"Strap in and hold on, because this is about to get real."
The first assignment for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers is an absolutely daunting one: knock off the defending Grey Cup champs – in their back yard, no less – in a town that has been an absolute graveyard for everyone in the Canadian Football League.
Accomplish that feat, and then steps two and three are even more formidable: take down the West Division-leading Saskatchewan Roughriders – again on the road — in the West Final before returning to Calgary with the task of ending the longest championship drought in franchise history.
And so if it all unfolds as their script now reads, the Bombers would become the first team in the CFL to go from third place to slurping champagne from Earl Grey’s ol’ trophy since the 2005 Edmonton Eskimos. They’d also become instant heroes in this town, especially for the faithful that have been positively parched through a Grey Cup drought now almost three decades long.
“We had the season we had and there were a few games we’d like to have back… actually, a couple of quarters, or a couple of drives we’d like to have back that possibly could have changed where we’re playing,” said Mike O’Shea during the Bombers Coach’s Show on CJOB Monday night. “But that’s so far in the past. We’re going on the road for three. That’s the bottom line.”
That’s the in-the-moment approach everyone would come to expect from the Bombers boss, and it will undoubtedly be repeated by the troops ahead of Sunday’s Western Semi-Final in Calgary.
But before we really get into the minutiae of Sunday’s matchup over the next few days – who starts where, the gameplans, the X factors, etc. – let’s pull back for a big-picture take on what’s at stake for the Bombers with the playoffs now upon us.
The Bombers have posted three consecutive winning seasons for the first time in 32 years, and have the second-best record in the CFL to the Stampeders over the past four campaigns at 44-28. Yet, even with half as many wins over that same span, the Toronto Argonauts have something the Bombers do not – a championship (2017).
There’s also this: as much as the CFL is a transient league, especially with the proliferation of one-year contracts, the NFL scouting in Canada more than ever, and the impending start-up of another rival – a rebirth of the XFL – this is a franchise staring at significant changes this offseason.
Consider that the head coach is working on an expiring contract; three quarterbacks – Matt Nichols, Chris Streveler and Zach Collaros – are all pending free agents; ditto for the team’s Most Outstanding Player and Most Outstanding Defensive Player in Willie Jefferson, cornerback Winston Rose – who led the league in interceptions – and two-time reigning CFL Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman Stanley Bryant. And those are just some of the more notable names of players who will need new deals.
Let’s take this a step further: Of the starters in the last regular season game, seven – Collaros, Bryant, Adam Bighill, Andrew Harris, Pat Neufeld, Drake Nevis and Nick Taylor – are 30 or older, while Darvin Adams and Jermarcus Hardrick will be 30 by the time the 2020 campaign opens. As well, Mike Miller, Korey Jones (30), Anthony Gaitor (31), Nichols (32), Jeff Hecht (34), Justin Medlock (36) and Chad Rempel (38) are all at that age when general managers begin to look at their contract numbers even more closely.
All of this is to say this team’s championship window – which seemed so wide open in the 5-0 start and 9-3 record at the two-third mark of the season – might be slammed shut in a hurry if the next few weeks don’t unfold as so many in Bomber Nation hope.
It’s been said by yours truly all year – even in the spectacular start and then during the late season stumble – that this team would be judged in November. Anything accomplished beforehand, after all, means nada unless there is a positive playoff pay off in the next few weeks.
Well, November is here and the Bombers begin to pen the definitive 2019 narrative of their season Sunday afternoon in Calgary. Strap in and hold on, because this is about to get real.