“I’ve always said it takes two [quarterbacks] to win in this league,” Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea told reporters just days before the Drew Willy era would officially end in Winnipeg.
While finding a way to somehow dump Willy’s hefty salary to the Toronto Argonauts in a blockbuster, three-team trade that sent shock-waves across the CFL, Winning Blue Bombers general manager Kyle Walters also maintained an experienced no. 2 quarterback for his coach by acquiring Kevin Glenn from the Alouettes – and all it cost him was the mere price of a fourth-round pick after acquiring two much better draft selections – and a roster player – for the former backup. Simply dumping Willy’s salary off to another team before bringing in a cheaper backup would have been an even exchange for the Bombers. Walters, however, managed to make it greatly lopsided in his favor.
The return for Willy, a quarterback free-falling downhill, was even more mind-blowing than the idea itself of another general manager acquiring him with his current contract situation. An unproven, 29-year-old veteran, the Bombers’ compensation for Willy was massive – a 2017 1st-round pick, a 2018 3rd-round pick and defensive back TJ Health, who’s tied for first in the CFL with five interceptions.
A third-round pick and a roster player – but not necessarily an emerging rookie star like the aforementioned – would have been a fair trade with Jim Barker. Heck, even two mid-round picks for Willy would have benefited the Bombers’ future as long as long as the trade with Montreal was still made. The fact that Walters managed to negotiate the return he received was pure robbery.
Considering the Bombers acquired their current starting quarterback, Matt Nichols, for about as close to free as it gets – a conditional seventh-round pick – Walters was surely laughing on his way home from the office. (Not really. Like most general managers, Walters probably couldn’t help but ponder how many lives he changed that night). The Bombers now have two first-round picks in the upcoming Canadian college draft, and Toronto’s selection would’ve likely be in the top-five.
The inclusion of Heath in the trade was quite surprising, and not because he found out he was being shipped away just minutes following a multi-interception game on his birthday. The Bombers are absolutely loaded a defensive back – they could field two starting defensive backfields – and there’s no lack of young talent in the position group. O’Shea and his defensive coaching staff already had an upcoming problem – a good problem, that is – on their hands when all their defensive backs healed up. Their decisions will only be even tougher with another exciting rookie added to the group in Heath.
With Ryan Smith potentially back on the shelf for awhile – and the fact that the Argos’ receiving corps is nearly as deep as the Bombers’ secondary – it would’ve made more sense for Walters to go after a receiver since Barker was, oddly, willing to part with a roster player (which seemed unnecessary for this deal). Talented – but, like Duron Carter, problematic – receiver Vidal Hazelton has been a healthy scratch for the past three games, while break-out sophomore Kenny Shaw will see his touches decrease with the rest of Toronto’s receiving corps gaining health. Regardless, the fact that Walters actually pressured Barker into giving away one of his roster players when the Bombers probably didn’t need to be offered any more value is impressive. And the addition of Health has given fans an indication that Walters isn’t done making moves yet.
Although Walters could simply be acquiring trading assets, there’s no glaring positional need for Walters to fulfill mid-season – not even at receiver – which rules out that potential reasoning. With the secondary producing immensely, it’s not as if Walters isn’t satisfied with the play he’s witnessing – however everyone seems to disagree with Bruce Johnson – and even less so with the depth. Heath is in the first year of his rookie contract despite being 29-years-old. If the Bombers weren’t already prepared to allow Johnny Adams to walk in free agency – which would be an eye-brow-raising move to say the least – they certainly are now.
For Willy, once the face of this city formerly dubbed ‘Willypeg’, he enters a really good situation for himself in Toronto. Although the same could be argued regarding the Bombers’ near future at quarterback, there’s room for him to emerge as the long-term starter for the Double Blue. Ricky Ray could retire sooner than we think, and the Argos weren’t prepared behind him to lose the future Hall of Fame quarterback. It’s possible that all Willy needs is a fresh start – see Hajrallahu, Lirim – and given the huge bonus that is having Scott Milanovich, the ultimate quarterback guru of the CFL, being there to guide the lost quarterback, Barker should have a lot of faith in Willy.
