young quarterbacks respond to making their first career start and this could be a great opportunity to see whether or not Brown is the real deal.
The Blue Bombers will be on a bye the following week before hosting B.C. at IG Field for their final game of the regular season on Friday, Oct. 28. If the club continued employing the same formula as last year, they would only rest a half-dozen starters while giving Collaros a handful of series to stay fresh.
It’s entirely possible that Winnipeg will use a new strategy to deal with this year’s meaningless games, though it’s interesting to see how they dealt with the same issue in 2021. It’s worth noting that the club came out pretty flat in the West Final despite playing many of their starters to the end of the regular season, though they eventually defeated the Saskatchewan Roughriders by a score of 21-17.