SEASON PREVIEW: Bombers need O'Shea and Nichols to shine in order to live up to lofty expecations
VANCOUVER — Almost half the people who took part in the CFL’s annual media poll picked the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to win the Grey Cup in 2019.
Four members of the team — linebacker Adam Bighill, running back Andrew Harris, defensive end Willie Jefferson and offensive tackle Stanley Bryant — were voted into the top 10 of TSN’s annual Top-50 poll.
This is a football team with talent and continuity on both sides of the ball and throughout the coaching staff.
On paper, the Bombers look like, dare we say, the best team in the CFL.
Expectations are high as the team heads into Saturday’s season opener against the B.C. Lions, despite the fact that the Bombers have found a way not to win the Grey Cup every year since 1990.
That puts the pressure on for this year’s squad, particularly two men — head coach Mike O’Shea and starting quarterback Matt Nichols.
O’Shea is entering his sixth season as the Bombers head coach and, while he has led the team to the playoffs in each of the last three seasons and won a post-season game last year for the first time, he’s never had a roster quite like this.
The offence, already strong with the likes of Harris, Darvin Adams and Bryant, has been bolstered by free-agent big-play receiver Chris Matthews, former NFL speedster Lucky Whitehead and lanky Kenny Lawler.
The defence features the best defensive player in the league from last season in Bighill, and quite possibly the second best in free-agent acquistion Jefferson.
It is up to O’Shea and his co-ordinators to harness all of that talent and get this team over the hump.
The team they lost to in last year’s West Final, the Calgary Stampeders, will still be strong, but lost loads of players to the NFL and free agency.
Yes, they have the best player in the league in quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell and, yes, the B.C. Lions have best player 1A in quarterback Mike Reilly, but those teams both have more question marks than the Bombers at this point.
That brings us to Nichols, a 32-year-old veteran who has battled knee injuries and inconsistency. He was a bad game or two away from losing his starting job last season to Chris Streveler and that seems to have him motivated.
Nichols came to training camp looking leaner and faster, with the goal of being able to move more quickly in the pocket, elude tacklers and extend plays.
In other words, be more like Reilly and Mitchell.
The truth is, that’s exactly what he needs to be.
If Nichols can use the tools around him to be one of the best quarterbacks in the CFL, and not just sit in the middle of the pack, this team can take first place in the West.
If he’s just average, or if the Bombers revamped and somewhat inexperienced offensive line is unable to give him adequate protection on a consistent basis, all that talent in other positions likely won’t be enough.
Statistically, Nichols was the fifth best quarterback in the CFL last season, behind Reilly, Mitchell, new Edmonton starter Trevor Harris and Hamilton’s Jeremiah Masoli.
He threw for 3,146 yards, 18 touchdowns and 13 interceptions after missing the first three games of the season with a knee injury.
All of those numbers need to improve this season.
Of course, there are many who believe the Bombers have their future starter waiting in the wings, with Streveler set to play a significant role again this season.
The 24-year-old showed his potential last season and despite some people questioning his arm strength, he has a variety of tools, most notably elite scrambling ability.
If Nichols falters at any point this season, O’Shea shouldn’t hesitate to give Streveler a chance.
This is just too important a season to be stubborn. The coach needs to do everything possible to win now.
After seven games this season, O’Shea will pass Dave Ritchie as the longest-tenured Blue Bombers coach during this almost unfathomable 29-year Grey Cup drought.
I’m not going to say the Bombers will fire him if he doesn’t get it done here in his sixth year — loyalty and patience have been staples of Wade Miller’s time as president and CEO of the football club — but a change will have to be at least considered.
If the Bombers don’t win it all, things could look very different next season.
Those changes could include a new starting quarterback and a new head coach.
Quarterback decision looming for Bombers after season
Winnipeg Blue Bombers management could have a very difficult decision to make at the end of this season.
Do they keep 32-year-old Matt Nichols or 24-year-old Chris Streveler as their starting quarterback going forward?
Streveler would need to have another promising season to become a truly coveted quarterback, but he will be a free agent and if the Bombers don’t sign him to be their starter, someone else likely will.
Nichols, the Bombers highest-paid player at $455,000 this year, is under contract for 2020, but the team has an out if he is released before Jan. 15, 2020.
The Bombers could decide to hitch their wagon to Streveler, one of the few good quarterbacks the team has recruited and developed in decades, and allow Nichols to move along.
All that suggests this is a massive year for both players. Nichols has age and wear and tear working against him, but he’s a warrior and a leader who should still have a few good years ahead.
Streveler is still a bit of an unknown, but he’s got raw talent and has been a solid apprentice.
This is a storyline that should play out all season long.