After a rough start that looked a whole lot like last year’s Blue Bombers, and the year before, to be fair, the Bombers went on a seven-game win streak and ended the year 11-7, earning a birth in the Western semi-final and coming a few seconds and one point away from the finals. Most agree that The Bombers had a good year. Good being defined as exciting, motivated, and fun.
I had argued for quite a time that Drew Willy wasn’t the right fit for this team. When he was hurt last year, people were saying that things would get better when he got back, but they failed to remember that the Bombers weren’t very good under his tenure. But once Matt Nichols took over the reigns, the Bombers never turned back.
It wasn’t that the Bombers were great. There were many games during their 2016 streak that were average at best. And the Defense ended the year in the ninth spot. Out of nine, to be clear. But this team never gave up. They seemed to always have some fight in them. Dare I say, the Bombers were in Swaggerville. It was fun to watch.
This is an offseason that will make Winnipeg fans look forward to the next year because the sense is that this team, given they can keep the critical pieces and perhaps attain a few more, should be even better on the field than this year’s crew.
Nichols is up for “re-election,” so to speak. The Bombers are going to have come up with real money to keep him because other teams certainly noticed his capacity under centre. Beyond him, there were other wonderful surprises. Justin Medlock put on a show this year and was the best Blue Bomber on the field, game in and game out. Medlock made an impressive 88 percent of his field goals (60 of 68), with one third of those 40 yards or further. These weren’t chip shots. Andrew Harris was explosive when he got the ball, and ended the year with a five-yard average per carry, which is outstanding. Weston Dressler was good but was injured for part of the year so we didn’t get the full Dressler presence. Adams and Smith were good, but the big surprise was the return and resurgence of Clarence Denmark, who was originally put on the practice squad, returned for 53 receptions and 8 touchdowns. Consistently a class act, he’s the type of player that the Bombers want on this team even if some others are a bit taller and seemingly better. He rarely missed a ball.
The defense struggled all year long, but had a knack for interceptions. Four of the top 10 interceptors were Bombers, including league-leading Maurice Leggett with seven. Jamaal Westerman was solid in leading the defense, but the real surprise this year was Taylor Loffler out of UBC. At 24-years old, this guy showed swagger, depth, and motivation. He hit hard and was unrelenting. As a rookie, he did not look out of place at all and hopefully the Bombers keep this kid long term. As a national player, he is a rare find. When I first saw him, I wondered what US college he came from, because he plays at that level. A keeper if there ever was one.
The big question for the Bombers is what to do with Mike O’Shea. In three years as head coach of the Big Blue, O’Shea’s team was a 0.426 winning average. Not great, with the exception that this year they showed massive improvement with an 11-7 record. Things didn’t get rolling until Willy was replaced by Nichols, and O’Shea was very stubborn about making a change. This is his challenge: he seems to make poor decisions. Take away the decision to try a 61-yard field goal at the end of the semi-final against the Lions. Tough decision, although I was thinking get the four yards and move the sticks one more time for Medlock’s sake. But the Willy thing was worrisome. O’Shea brought Willy here and he was O’Shea’s guy. He was living or dying with Willy. Just before the shift in QBs, the vultures were calling for O’Shea’s dismissal. But Nichols saved him from a certain departure from Winnipeg. On other occasions, O’Shea seemed to make poor decisions and poor time management from the bench.
Now in negotiations, it is likely that Bomber GM Kyle Walters will sign O’Shea back up. If it were me, I’d add him on for a one-year extension. If the Bombers do well, then sign him on for a three-year deal. Why? Because at this point we don’t know if this edition of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers is a blip or if they are the real thing. I’m hoping and thinking the latter, but we won’t know until next June.
In the end, the Bombers were pretty-darn good this year and us fans are pleased. Now our appetites are wetted and we look forward to 2017. Go Bombers!