Walters, himself, even touched on Willy needing a breath of fresh air in Toronto – both regarding the media and fan-base – in his comments in a BlueBombers.com interview. He was under the microscope early and often this season in Winnipeg, crumbling early on against the pressure.
In year three of the Willy-Walters-O’Shea era, and with big-fish signings all around, that trio had a lot of pressure surrounding them heading into the 2016 season. Willy seemed to have shouldered it all before the regular season had even started, and his confidence fell off a cliff as a result. He’s shown the capabilities of being a starter in the past, but his mental toughness became the defining reason for his exit from the city he owned for a few weeks in the summer of 2014.
The Argonauts won’t look back at this trade too negatively if Willy re-establishes himself in the CFL, of course. But for the Bombers, who had no reason to keep Willy at his current salary as long as they could acquire Kevin Glenn, this trade will be a win-win no matter what happens to Toronto – or even Matt Nichols – in the future.
I’ve long been a supporter of the University of Buffalo product, but after the immense downfall that took place early this season – whether that was a product of Willy’s skills or just his confidence level – he was never going to make it as long as he was wearing Blue & Gold, unfortunately.
Knowing that only makes the ridiculous compensation Kyle Walters received for his expensive, doomed former franchise quarterback even sweeter.
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.
Over the course of the next few days, as the rookies and veterans report for camp, we’ll be previewing each positional group heading into the upcoming season. We start with the team’s most crucial position, as proved last year: Quarterback.
While not adding a single quarterback in the off-season – Quentin Williams was released shortly after he signed – the Bombers are likely better at the game’s most important position now than they were in training camp last season.
Out of all four quarterbacks under contact, only Drew Willy was a member of the Blue & Gold in training camp last year. Matt Nichols, Dominique Davis and Bryan Bennett were slowly brought onto the roster as the coaching staff’s faith slowly diminished in Josh Portis, Robert Marve and Brian Brohm – all of whom proved that, while displaying varying levels of potential, were inadequate for immediate results on the football field.
The failure of three Blue quarterbacks opened the door up for Matt Nichols, who was acquired in a September 2nd trade with the Edmonton Eskimos. Just 10 days following the trade, the six-year veteran signal-caller started his first game in the Bombers’ 22-7 victory over Saskatchewan in the Banjo Bowl. Having earned the trust of Mike O’Shea, Nichols went on to start the next six games – winning one, but playing good enough in spurts to win about two more.
Although he’ll enter camp as the unquestioned no. 2 quarterback, it’s difficult to be convinced that Nichols is the Bombers’ absolute solution as QB insurance. An extremely frustrating talent, Nichols is one of the hardest players in all of sports to understand.
At first glance, Nichols brings valuable experience and an understanding of CFL defensive concepts. And while that’s not at all false, Nichols still makes rookie mistakes quite often, and still doesn’t seem comfortable holding onto the ball past his first read. Nichols has poor arm strength and spotty accuracy, but will at times make an exceptional, tight-window throw that’s especially surprising. Nichols struggles mightily to protect the football – his fumble issues are largely due to his poor pocket presence – and a lot needs to go right for a Nichols-led team to win. He’s a fiery competitor, but Nichols undoubtedly hangs his head after interceptions and has been known to blame others.
Nichols reached his full potential a long time ago, and with how great – and equally horrible – he can be, it’s clear that one word will always hang over his head: inconsistent.
As long as the defense and special-teams play well, Nichols does, sometimes, give his team a chance to win. He kept the Bombers in the hunt for the playoffs all the way until their fate was sealed in week 19, opening the door for first-year player Dominique Davis to get his first-career start in the season finale against Toronto.
A sub-par performance – but one with no mistakes – in his first start, coupled with his play in the pre-season with the Stampeders, leads me to believe that Davis has a firm grip as the third-string quarterback heading into camp. And although he may not get the chance, Davis could become Nichols’ Winnipeg-version of James Franklin should Willy go down once more.
I like Davis quite a bit. With excellent size at six-foot-three and 210-lbs, Davis is a threat to run with his legs at all times. Similarly to Robert Marve, Davis throws a beautiful ball, and does a better job than the aforementioned at keeping his eyes downfield while under duress.
