It is probably the biggest weekend of the 2018 CFL season, at least until the end of the season with playoffs .
For the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the sudden lurching of the big blue machine with two losses in a row has dropped the Bombers into fourth spot and a cross over berth, a far cry from the challenging for first place or at the very least, hosting a playoff game in the drive to eliminate #1990 as a means to taunt the Bombers and their fans.
Adding to that were the boos that came from the home crowd in a choke against the Ottawa RedBlacks which Matt Nichols, Winnipeg QB believed were directed unfairly to him since he had done nothing but give himself to the community since his arrival in a trade. The boos came when Nichols went back into the game after apparently being injured and some thought the boos were directed to the Grimacemaster known as Mike O’ Shea for exposing his start quarterback to needless injury.
The following week it sounded like Nichols was throwing his receivers under the bus following a loss to Calgary by complaining he had nobody to throw to. Winnipeg staff seemed to respond by reshuffling their receiving corps, which will be missing Weston Dressler, who may be their only consistent receiver.
Corey Washington is a rookie wide receiver replacing Ryan Lankford and Darvin Adams moved to the slotback position. Winnipeg will likely be missing an offensive lineman or two and the results will be interesting. Jermarcus Harrick is on the six game injured list and Paddy Neufeld may or may not play.
This makes the release of Geoff Gray by the Cleveland Browns pretty interesting.
Gray was a first round draft pick by Winnipeg who played offensive line in 2017 for the University of Manitoba and was picked eighth overall by Winnipeg. He chose to go to the NFL and will now look to clear waivers before considering future options.
If Gray comes back to Winnipeg, that will help their offensive line, but Winnipeg’s problems probably extend more to their receiving corps and their defense which has given up over 1,000 yards in two games. This might be promising for the Rider offense, but there is no guarantee the Riders will make 500 yards in offense in two or three games, never mind one.
In reviewing the Bombers last three games, a few themes seem to repeat themselves. The Bombers have distinguished themselves with gimmick or gadget plays, mostly on special teams, but more than once on offense. The gimmick plays sometimes work, but seem to be a substitute for perhaps doing what teams need to do, which is execute plays to move the ball.
You can see this with the number of third down plays the Bombers have failed to convert. Two years of steadily increasing gimmick and gadget plays may have convinced Bomber fans their team is more brilliant that it actually is.
The Bomber moves on receiver, and perhaps some adjustments on the offensive line and defense, indicates a team that may be questioning what it is doing, and if the team is going to continue to slip, by say, losing the Labour Day game, then O’Shea may hve to consider changes, especially if they lose the Banjo Bowl.
The changes may start with the Bombers defense under the tutelage of Richie Hall, who has a bend, but don’t break approach, but is also opportunistic on jumping on miscues and perhaps less than disciplined at times which undermines their own success. At the beginning of the season O’Shea said he would take more of a hand in the defense, which sounds like Cory Chamblin when he was head coach of the Riders and Hall ran the defense.
There is no easy answer and an element of jumping to conclusions which is pretty common in football seasons.
Three games ago the Rider fan base were reviewing possible GM replacements as the Riders were 3-4 and looking towards playing the then undefeated Stampeders. Now perhaps not so much, although there is a feeling that perhaps not all is as perfect, or perhaps as bad, as one might think in Riderville.
That would be good advice for Bomber fans to take as well, and maybe Nichols could learn to keep hs mouth shut when it comes to questions about fan boing or maybe even whether his receivers are doing all they can to get open. That’s a maturing phase to go through but in going public, Nichols has given every other fanbase besides Winnipeg gold to work with for the rest of the season.
Matt Nichols starter kits, including pacifier and perhaps a bag of baby wipes and Depends, should start popping up at stadiums all over the CFL. Once upon a time Nichols was slotted to be the starter until he got injured and Mike Reilly stepped up and took over and making Nichol’s redundant.
Another explanation for the drop off may be due to othe teams finally keying in on what made him successful and taking those options away from him. Other quarterbacks this has happened to include Casey Printers and Jonathon Jennings who after their initial burst of success, found out they didn’t have the sustainable success their starts may have indicated were possible.
The Bombers will likely see Jackson Jeffcoat out and Gerard Rivers signed by the Bombers and looking forward to his CFL start. Whether their changes will help is something yet to be determined but for the Bombers, if they can’t sweep this weekend, and that seems possible, but unlikely, then a split may be the minimum needed to defend the jobs of Hall in the weeks to come.
