CFL Pass

Cauz: Is 2019 the year of the Blue Bombers?

The greatest moment in Toronto Raptors history and the final episodes of ‘Game of Thrones’ got me thinking about the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. I’m guessing you were not expecting that opening sentence but that glorious, last-second, game-winning shot by Kawhi Leonard turned my attention to Mike O’Shea’s squad. As did the penultimate episode of GOT where all hell broke loose, but don’t worry this column will be spoiler-free.

This column is all about the one thing that the Bombers, the NBA playoffs and HBO’s masterpiece have in common: Pressure, and lots of it.

As that time-expiring shot left Leonard’s hand, think about the pressure that was riding on both teams. Masai Ujiri traded away the most popular player in Raptors franchise history in DeMar DeRozan, going all in on a chance for a deep playoff run knowing full well a second round exit could be the first step into a total rebuild. On Philadelphia’s side, that team had gone through years of embarrassing tanking seasons in hopes of acquiring the sort of talent needed to win in the NBA.

As for ‘Game of Thrones’, has there been a single show as scrutinized as much as this franchise over the past decade? I’m a big fan but I am amazed by just how demanding the audience is, nitpicking every plot point. I can only imagine the amount of pressure on the writers and creators to do something that so many shows (‘Seinfeld’, ‘Lost’, ‘Dexter’) have failed to do: come up with a satisfying final episode.

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All of this led me to one simple question with training camps starting on Sunday: Which CFL team has the most pressure? In the amount of time it took for Kawhi Leonard to crush the spirits of the Philadelphia 76ers, I had the obvious answer: Winnipeg. Before I get to my reasons why I’m going with the Bombers, let’s do a little process of elimination.

The Stampeders have the least amount of pressure after their redemptive Grey Cup victory over Ottawa (third Championship in the past 11 seasons), and with all their high-profile free agency losses (DaVaris Daniels, Micah Johnson, Ja’Gared Davis and Spencer Wilson) I don’t believe anyone is going in with the same extreme expectations for the Stampeders as in years past.

Many people would correctly point out the microscope on Saskatchewan is magnified far higher on the Roughriders than anywhere else in the CFL landscape. However, the departure of Chris Jones will at least somewhat temper Grey Cup aspirations. I think the focus on 2019 will be more on Zach Collaros than on winning it all.

Expectations must be sky high in British Columbia but I gotta believe there will be a one year honeymoon period in Vancouver as Lions fan will be swooning over Mike Reilly’s luxurious beard and collection of hipster hats that I could never pull off.

Speaking of Reilly, I credit the Edmonton Eskimos for bouncing back in free agency after losing Reilly, but I can’t put them in top contender status, and with a Grey Cup win four years ago the fan base is certainly more satiated than so many other Canadian cities.

As for the East, well, we can knock Toronto and Montreal immediately off the list of teams entering 2019 with a high level of burden to win now. Ottawa’s offence was decimated this past off-season so the strain on the organization by media and a passionate fan base to win it all cannot be as realistically high as many of the other teams I have already mentioned.

If you want to come at me with a realistic counter then Hamilton makes the most sense. They’re the only team in the East with true stability at the quarterback position and this season represents the 20th anniversary since their last Grey Cup parade.

However, let’s not forget the Tiger-Cats have three straight losing seasons while Winnipeg has averaged 11 wins a year over that same time span. The last time the Tabbies won 11 games was back in 2001. So in terms of realistic expectations it would stand to reason there would be a higher level for a Winnipeg franchise that has gone 33-21 but has only one playoff victory to show for it.

Hey, it’s hard to win in the West. As for Grey Cups, yes, it stinks when your team hasn’t been the last team standing in 20 years like Hamilton. Well, Winnipeg’s championship drought goes back nearly a decade longer to 1990 since the last time they felt victory confetti raining down on them.

Looking at the landscape of the 2019 off-season that saw Calgary and Edmonton weakened, it is realistic to come to the conclusion that now is the time for the Bombers to finally leapfrog these traditional powerhouses and claim themselves as the true Kings of the North. After finally winning a playoff game in 2018 it is time for Winnipeg to take that next step.

Also, the clock is starting to tick on some of their biggest stars. I love Andrew Harris but time is cruelest for the running back position and at 32 years old Harris is coming off a career-high 239-carry season. He was marvelous last year but with 1,128 combined rushes and receptions over the past four seasons I don’t think it’s unfair to wonder if we will see his production start to slip. Running backs don’t usually ease into retirement, it’s more of a light switch rather than a dimmer when it comes to their effectiveness on the field.

Adam Bighill was dominant in 2018, so much so that I wrote a piece in mid-October saying he deserved MOP consideration, but he will be 31 come this October and, well, have I mentioned how football ain’t exactly the kindest to players over 30? Finally, there is 32-year-old Matt Nichols, who has been one of the more polarizing players over the past four seasons. There have been plenty of moments where we have seen his star potential (See: 2017 season) and conversely, other long stretches where he looks more like a game manager, whose career high 13 interceptions could have been much higher if not for a number of dropped passes by defenders.

As it stands right now, the Bombers have the talent on the field and a smart coaching staff off the field to take advantage of a West Division that should see the behemoth known as the Calgary Stampeders take a step back. The opportunity is there for Mike O’Shea and this very well-run organization to erase all the doubts, to prove all the naysayers wrong and to finally end the league’s longest Grey Cup drought.

No pressure at all.