Competing with Davis for the third-string position in training camp will be Eastern Washington signal-caller Bryan Bennett. The former Oregon Duck transferred to Southeastern Louisiana University after losing the starting job to Marcus Mariota prior to the 2013 season. Bennett signed a priority free agent contract with the Indianapolis Colts last year, but despite significant game reps, failed to convince the Colts’ staff that he was good enough to warrant carrying a third quarterback.
Bennett is carved out to be the next Robert Marve in Winnipeg – without the chronic knee issues, that is. Having rushed for 1,715 yards and 31 touchdowns with Southeastern Louisiana, as well as 365 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns with Oregon, he’s a legitimate dual-threat quarterback. Bennett possesses the same rocket arm as Marve, too, as he clocked the hardest throw of any QB at the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine at 60 miles per hour. He even seems to play like Marve, as NFL.com’s Lance Zierlan says that Bennett “plays the game with too much arm and not enough eyes at this stage. Doesn’t appear to have the awareness or football intelligence teams typically look for in quarterbacks and his accuracy and decision making can be big issues at times.” Sounds like a carbon copy of Marve to me.
While Bennett and Davis battle out for the no. 3 role, Drew Willy will be firmly entrenched as the team’s starter. This season truly is the deciding year for Willy, who’ll be operating a new system under Paul Lapolice while being surrounded with better talent than ever.
It’s exciting to see what Willy can do with the likes of Andrew Harris, Ryan Smith and Weston Dressler around him. He was already having a great 2015 season before suffering a season-ending injury in week seven. When protected, Willy distributes the ball well to his play-makers, displaying a high level of football knowledge and understanding of ball placement. He’s not the most athletic or accurate quarterback, but Willy is more than capable of being a field-general – he has seven career 300-yard passing games in the Blue & Gold.
The calm, cool signal-caller isn’t always calm and cool while under duress, however. Willy can freeze while under pressure, occasionally even peaking down at the pass-rush instead of keeping his eyes downfield. He’ll probably always be a difficult quarterback to protect, but there’s several ways that Lapolice can compensate for this with his play-calling (spoiler alert: Andrew Harris is key).
The duress and pressure will always be there at some point in a game, and Willy needs to stay away from as many unnecessary hits this year as possible. Seeing as this is a critical year for the Buffalo product, the last thing the Bombers need is another injury-prone quarterback making big money. Lapolice’s usage of Harris on flat, swing, wheel and screen passes as both a running back and slot-back will be huge.
Regardless, Willy’s job as completely secured. Training camp will be huge for the 28-year-old in developing a strong rapport with his receivers while gaining comfort in Lapolice’s system. Matt Nichols’ job is also secure, leaving the third-string battle between Dominique Davis and Bryan Bennett the lone competition at the quarterback position.
Some stability at the game’s most important position will be huge for the Bombers, and while the QB depth is far from night and day compared to last year as many pundits say, it’s hard to argue that having the likes of Nichols isn’t slightly more assuring. Even with Nichols, Davis and Bennett, though, the team’s fate rests in the hands of Willy more than any other player.
Despite several off-season acquisitions and an overall sense of optimism heading into year two, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ offence only regressed last season, inevitably leading to the end of a tumultuous, two-year stint with offensive coordinator Marcel Bellefeuille.
The unquestioned number one job for Bellefeuille’s replacement, Paul Lapolice, is keeping starting quarterback Drew Willy healthy and on his feet for 18 games. Willy, who’s missed 12 starts – and having been knocked out of a handful of other ball games in two years – has already sustained more than enough physical punishment as the Blue & Gold’s starter for the liking of anyone within the club’s brass.
With the Bombers allowing a league-high in sacks surrendered with 71 in 2014 and 59 in 2015 – as well as the inability to develop a consistent rushing attack – the consensus blame is often put on Bellefeuille’s blocking schemes. And while Bellefeuille, like any offensive coordinator, has his own wrinkles in his offense – as well as deficiencies from a play-calling and game-planning standpoint – his blocking schemes were not what ultimately negatively separated Winnipeg’s offense from the rest.
Head Coach Mike O’Shea, who’s well-versed for defending his coaches and players at all costs, said himself that Bellefeuille instilled the same protection schemes as every other CFL offensive coordinator – and he took a lot of heat for saying that. But, really, O’Shea wasn’t lying – the CFL is even more of a copy-cat league than the NFL, and every coach has figured out the best way to use a 65-yard field to their fullest advantage.
