The River City Renegade

Winnipeg Blue Bombers: Are they gaining traction or spinning their wheels one year after Matt Nichols became the starting QB?

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I cannot survive in a 140-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…

We still don’t know if Mike O’Shea had an awakening or if someone whacked him upside the head, but he was compelled to take the football from Drew Willy and hand it to Matt Nichols a year ago this very day.

That decision saved what looked to be another sorry season for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and, quite likely, O’Shea’s job.

Mike O’Shea

The Bombers, 1-4 at the time of the quarterback switcheroo, beat lightning, thunder, a lengthy weather delay and what had been a marauding Edmonton Eskimos defence in Nichols’ baptism as Winnipeg’s starting QB, and he’s engineered another dozen Ws since. That’s against six losses.

I’m still inclined to believe that an interloping party from on high instructed O’Shea to change starters, because this head coach wears his stubbornness like an extra layer of skin. He knows special teams and defence but diddly about QBs and offence, and only the jaws of life or an executive order was going to pry the ball out of Willy’s hands. It might have been Wade Miller, who occupies the top perch in the Canadian Football League club’s pecking order. It might have been Kyle Walters, the general manager who often can be found on the sidelines looking over O’Shea’s shoulder.

Whomever, the call to punt Willy and put Nichols behind centre is about the best example of trading places since the whiny Diane Chambers walked out the doors at Cheers and Rebecca Howe walked in.

Nichols orchestrated his 13th victory as the Bombers’ trigger man on Thursday night at Football Follies Field in Fort Garry, a 41-40 verdict over the Montreal Alouettes that featured a most unlikely finish thanks, in part, to an astonishingly compliant Als defence and an atrocious roughing-the-passer call on Chris Ackie of the Larks.

Having said all that, here’s what I find myself wondering on the one-year anniversary of Nichols’ first start: Are the Bombers actually gaining traction in their quest to satisfy a championship hunger that now is measured by the quarter-century?

Not really.

Matt Nichols

To date, the Bombers have mostly beaten up on the Sad Sacks from the East Division and the free space known as the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Nichols, as terrific as he’s been, is 10-1 against the four eastern outfits and Gang Green, but only 3-5 vs. the Calgary Stampeders, Eskimos and B.C. Lions.

That, kids, is not how the West can be won.

I suppose O’Shea would pooh-pooh those numbers, because he looks at historical data the same way Donald Trump looks at news scavengers. He’d point out that faces and names change, so what does it matter that the Bombers haven’t rung up a W against the Stampeders in a meaningful match since the leather-helmet era? To a degree, he’d be correct. Yesterday’s team is not today’s team.

One thing has been constant for three-plus crusades, though: O’Shea.

During his watch, O’Shea is 1-8 vs. the Stamps and 1-6 vs. the Eskimos. It doesn’t matter who’s been coaching in Calgary—John Hufnagel or Dave Dickenson—or in Edmonton—Chris Jones or Jason Maas—O’Shea can’t beat them. And if you can’t beat Calgary or Edmonton, you don’t get home playoff dates. If you don’t get home playoff dates, you have to win twice in hostile territory just to advance to the Grey Cup game, let alone win it.

So, until O’Shea can devise a scheme to outwit Dickenson or Maas, the Bombers are spinning their tires. No matter who’s at quarterback.

Blame it on geography. If the Bombers were still in the East, they’d be the beast. Here’s the local lads’ East-West record since O’Shea rolled into River City:

2014: 5-3 vs. East        2-8 vs. West
2015: 1-7 vs. East        4-6 vs. West
2016: 6-2 vs. East        5-6 vs. West (including playoff game)
2017: 2-0 vs. East        1-2 vs. West
Total: 14-12 (.538)      12-22 (.352)

What’s that you say? The Bombers will be better off if they earn a crossover playoff spot this season? Don’t even go there. West Division crossover teams are 0-for-life trying to get to the Grey Cup through Ontario and/or Montreal. The Eskimos discovered last year how difficult a chore it is. If I’m O’Shea, I’ll take my chances with the land mines in Saudi Alberta.

Yikes! Exactly when did O’Shea piddle in Paul Wiecek’s breakfast Cheerios? I mean, it’s one thing for the Winnipeg Free Press columnist to take the Bombers coach to task for some of his dunder-headed decision-making, but pointing an accusing finger at him for the empty seats at Football Follies Field in Fort Garry is a bit extreme. Seriously. O’Shea’s short pants are an issue? Wiecek’s latest attack piece reads mean, with gusts up to nasty.

Ted Wyman of the Winnipeg Sun comes dangerously close to cheering in the press box with this line in his gamer following the Bombers’ 41-40 victory over the Als: “They might not be able to stop the opposition, but as long as they score one more point than the other team, who really cares?” That’s cringe-worthy.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling mostly about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, which means she’s old and probably should think about getting a life.

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