The other problem facing Winnipeg may well be the salary cap issue. Winnipeg didn’t go afte free agent Henoc Muamba because he was asking too much and the same may apply to Gray if he comes north. For the Bombers, the future is now and if they can’t get it in, then this will be the latest in a long line of cruel jokes the fates have tossed to the fans since winning the Super Bowl.
If Winnipeg is constrained by the contracts they have now, then the time has come to say good bye to some over paid veterans. But O’ Shea has spent the last few seasons trying to build a new culture and expectations of this team and players may think now the time has come to stay true, at the expense of losing out on future picks.
The problem is that time is not on Winnipeg’s side. A loss Sunday in the Labour Day game will drop the Bombers to 5-6 and if they go to 5-7, the Riders will go to 7-4 with a game in hand and a third of the season remaining.
The NFL cuts are expected to come out this weekend and if Gray gets picked up by another team, there may be other players that shake loose, perhaps a receiver more to the Bombes liking, and the team will have to react to some extent to the players available to make some kind of a move.
The other news, and probably more significant, is the Duron Carter signing by Toronto. The Argos choke against Montreal last week combined with the lack of punch in the Toronto attack probably convinced Jim Popp, Argos GM to give Carter a shot, especially if he was prepred to abide by the culture being built by coach Marc Trestman.
Trestman has encouraged his players to build a locker room of accountability where everyone is focused on winning and getting along together, presumably under the assumption that if you know your fellow players well, you are more inclined to try harder for them when the pressure is more intense on the team.
Whether Carter, whose talent is undeniable but whose interest in the game is a legitimate source of debate, buys into the culture will be something else. Carter was cut by Rider GM/Head Coach Chris Jones for (reading between the lines) not fitting into the Rider culture and the team wanting to move in another direction. In other words, the benefits of having Carter on the team, offensivlly or defensively, were not justified by the distractions Carter was creating in the locker room.
Carter seems to have taken some steps to trying to resolve the perception he has as a problem child by eliminating his Twitter account and seems to have understood Toronto may his last shot at a pro football career. Th NFL may not be interested in a receiver who may be the talented son of a Hall of Fame receiver but who doesn’t put in the work to be a part of a team rather than someone who demands the ball all the time because he is so much more talented than anyone else.
The reaction to Carter signing has been interesting with Trestman indicating Carter is not going to play this weekend for Toronto against Hamilton, nor likely next weekend again against Hamilton, while he learns the offense. That leaves the window of his playing opening when the Riders play Toronto the week after and Trestman initially signalled that also may not be in the cards, probably realizing what a media distraction that would be.
Those plans may change depending on how well, or how poorly the Toronto offense operates in the next couple of weeks. Does the reward of having a talented receiver like Carter justify the risk he poses to the peace of the locker room? If he is interested in buying into Trestman’s locker room culture, then Carter may be the short term fix the Argos need to make the playoffs and perhaps get back to the Grey Cup, if not, well, the Argos are probably not paying him $100 K or whatever they are paying him to stand on the sidelines.
So on with the show…
Firday night we have Montreal go to Ottawa with the big question of whether the Antonio Pipkin show is for real or not. Pipkin, who is sort of an afterthought in Montreal after the Johnny Manziel trade, lead Montreal to its second wind of the season against Toronto while Manziel was on the sidelines undergoing concusson protocol, after somehow fooling the system and getting back into the game a couple of weeks when maybe he should have stayed out.
Pipkin has a live arm and showed the ability to move Montreal against a Toronto defense that misses former defensive coordinator Cory Chamblin more than they perhaps realized. This week they are going against former Montreal defensive coordinator and who is now in Ottawa – Noel Thorpe. Thorpe seems to have Ottawa going in the right direction, but considering the overall tire fire that is Montreal, a wn here for Ottawa wll not be any indication of whether the team is good enough.
However in the CFL east, that didn’t seem to inspire Toronto to beat Montreal so Ottawa better not get too overconfident in their own ability. Ottawa despite a rocky start, is now a surprising 6-3 and if they can pick up wins against teams they should be beating in their own conference, will move closer to a winning season and more importantly, hosting the eastern final Ottawa wins this one 30-20 because Pipkin may be better suited to Montreal than Manziel is.
On Sunday is the Battle Royale between the toothless followers of Mike O’ Shea and the on again-ioff again order of Rider Priders. Two teams heading in seemingly opposite directions, the Bombers come in riding a two game losing streak amidst talk their quarterback is perhaps a sensitive soul damaged by the booing of the home crowd.
Wait until Sunday Matt.