While it would be asinine to ignore some flaws noticed in Bellefeuille’s system – although it is possible to find flaws in every coordinator’s scheme – Bellefeuille was not fired because his scheme was different from every other team’s and failed (see Etcheverry, Gary). There were other reasons that will be touched on later – and frankly, the need of a fresh-start was probably a reason.
Perhaps the biggest reason for Winnipeg’s offensive struggles is quite straight-forward: personnel. While one could argue that Bellefeuille should’ve done a better job covering up for a lack of talent, which is easier said than done in this case, Bellefeuille, at the end of the day, employed a system similar to any other offensive coordinator.
The Same Scheme
With the way that the rules and regulations of Canadian football are tailored for offenses, every single team runs strikingly similar versions of the spread offense. It is a zone-based offense, with regular slide and half slide pass protection – both zone concepts – as well as a zone running scheme. In American football, you’ll see many different offenses, such as the spread, Air Raid, pro style, multiple, etc – some with man-blocking, and some with zone blocking. But in the CFL, excluding against certain, select fronts, it’s mostly all zone blocking. Bellefeuille was no different.
CFL lineman – not just Winnipeg’s or Calgary’s or BC’s – must be smart and athletic. Agility, and not as much brute strength/power, is a huge need. (Don’t get nastiness and strength confused when thinking about how the Bombers “rebuilt” their line). While zone protection, with blockers responsible for gaps, is better against stunts, it can put offenses in disadvantageous match-ups – i.e. an offensive tackle in space versus a defensive back – whereas big-on-big (man-blocking) will always have running backs on linebackers/defensive backs and lineman on lineman. Therefore, the more agile the blocker, the better in a zone scheme.
Winnipeg’s bread-and-butter – and every other team’s, too – in the run-game was the outside zone play. The Bombers base running packages included many, many different variations of the outside zone, inside zone – which is very similar to the outside zone, but the running backs aiming point is changed – the inside zone option, inside split zone, the zone stretch and the outside zone with ghost motion.
Like other teams, the Bellefeuille threw in some jet sweeps, toss sweeps and other heavy misdirection plays to keep defenses on their toes. (It wouldn’t have hurt if they ran slightly more of these runs to give defenses even more to really prepare for).
From a pass protection standpoint, the Bombers ran the same pass protection schemes as the rest of the league – half-slide, full slide, big-on-big (man-blocking) versus select fronts, 7-man protection and max-protection. Half slide protection is easily the most common in the league. Every lineman is responsible for the gap beside them in the direction that the line is sliding to except the backside offensive tackle, who is man-blocking against the defensive end.
The direction of the slide is usually to the strength of the defense, and is determined by either the center (usually), the offensive coordinator or even, but rarely, the quarterback. (Some plays naturally develop into “combo” blocking, where the backside tackle and guard block B.O.B., while everyone else slides). In half slide protection, the running back is responsible for the backside linebacker, and will often release for a pass if either the linebacker goes in coverage or there are no immediate backside threats.
CFL teams will slide the entire line (full slide protection) often when they’re sure they’ll likely be outnumbered in protection, but also in certain rare plays where the running back does not have blocking responsibilities. This time, the backside offensive tackle is involved in the slide – no longer locked on to the defensive end – and the running back is responsible for the defender outside of the tackle.
Again, the Bombers, who struggled against cover-0 and cover-1 blitzes, were no different from a schematic standpoint. Defensive coordinators figured out in 2014 that the bombers struggled mightily against these blitzes, proving incapable of consistently taking advantage of the one-on-one match-ups downfield in the passing game.
A lack of talent
As O’Shea has pointed out many, many times, sacks cannot always be blamed on the offensive line; it could be on the quarterback for not releasing the ball soon enough or for wrongly reading the pocket; the running back for missing a block; or the receivers for not adjusting their routes to become a viable, quick option for the quarterback throwing hot off an unblocked defender. Everyone needs to be on the same page, especially against cover-1 or cover-0 blitzes. And, of course, the players must be able to execute.
