The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were defeated by the Montreal Alouettes in the 110th Grey Cup by a score of 28-24 in front of 28,808 fans at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton. Below are my thoughts on the game.
Winnipeg’s destiny: no dynasty
The Blue Bombers had a chance to become the first CFL team to win three Grey Cups in four seasons in almost 50 years. Instead, they squandered a late three-point lead to lose to the Montreal Alouettes, faltering on the league’s largest stage for the second straight year.
“We had no business losing that game. We beat ourselves. We didn’t play a clean football game and in the biggest game of the year. We preach about playing smart football and we made way too many mistakes today to win the game,” said running back Brady Oliveira, who carried the ball 19 times for 119 yards and one touchdown.
“We shouldn’t have lost this game. We had so much belief on the sideline, we knew we were going to win this game. We kept it way too close, we kept them in there. It’s what happens when you don’t play smart football. We’ve talked about it before: in the postseason, you should be playing your best football and we made too many mistakes as a group, myself included.”
It was a surprisingly poor second-half performance from a veteran team that had every opportunity to put the game away. The club was outscored 21-7 in the final two quarters and couldn’t get a first down when they needed it most at the end of the game.
“It’s really sad because there’s just a lot of good guys in the locker room, guys that might not be able to play again,” said an emotional Zach Collaros. “You want to win for them and the guys that couldn’t be out there. There’s just a lot of good people and you just don’t want to let people down. It’s terrible.”
It’s clear that changes are coming to Winnipeg in 2024. Not only is the club currently without a general manager for next season but the roster is the oldest in the CFL. At some point, this team has to get younger.
Stanley Bryant, the club’s future Hall of Fame left tackle, left the locker room in street clothes right as the media were allowed in. Most players hadn’t even taken off their pads yet. Clearly, Bryant didn’t feel like answering questions about his future.
It would seem unreasonable to conclude that Bryant played his final game on Sunday based on his early postgame exit, though it was certainly uncharacteristic for him.
The energy in the locker room felt different than last year.
After losing the Grey Cup in Regina, Winnipeg’s players seemed genuinely shocked by the result, almost as if they’d never considered they wouldn’t win.
This year in Hamilton, the room felt angry, almost as if the players know how much it’s going to suck thinking about this loss for the next six months.
Collaros goes quiet
Zach Collaros had another quiet postseason game, completing 19-of-23 pass attempts for 236 yards and one interception. His protection wasn’t as consistent as it’s been at times this season, though he didn’t consistently make perfect reads from the pocket. He took four sacks and on more than one occasion fled a solid pocket and ran into a defender.
Collaros made his first major mistake midway through the third quarter when he rolled out to his right and underthrew Kenny Lawler on a corner route in the end zone. There was no need to force the ball into the back of the end zone as it was still first down. Collaros indicated postgame that he should have given the ball to Brady Oliveira, though he also had Nic Demski available underneath.
The veteran passer should have overthrown Lawler, who made some sensational grabs on Sunday. An overthrow would have resulted in a highlight-reel catch or an incompletion. Instead, the underthrow gave Ento a chance to make the interception, which he did.
Collaros made some nice throws on Winnipeg’s late touchdown drive, though he took a sack when his team needed to convert a key second down with two minutes remaining. When asked about his franchise quarterback’s performance, head coach Mike O’Shea offered him unwavering support.
“He’s the best quarterback in the league,” he said before waiting for the next question.
Collaros has played a lot of sensational games over the past four seasons in Bomberland but it’s hard to overlook his lacklustre performances in the postseason. He was outdueled by Cody Fajardo on Sunday, who rose to the occasion when it mattered most.
The 35-year-old officially became the eleventh player in Grey Cup history to reach 1,000 passing yards on Sunday. He’s the first quarterback ever to start four straight Grey Cups, though he’s now 2-3 as a starter in the big game.
The Montreal Alouettes allowed nine sacks against the Toronto Argonauts in the East Final but you’d never know that based on how well they protected Cody Fajardo in the Grey Cup.
Willie Jefferson caught Fajardo nine yards behind the line of scrimmage midway through the second quarter and celebrated with a somersault. Other than that, Winnipeg’s pass rush was essentially a non-factor until the final minute of the game when Shayne Gauthier and Jackson Jeffcoat converged on Fajardo in the pocket.
