June 20th, 2024

Will Winnipeg make it five trips to the Dance?

By Lethbridge Herald on May 24, 2024.

Graham Kelly

Inside the CFL

The dominant team in the CFL since 2019 has been the Winnipeg Blue Bombers who have played in the Grey Cup four straight years. But they’ve lost the last two.

Although a few stars have departed, this is still a formidable group of veterans who are determined to prove they should be mentioned among the greatest teams of all time. Only three teams have made it to the Big Game five straight years or more, the Regina Roughriders (1928-33), Hamilton(1961-65) and Edmonton (1977-82).

All-star receiver Kenny Lawler thinks it can be done. “This offence is explosive,” he told the Winnipeg Sun. “It could be the best offence in the CFL.” Then he added, “Ever.”

That’s a tall order. The most productive offence in league history was the Doug Flutie-led Calgary Stampeders who scored 684 points in 1994. Their 7,984 yards was third best in league history. (That 15-3 aggregation lost the Western Final to B.C.).

Every team that enjoys long-term success has trouble fitting all their stars under the salary cap. The 2023 leading rusher and Most Outstanding Canadian winner Brady Oliveira, top receiver Dalton Schoen and perennial all-star defensive lineman Willie Jefferson were free agents, yet somehow GM Wade Miller managed to keep them all. There was no money left over for receiver Rasheed Bailey who signed as a free agent with Toronto. There are 22 receivers in camp. Along with Bailey, they lost Jermarcus Hardrick to Saskatchewan, and backup QB Dru Browne signed with Ottawa.

Replacing Brown on the depth chart behind Zach Collaros is the legendary fan favourite Chris Streveler. During the Bombers’ championship season in 2019, Streveler replaced the injured Matt Nichols and relieved Collaros after he arrived from Toronto. When called on, he won three of eight regular season games and was spectacular on a broken ankle during the playoffs and Grey Cup. The Bombers gave him his release so he could try the NFL.

In 2022, with the New York Jets, his coach called his play one of the greatest pre-season performances in NFL history. He then cut him. The prodigal son is back determined to prove his worth. But will he get much playing time? Collaros is at the peak of his career at 35 and he’s been remarkably healthy after all those concussion-filled years.

Despite losing Hardrick, the superb Stanley Bryant is back at the all-important left tackle spot, along with Chris Kolankowski at centre, Pat Neufeld and Liam Dobson at guard. Bryant, considered by many the greatest tackle in CFL history, just turned 38 but that’s not a problem for O-linemen as long as they keep their quick feet.

No matter who is behind centre, the quarterbacks will have plenty of weapons. Demski and Wolitarsky are a dynamic Canadian duty. Nearly half of Schoen’s receptions were second-down conversions. Lawler is terrific. Oliveira is on his way to the Hall of Fame. They will score a ton of points. Their average age is 28.

The last three years, the Bombers gave up the least passing yardage. But they lost All-Star and interception leader Demerio Houston to Calgary. All-star safety Brandon Alexander is back along with Evan Holm, Deatrick Nichols (DBs) and cornerbacks Jamal Parker, Tyrell Ford (back from Green Bay), Redha Kramdi and Tyrique McGhee.

All-time great middle linebacker Adam Bighill once again will be the heart of the defence. A six-time CFL All-Star and three-time Most Outstanding Defensive Player, the 12-year veteran shows no signs of slowing down. He will be joined on the outside by Kyrie Wilson and Redha Kramdi. Another superb vet, Willie Jefferson, anchors the D-line along with Jake Thomas, Ali Fayad, Miles Fox and Cam Lawson. Jackson Jeffcoat retired. Bomber play-by-play guy Derek Taylor pointed out when Jeffcoat was out of the lineup, Jefferson recorded no sacks. There is fierce competition between Tyluan Garbutt and Chauncey Rivers to replace the departed star. Returning D-linemen include Jake Thomas, Ali Fayad, Cam Larson and Fox. There will be changes on defence but it should be a strong group. A surprise, longtime co-ordinator Richie Hall has been demoted to defensive assistant, replaced by DB coach Jordan Younger.

Sergio Castillo handles the punting and place-kicking but the Bombers did not re-sign all-star return man and receiver Janarion Grant. Special teams are a concern.

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