The Bombers, overall, did not have enough talent on the offensive side of the football in 2015, sparking some serious off-season changes. Winnipeg’s much-improved offensive line proved to be anything but, while the running backs each displayed different issues and the receiving corps failed to take off in year two.
It was interesting to watch Calgary call very similar plays in similar situations as the Bombers only to yield much different results. Calgary’s offensive line, despite some serious injury issues, was better all season than that of Winnipeg.
The Bombers received sub-par play at the left guard position all season, rotating between players – Chris Greaves, Sam Longo, Selvish Capers and Patrick Neufeld, who’s still below-average, but the best option of the bunch, all started games there.
Releasing veteran center Steve Morley following 2014 proved to be a mistake, as his replacement, 34-year-old Dominic Picard, was a huge bust. Although a lot was asked of him, Picard showed that simply didn’t have the explosiveness to compete at the high-level needed considering the players surrounding him on the line. He struggled against 0-techs – his worst games were against Montreal, who’s 3-4 defenses puts NT Alan-Michael Cash head-up on the center often – losing to power rushes and failing to assert any dominance or nastiness.
Contrary to Picard, who’s high intelligence was indeed evident, rookie guard Sukh Chungh showed all the needed skills – he just made a lot of mental errors. And the Bombers likely expected nothing less when they made the conscious decision in training camp to allow a rookie offensive lineman to cut his teeth at right guard over 18 games as a starter. Although, even as a rookie, the University of Calgary product was often Winnipeg’s best and most reliable interior offensive lineman, Chungh was still a below-average right guard in his inaugural campaign – he showed extremely great potential on some plays, but made fundamental or rookie errors on others. Ideally, on a team with better depth at the position, Chungh would’ve spent his first season developing into a dominant player from the sidelines.
Vital to pass protection, the two offensive tackle positions each yielded very different results. Contrary to popular belief, Stanley Bryant actually lived up to his salary with a very solid season. Opposite the two-time All-Star, however, is where many issues were presented. Youngster Jace Daniels was wildly inconsistent at right tackle, and only did Winnipeg find balance was when depth Canadian Patrick Neufeld pushed out to right tackle for the final 1/3 of the season. Neufeld, admittedly, actually played really good and provides the Blue & Gold with an excellent fall-back option at right tackle if needed.
Regardless, the emergence of a serviceable, American right tackle in training camp will be crucial, as Drew Willy is naturally a difficult quarterback to protect. He isn’t necessarily great at throwing against pressure, often panicking. And without the escapability of Zach Collaros or Mike Reilly, GM Kyle Walters must provide his franchise stud with a better receiving corps to take some pressure of the 29-year-old.
Winnipeg’s group of pass-catchers, who likely formed the second-worst receiving corps last season aside from Montreal, certainly caused a handful of sacks, turnovers or incomplete passes in blitz scenarios themselves by either failing to recognize certain blitzes and adjust their route or by failing to take advantage of the favorable, one-on-one match-ups created by cover-1 or cover-0 blitzes.
Running backs are crucial in pass-protection, and although Paris Cotton had some moments, Winnipeg’s running backs were sub-par at best at blocking. The rules/principles for running backs in half slide and full slide are probably universal for every team in the CFL, although many teams, including Winnipeg, simplified their running backs reads/responsibilities, allowing them to check and release and faster. The Stampeders, who had easily the best pass-blocking RB in the league last season in Jon Cornish, put a lot on their running back’s plate in pass-protection, knowing they could handle it. That’s another luxury that Bellefeuille didn’t have.
Looking back at 2015, the Bombers simply did not have good enough players on the offensive side of the football – losing his starting quarterback for the season in week 7 didn’t help – limiting, to some capacity, what Bellefeuille could do.
It is entirely possible that, under Paul Lapolice, the Bombers become one of the league’s most prolific offenses. And while there are changes that Lapolice can make to operate a better system and to be a better play-caller than Bellefeuille, the greatest factor for a possible step forward would be the improved personnel.
A healthy Drew Willy would already do wonders for the Bombers. With all due respect, there is a huge drop-off from Willy to Matt Nichols, who makes a lot of frustrating, fundamental mistakes. Add in upgrades and changes at every other position on offense as well, and the Bombers are looking much better on paper than they ever did with Marcel Bellefeuille.