It’s clear that the Alouettes made an effort to get the ball out of Fajardo’s hand quickly, as has been the case for most of the season. However, the veteran passer had multiple opportunities to stand in the pocket, survey the field, and step into his throws.
For all he struggled at times this season, Fajardo played a solid game. His game-winning touchdown to Tyson Philpot was phenomenal. He finished the night completing 21-of-26 passes for 290 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception and was named the game’s Most Valuable Player. Kudos to him.
Dalton Schoen and Adam Bighill played on Sunday despite being listed as game-time decisions due to injury. Mike O’Shea is notorious for his ambiguity regarding injuries, clearly seeking a competitive advantage. He hid Schoen and Bighill’s status during his pregame media availability at 4:00 p.m. EST and neither player took pregame warmup.
Schoen made three catches for 36 yards. He often wasn’t on the field on first down, giving way to fullback Damian Jackson. Bighill made only one tackle while his primary replacement, Shayne Gauthier, made five tackles and one sack. He indicated after the game that he wasn’t fully healthy, though he declined to specify the nature of his injury or the extent to which it bothered him.
“You’ve gotta let great players be great. If you hold them out, they don’t get a chance to be great for their teammates,” said O’Shea. He also indicated he wouldn’t have made a different decision regarding the pair in hindsight.
Bighill went down with injury during the second quarter and wasn’t on the field for the club’s goal line stand at the end of the second quarter. He returned to the game after halftime but didn’t look like himself. The three-time Most Outstanding Defensive Player was victimized in coverage on Cole Spieker for a 23-yard touchdown on Montreal’s first drive of the second half and didn’t play much of the second half.
Zach Collaros also revealed that Rasheed Bailey has played the last six weeks with a grade-two hamstring tear.
Winnipeg’s defence put together an impressive goal line stand to end the first half, stopping short-yardage quarterback Caleb Evans twice from the one-yard line to force a turnover on downs. Adam Bighill wasn’t in the game, though veteran linebacker Shayne Gauthier made the stop in his place.
As impressive as the goal line stand was, Winnipeg got lucky with a non-call for offside. Ricky Walker’s helmet was clearly in the neutral zone on Montreal’s second unsuccessful crack from the one-yard line. The Alouettes should have gotten a fresh set of downs with eight seconds left on the clock, likely giving them two more cracks at the end zone.
You can’t guard a receiver any better than Deatrick Nichols covered Austin Mack on his big catch near the end of the first quarter. The former NFL target ran a post route, forcing Nichols to recover with a speed turn. The defensive back immediately refound his man and timed his jump perfectly to try to knock the ball away.
Mack simply made an extraordinary play to make the catch, even absorbing a hit from Brandon Alexander. Nichols is as good as any defensive back in the CFL but was simply bested by a great receiver. Sometimes it’s possible to play perfectly and still lose the rep.
— 3DownNation (@3DownNation) November 20, 2023
The officials called Mustafa Johnson for unnecessary roughness late in the first quarter when he brought down Zach Collaros, who’d taken off with the ball after he was unable to find an open receiver.
The defensive tackle wrapped his right arm around Collaros’ upper body, while his left hand swung around to make contact with the quarterback’s facemask. Though he had control of the passer’s helmet, it didn’t appear he ripped Collaros to the ground by the head. It looked more incidental than anything.
Regardless, it ended up being a game-changing play. Instead of Sergio Castillo being called upon for another short field goal, Brady Oliveira punched it for a five-yard touchdown on the following play.
No yards non-call
Brandon Alexander made a tremendous play late in the second quarter when he stripped James Letcher Jr. on a punt return and the fumble was recovered by long snapper Mike Benson. Coincidentally, the turnover occurred almost exactly where Brady Oliveira lost a fumble earlier in the quarter.
Montreal head coach Jason Maas challenged for no yards and the consensus in the press box was that a penalty should have been called. Instead, the non-call stood and the Blue Bombers converted the takeaway into seven points courtesy of a touchdown plunge from short-yardage quarterback Dakota Prukop.
