In the words of Doug Brown, “If Nichols plays, O’Shea stays.”
With a confident Matt Nichols playing solid, turnover-free football in his first start of the season, the Bombers added a rare win to their formerly 2-25-1 record in Alberta since 2003, defeating a stunned Eskimos team 30-23.
It also, perhaps prematurely and by default, unofficially put a nail in the coffin of WillyPeg in the capital province of Manitoba which, despite a porous 2016 season for starting QB Drew Willy, remains an inconclusively positive or negative check-point for the Bombers.
Here are my thoughts are the Bombers’ huge win at the Brick Field in Commonwealth Stadium.
1. Mike O’Shea’s decision to bench franchise quarterback Drew Willy in favor of Matt Nichols did exactly as intended: it sparked the rest of the team, emphasizing that no one’s job is safe, and that the Bombers are in must-win mode. Although Edmonton’s defense is nearing ’15 Saskatchewan-like ineptitude, and it possibly still would have been won if Willy was at the helm, it was a great confidence builder for a team that definitely needed a boost after dropping back-to-back games at Investors Group Field.
2. Matt Nichols undeniably played smart and poised football in his first start of the season while operating with no pressure on his shoulders, and he deserves a ton of credit and a string of consecutive starts. But it’s hard not to think that the team would’ve also left Alberta with a win for the first time in 10 years even if Willy was operating the offense in place of the eight-year veteran. I doubt he’d have been as successful as Nichols, and it could’ve held the Bombers back for a few weeks until Nichols inevitably took over the reigns down the road, but for the first time this season, the Bombers’ defense consistently gave the offense back the ball, and the run-game was working. With that being said, it’s hard not to wonder how much of this was sparked due to the change at the most polarizing position in sports – quarterback. At this point, it’s hard to argue with Mike O’Shea’s decision at quarterback; while Drew Willy had perhaps his best of the season in Calgary, and the Edmonton game could’ve been a confidence builder, the offense clearly has a limited level of potential under the third-year starter given what has transpired this season.
3. It hurts terribly to lose a key, Canadian starter – particularly when it’s a rare, Canadian right tackle in the case of Patrick Neufeld – to injury, but the loss appeared to be a blessing in disguise for the offense – for a couple games, that is; Canadian depth isn’t as important in the short-term. With LG Jamarcus Hardrick shifting out to right tackle, American rookie Travis Bond filled the hole at left guard and was a crucial difference-maker. The 6-foot-7, 356-lb rookie, with deceptively quick feet and an uncanny amount of knowledge, was sound pass-protecting, and he evidently proved to have the size, power and technique to over-power defenders in the run-game. Paving the way for much of Andrew Harris’ season-high 127 yards rushing, Bond proved in his 1st-career start why, exactly, I thought he was the Bombers’ top performer on both sides of the football in the preseason. Bond has been stashed on the 2-man reserve all season, and it’s clear to see why the Bombers like him so much.
4. 3rd-round pick Taylor Loffler had as admirable of a game as a rookie free safety can have in their first-career start, proving to be a legitimate option to be one of Winnipeg’s seven Canadian starters with Neufeld on the 6-game injured list. Although Macho Harris is, of course, a far more reliable option at safety this young into Loffler’s career, the former Boise State Bronco and UBC Thunderbird, who I dubbed as the 2016 draft’s most pro-ready defender coming out of the CIS in the pre-draft, is already proving to be somewhat serviceable just five games into his pro career. Sliding into the 3rd-round of the draft with teams scared off due to his injury history, Loffler has a promising career ahead of him after two straight exceptional games, and he could be pressed into full-time action sooner than anticipated.
5. Despite still being well-documented, the Bombers’ defensive ineptitude has been over-looked in 2016. But with four rookies starting the secondary with Johnny Adams, Chris Randle, Macho Harris and Julian Posey all injured, the defense ironically played their best game of the season against the league’s best offense. Esks’ QB Mike Reilly was held to under 300 yards with no touchdowns (excluding garbage-time stats) just one week after this exact group, while all playing out position, nearly limited Bo Levi Mitchell to under 100 yards passing in the second-half. The Bombers, evidently, have great depth at defensive back, and a well-deserved cap-tip goes to defensive coordinator Richie Hall for creating a masterful game-plan.