Andrew Harris provides the Bombers with an excellent pass-protecting running back that can line up in the slot and also be an effective receiver. Weston Dressler and Ryan Smith – plus the addition by subtraction of Julian Feoli-Gudino being subject to bench to make room for another American starter – are instant upgrades to the receiving corps.
Although it would be a reach to project Winnipeg’s offensive line of being a top-4 or top-5 unit next year, significant improvement is still expected. After displaying great potential while getting over the huge learning curve as a rookie, RG Sukh Chungh should continue to get better in year two before likely becoming one of the league’s best in 2017. Patrick Neufeld, who looked solid at right tackle for the Blue & Gold in the final stretch of last season, offers at least an upgrade over Chris Greaves/Sam Longo/Selvish Capers at left guard. At right tackle, if at least one of the several rookie offensive tackles brought in to compete in training camp will become at least an average player, the Bombers will be upgraded there.
Perhaps the largest x-factor of the entire offense – excluding the health of Drew Willy – is third-year center Mathias Goossen. After grinding out two seasons as a depth player, Goossen enters training camp for the first time as a starter. All that’s guaranteed is that Goossen will be at least an upgrade over Dominic Picard in his first full season as a starter, as he already proved so last season. While it is reasonable to expect Goossen to be a solid starter in the CFL this season, he is still very difficult to project.
There are lots of question marks, but the offensive line is still looking much better than last year, and could become as good as a mid-tier unit next season.
But if this was entirely a personnel issue, Mike O’Shea would’ve never fired Bellefeuille in the first place. Although I believe any accusations against a lack of “creativity” from Bellefeuille would be false, an argument could be made regarding predictability, game-planning and in-game management. In this case, Bellefeuille was perhaps less adequate as an actual play-caller than play-designer.
Although overblown, one could say the Bombers gave similar looks too often in predictable situations. Winnipeg rarely operated the 3-step passing game from the pistol alignment, and although the running backs may have been granted the freedom to line up on the back-side of the protection on pass plays, it would have been wise to give some drop-back passing looks from the pistol, too. Bellefeuille could have also done a better job balancing between dictacting how the offense attacks the defense and simply taking what the defense gives. Perhaps no coordinator does a better job than Saskatchewan’s Stephan McAdoo. If cornerbacks are giving 12-yards of cushion, offensive coordinators must open up the deep ball by calling short routes – such as a speed-out – to force that CB to close the cushion.
Schematically, there is always room to improve and change things, especially for the league’s worst offense. The Bombers, who put too much pressure on their guards in 2014, perhaps actually used too many fullback sets in 2015 after signing Tim Cronk. It would be good to see Lapolice rely more on empty sets while changing the quarterbacks launch point to help out the offensive line more. That, and attacking the boundary with more receivers as well as getting the wide receivers more involved with lateral motion, would be good pages to take straight out of Hamilton’s play-book.
There are surely other smaller nuances to be nit-picked, but the simple fact of improving the offensive personnel would undoubtedly be the biggest reason for an offensive breakthrough in 2015, if it happens.
The easiest excuse is to blame the offensive coordinator, and we are all to blame for this. But Marcel Bellefeuille, who instilled virtually the same blocking schemes as every other CFL offensive coordinator, simply was not all that much of a burden on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ offense for the last two seasons.
As a play-caller, Bellefeuille probably leaves some to be desired, but the biggest detractor for the Bombers was the on-field personnel. Bellefeuille consistently used misdirection, different formations and prepared very different week-to-week game-plans, but the results never reflected that.
Bellefeuille gave defenses just as many different looks as any other offensive coordinator. His offense was not vanilla, and he did indeed try many different ways to get the finest execution possible out of the players he had to work with.
With a healthy Willy – and having brought in a versatile running back in Harris, cut ties with Picard, (potentially) uncovering a rookie right tackle in training camp and upgrading the receiving corps through free agency – Paul Lapolice is taking over a much better team than Marcel Bellefeuille ever had. Of course, Lapolice can always work to build a better and better system than his predecessor, but it will not make as much of a difference as the improvement in talent level will have.
I am not saying it was a bad move to fire Bellefeuille – he had some issues. But none of Winnipeg’s past issues on offenses were as glaring as the personnel.