Both Bombers’ general manager Kyle Walters and his personnel department have, through three seasons on the job, built a contending roster for head coach Mike O’Shea.
It’s for this reason that the Bombers’ terrible start to the season was so puzzling, as none of the free agent signings were underwhelming, and it was very evident that the roster boasted the talent to dominate. Naturally, the blame was pointed directly at O’Shea, but as Bombers’ fans know better than most from experience, the success of a Canadian Football League team is heavily dependent on the quarterback no matter the supporting cast on offense or defense. Drew Willy, the franchise pivot who was signed to mega, $415,000 annual contract, was simply not getting it done.
With Matt Nichols now supplying consistently serviceable play, the Bombers’ entire roster is being showcased, and they appear to be one of the most talented teams in the CFL. The defense, which has played the last few games missing nearly their entire secondary, leads the league in takeaways with 27 – the next team on the leader-board is the Argonauts at 16. The run-game is finally taking off under star, Canadian running back Andrew Harris, who leads the CFL in rushing at 505 yards now that opposing defenses have to, at least, respect the Bombers’ aerial attack. In a league that has underwent a passing explosion since drastic rule changes in 2015, having done it two games in a row, the Bombers are proving to be one of the only teams to be able to win with under 300 yards passing.
Walters’ master plan, which was completed this off-season with free agency and the draft after a planned, three-year rebuild, is coming into fruition. The missing ingredient during the tumultuous start of the season just so happened to be at the most crucial position in the game: quarterback. With Nichols now inserted into a starting role, the Bombers’ last few off-seasons are looking great.
No matter the free agent signings, teams’ scouting departments must be able to consistently discover American players who are sitting on their couches, waiting for a call to resume their professional football careers. Winnipeg’s scouting department has sorely underachieved during Walters’ term, annually failing to uncover a starting caliber American rookie offensive lineman, receiver and defensive end – not to mention some depth at the position – until this year. Travis Bond and Jermarcus Hardrick, although the latter had already spent some time in the CFL, have solidified the offensive line, while Jace Davis and Thomas Mayo are each better than any rookie receiver the Bombers have brought in since Chris Matthews.
Finding young defensive backs has been the only consistent discoveries of the scouting department until this season – Johnny Adams and Bruce Johnson were great acquisitions – and they’ve continued that trend in 2016. Boundary halfback and dynamic kick returner Kevin Fogg is a threat to win Rookie of the Year, while Terrance Frederick and CJ Roberts are developing into future starters as they fill in for the injured Chris Randle and Johnny Adams. Rookie Canadian Taylor Loffler, meanwhile, has solidified a starting safety spot just months after being drafted in the third-round.
Johnny Adams was one of the league’s best defensive backs in his rookie season, while Chris Randle was playing at a higher level than any defensive back in 2016 before suffering an injury. Without them, the Bombers’ secondary has been a dynamic, turnover-machine, displaying the depth of this team.
Walters nailed free agency this signing – the Bombers inked contracts with six big-name free agents: Euclid Cummings, Andrew Harris, Euclid Cummings, Keith Shologan, Weston Dressler and Ryan Smith – defying the foolish belief that free agency is a terrible idea for rebuilding teams, and that there’s always a reason the players weren’t initially re-signed, and it rarely works out, etc. His acquisitions in 2015 have panned out good, too, as Darvin Adams has emerged into a go-to receiver, and two-time All-Star Stanley Bryant has been consistent protecting his quarterback’s blind-side.
The Bombers’ offensive line has been one of the teams weakest positional groups during all of Walters’ tenure, but they weren’t getting the recognition they deserved while Drew Willy was behind center during the first five games of the season. Versatile international pick-ups Jermarcus Hardrick and Travis Bond were great acquisitions, while 3rd-year Canadian Mathias Goossen, who’s in his first season as a full-time starting after being selected with the second overall pick in 2014 – is blossoming into an elite center. According to 3 Down Nation’s John Hodge, the Bombers surrendered an average of 3.2 sacks-per-game with Drew Willy at the helm. Under Nichols, who’s decisiveness and movement in the pocket is the difference, the average sack-rate has dropped to 1.66 sacks-per-game since making the switch at quarterback.
The defensive line, meanwhile, has been good all season, and they’re making the flashy plays now that the defensive backfield is encouraging offenses to run the ball, and quarterbacks to hold onto the ball. A unit that has plagued this defense over the last two seasons, former Toronto Argonaut Euclid Cummings has been a one-man wrecking crew at defensive tackle, supplying the needed pressure from the pass-rushing, three-tech position. Jamaal Westerman continues make a case as to why he’s the most well-rounded defensive end in the game, and opposite him, Shayon Green is finally coming along after a tumultuous start to his rookie season. This unit has dominated the opposite offensive lines three weeks in a row – all of which were played in front of a supposedly patch-work secondary.
There’s no direct correlation between Matt Nichols and the defense, of course, but the offense is finally controlling both the time-of-possession and the field-position. He hasn’t had to carry the team, passing for 350-to-400 yards on a consistent basis like most quarterbacks for their team to have a chance – in fact he hasn’t even had to pass for 300 yards. But he’s managing the production on first down, recognizing busts in coverage and giving his receivers opportunities to make plays. In two of three starts, Nichols has simply stuck to basics of the system, managing the game and delivering the ball to his play-makers – and kudos to Nichols; Drew Willy wasn’t capable of fulfilling even the simpler job for pivots in Paul Lapolice’s offense.
It’s scary to imagine how good this team would be if an elite quarterback like, say, Mike Reilly was leading the charge – at the end of the day, quarterbacks make the entire roster better. But, for now, Nichols is holding up his end of the bargain, and his serviceable play is proving to be enough on a team with a great supporting cast, from the starters all the way down to the practice squad.