Looking at the replay, it’s clear why the play went unpenalized. Brandon Alexander is on the 40-yard line but it’s impossible to tell if he’s within five yards of the returner since there are no yard lateral yard markers on the field. Malik Clements has a foot on the 45-yard line but he’s also further from the sideline than Letcher. The returner is below the 40-yard marker. Clements is above it, putting him on a diagonal angle.
The command centre is tasked with correcting clear mistakes and this play was extremely close. The play almost certainly would have stood had no yards originally been called by the officials and the non-call stood as well. I’m not sure why there was any controversy.
The wind was relatively strong from the north at the start of Sunday’s game, which helped Winnipeg get off to a 10-0 lead. The Alouettes had it throughout the second quarter, though they were unable to use it to generate any points.
Montreal kept the wind in the third quarter, though it all but died out over the course of halftime. Judging by the flags on the uprights, the wind was a non-factor over the final thirty minutes. Castillo’s field goal attempt was the only attempt on the night and Joseph Zema’s two miserable shanked punts hardly appeared to be wind-related.
Ticket to ride
I kept a close eye on Ticketmaster all week as thousands of tickets were put up for resale following the elimination of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts over the last two weeks. As game time approached, there were only a few hundred available and the crowd appeared to be full with an official attendance of 28,808.
Last year’s Grey Cup in Regina was partly spoiled by the poor crowd. The contest sold out two months early but a vast number of tickets were put up for resale after it became clear the Saskatchewan Roughriders weren’t going to make the big game. Fans in Winnipeg scooped up some of them, though thousands went unused. By my estimation, maybe two-thirds of the stadium was full.
The Grey Cup is a national event and a celebration of the CFL as a whole. Though local fans would obviously prefer for their team to play in it, they shouldn’t stay away if the game features two teams from other cities. It was nice to see a packed house in Steeltown.
Green Day greatness
Though it was difficult to clearly hear their performance from the pressbox, Green Day appeared to do a fabulous job with the halftime show. The lights, display boards, and pyrotechnics were spectacular and the crowd seemed very enthusiastic. Billie Joe Armstrong will probably catch flak for dropping an F-bomb on national television but he’s a punk rock musician, after all. The expletives come with the territory.
The CFL received a lot of criticism for last year’s Grey Cup halftime show, much of which was warranted. This year, they nailed it. It was arguably one of the best Grey Cup halftime shows ever.
Grey Cup legends
One of the best things about Grey Cup is getting the chance to encounter so many legends of the game, often by random chance at different events over the course of the week.
On Saturday, I ran into Canadian Football Hall of Fame receiver Geroy Simon, who currently serves as the assistant general manager of the Edmonton Elks. We had a short chat before we were (politely) interrupted by a group of fans wanting to take a photo with him.
I snapped a photo of Simon and the fans, after which he suggested the group take a photo with me. One of the women, who was at least my mother’s age, walked over excitedly to take a picture while the rest of the group remained in place, appearing visibly confused. They clearly had no idea who I was, nor why Simon had suggested they pose for a photo with me.
I put my arm around the woman and smiled for the camera. Simon took the photo and the woman, who was barely taller than my elbow, looked up at me.
“I have no idea who you are,” she said. “But you’re very tall, so you must be important.”
Thanks, lady, whoever you are. It was one of the funniest lines of the week.
I have now been a full-time reporter and managing editor with 3DownNation for two years with my previous stint as a freelancer and independent reporter extending almost a decade. I’ve promised myself that I’ll stop doing this job when it’s no longer enjoyable and so far, I don’t see an end in sight.
Some people view the CFL as a second-class league but, frankly, they’re foolish to do so. For all its flaws, the CFL is as compelling as any professional sports league in the world and I consider it a privilege to help tell its stories.
I’d also like to commend the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, the Grey Cup Festival committee, and all of the volunteers for their work in hosting a successful event. I’d also like to thank CFL staffers Lucas Barrett, Olivier Poulin, Herb Fung, Guillaume Tremblay-St-Gelai, and Maryse Dazé-Wilson for their great work all week.
I will continue to hold the league and its teams to account, just as I expect our readers, listeners, and viewers to do so regarding our coverage at 3DownNation. Thank you for your readership and support.