If the Bombers thought their offense had problems against Calgary moving the ball, wait until they face the Riders. The Bombers will rely on Andrew Harris to key their attack and maybe open up space for their receiving corps, but reliability is not what the Bombers receiving corps is known for, other than the assorted trick plays, and maybe Winnipeg brings in Chris Shreveler in more often to try to blunt the Riders pass rush, especially Charleston Hughes, who has already lapped his competitors with 12 sacks this season and seems ready to be making a run for the CFL all time record in a season.
This leaves the Rider offense facing off against the Bomber defense which as previously mentioned, gave up 1000 yards in their last two games. It’s highly unlikely the Riders will get 500 yards of offense in this game, unless everything possibily goes right, because Zach Collaros has been working more on protecting the ball than pushing it deep.
Winnipeg’s defense may be thinking it can be more aggressive against the Riders, forcing turnovers be they interceptions or fumble recoveries. It’s a strategy I would go for, considering how Tre Mason does fumble the ball now and then at the running back position and the Riders may be thinking of running the ball like Winnipeg does.
The Riders held off BC last week to put themselves in position to capitalize with a win this weekend and opening up some room between themselves and Winnipeg. This game is a sell out and the atmosphere will be very similar to the star of the NCAA College Football season, which makes sense because this is that type of rivalry.
Winnipeg needs to look respectable before they go back for the Banjo Bowl rematch. The Riders need to put the brakes on the Bomber offense and them them over-extend against the Rider defense. The final thing to think about – the Riders get three to five time count penalties from Calgary in the last home game because of crowd noise – so that may well be the deciding factor in what should be a close game 28-25 Riders.
On Monday Edmonton goes down to Calgary to try to figure out what kind of team they really are. Are they the big play team they showed for one quarter against Hamilton in their last game, or the team that showed up for one quarter and then folded in the final quarter allowing Hamilton to escape with a one point win?
I heard a story from a security guard that following the Riders win over Calgary, after the game the Calgary players were waiting for their buses and totally unconcerned with losing to the Riders because as one player put it, they were still 7-1 (at the time). The next week Winnipeg came to Calgary and lost in the fourth quarter because even with defensive coordinator LeVonne Claybrooks in hospital for tests, the Calgary defense put on enough of a gag on Winnipeg to have the Bombers choke yet again.
This week the Calgry defense will have to deal with an Edmonton deep passing game that when it is good, is fun to watch, but then again, it seems to operate for only a quarter at a time. After the Edmonton loss to Hamilton, the Edmonton radio shows were full of how the Eskimos lost because they didn’t have Maas lose it on the sidelines to inspire or scare the team.
Which is par for the course for Edmonton, they never acknowledge anyone ever won a game, it was either the Eskimos beat themselves or lousy reffing cost them the game. Then again, you can argue every othe team follows the same formula when they lose.
On Monday the question will be will be whether Bo Levi Mitchell can burn the Edmonton secondary for his second 400 yard plus passing game in his career. I would argue that Michell, playing at home yet again, will be capable of meeting that feat.
Which leaves the ball in the court of Mike Reilly and the Eskimos. While Mitchell may be the statistical quarterback of choice, when it comes to the last minute and being behind, I would rather follow Reilly than Mitchell. Unfortunately that means relying on a talented, but at times inconsistent cast on offense and while Reilly may be willing, the rest of the Eskimos are not up to the challenge, at least for this week – Calgary wins this game 27-23.
Finally we have Toronto at Hamilton where instead of Where’s Waldo, the Argos fan base will be watching Carter on the sidelines to see how he fits in with the rest of the team, avoiding verbal and physical abuse from a Hamilton fan base that are getting players they sent to Montreal back because Montreal has no cap space to spare.
Hamilton needs to fill the gap left by the torn ACL of reeiver Chris Williams who came to Hamilton looking to provide another speedy option opposite Chris Banks. The loss of Matthews may see Hamilton look to sign either former Ti-Cat Bakari Grant or perhaps Chad Owens, who has been hanging around in Regina since his release by the Riders because of uh, salary cap reasons. Owens remaining in Regina is somewhat strange because I was under the impression his family was in southern Ontario.
Anyway the collapse of Toronto against Montreal seems at times an equal indictment of the Toronto defense which has its own injury problems. Those problems, including losing Cassius Vaughn, are probably why Toronto is going to lose this one the way they lost and won their last three games – narrowly in a Hamilton win 28-21 which may set the Argos up to unveil Carter week seemingly ahead of schedule.
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