6. Matt Nichols is not a better quarterback than Drew Willy, but number 5’s confidence is shattered and, with the starter struggling mightily, Nichols took advantage of a favorable situation. The quarterback change surely benefited the Bombers – and especially Mike O’Shea – in the short-term, but it doesn’t help the Blue & Gold much in the future. Willy undeniably has a higher ceiling of potential, but after pulling him against Calgary and then starting Nichols this week, his mental-state as a quarterback is perhaps at an irreparable phase for as long as he is a Blue Bomber. See, Willy likely played his best game of the season against Calgary, and given what he’s shown in the past, he likely deserved 1 more start before giving way to Nichols. And if his play against Calgary, which still wasn’t good enough, is as good as it gets for Willy in 2016, then the Bombers will have got a definitive answer in regards to their supposed franchise quarterback, and they’ll have known exact when it’s time to move on. After starting Nichols against Edmonton, the Drew Willy era in Winnipeg will, somewhat by default, officially come to an end when the season is over.
7. Albeit two weeks apart, both CBs Terrance Frederick and CJ Roberts made their CFL debuts against the Eskimos’ lethal offense, and the results were night-and-day. Roberts allowed 3 catches for 116 yards in week four, including the game-winning, 74-yard touchdown pass to Derel Walker, while Frederick notched a game-sealing interception, back-to-back crucial big-hits in the 1st-half to limit gains, and a low completion percentage against from his wide-side corner position, which inevitably had him cover Derel Walker at times. Despite the frequent speed bumps this season, it’s hard not to be incredibly psyched about the talent the Bombers’ will boast in the secondary when everyone returns to health.
8. Nichols and offensive coordinator Paul Lapolice did a sound job remaining afloat despite the losses of starting receivers Weston Dressler, who had 111 yards in the first half alone, and Quincy McDuffie, which threw international rookie Gerrard Shephard and veteran Canadian Julian Feoli-Gudino into the offense. Already without Ryan Smith due to injury, Nichols got the ball to Rory Kohlert at crucial moments in the game, and heavily relied on the play-making ability of Darvin Adams – one of the league’s best role-players at receiver. Finishing with 10 catches for 121 yards and a key touchdown reception versus press-man after Edmonton had gained some momentum with a 7-point drive of their own, Adams is great weapon to have, but the Bombers will certainly still need one of Smith or Dressler to be healthy next week.
9. Free-agent acquisition Euclid Cummings finally notched his first sack of the season with a beautiful speed rush around the edge on a play that’s designed to simply open-up the B-Gap for the defensive end to twist inside and press. Cummings, who notched 8 sacks in his first full season with the Argonauts last year, is only on pace for 3 sacks, but he’s been anything but a bust this season. The sacks will come from his pass-rushing, 3-technique position, as he graded as the Bombers’ best defensive lineman in three games so far this season.
10. The Bombers shocked many with the second-round selection of Queen’s defensive back Brendan Morgan in the 2015 draft, and the sophomore FS has been quite the burden for the Bombers on special-teams. Whereas young Canadians Taylor Loffler and Derek Jones have either been making plays or at least filling their lanes while veteran Canadian DB Teague Sherman is the big-time play-maker, Morgan has taken countless, unnecessary no-yards penalties, missed countless tackles, lost contain too times and has struggled to get off blocks downfield blocks in about one-and-one-third seasons in the CFL.
11. Despite a huge victory that featured a brilliant performance from Matt Nichols, Bombers fans are encouraged to closely watch – and root for – Hamilton QB Jeremiah Masoli. Although he isn’t a pending free agent, if the Bombers’ brass believe he can be a franchise quarterback, they won’t hesitate to organize a deal with Eric Tillman in the off-season. But that only happens if Masoli continues to play at a high level while Zach Collaros is still sidelined.