September 19, 2012

Cauz: A lot has changed in 403 days

Watching the Calgary Stampeders do to Winnipeg what good actors do to Shia LaBeouf, I was originally going to write about 25 jokes making fun of the Blue Bombers and call it a day.
Some of my work included:

1) Paul LaPolice owes the Bombers a debt of gratitude. With every blowout, the team is making LaPolice look smarter and smarter. We’re one more 52-10 score away from LaPolice being a combination of Don Matthews mixed with Wally Buono, only 100 times better.

Kings of the Jungle

Matthew Cauz says the Lions have been rolling since their Grey Cup win, while the Bombers have had their fair share of challenges.

2) Uh oh, that 11-yard field goal by Justin Palardy means the Bombers are just four touchdowns away from taking a lead.
3) Wow Jovon Johnson is playing like he’s got half of the Stampeders on his fantasy team.
I was all about to bang out this rather easy column idea in the middle of the Lions vs. Argonauts game when I started thinking about the divergent paths taken by both British Columbia and Winnipeg. What is interesting is the Lions’ path to glory vs. the Blue Bombers rapid descent into oblivion and high first round picks goes way beyond the 99th Grey Cup.
It actually goes back to Saturday Aug. 13, 2011: Week 7 of the CFL season.

Come back with me won’t you?

In what proved to be another comeback win, the Bombers defeated the Lions 30-17 at Empire Stadium.
Buck Pierce had 237 passing yards, while Travis Lulay was awful and was eventually pulled in favour of Jarious Jackson.

When all was said and done, the Bombers moved to 6-1 for the first time since 1984. The Lions, meanwhile, were on the opposite side of the spectrum dropping to 1-6 and tied for last in the league with Saskatchewan.

In that game, the Lions were sloppy, committing seven turnovers, while the Blue Bombers were resilient and opportunistic. Paul LaPolice was hugging his players after the game, and Wally Buono was hearing criticisms that maybe it was time to step down.
Alright, I think you get the point from all the obvious comparisons I’ve just made.
The point is Winnipeg, with their fancy Swaggerville nickname, was on top of the food chain while the Lions were getting sand kicked in their face by scrawny amoebas.
The Bombers would go 4-7 for the remainder of the season, while the Lions would go 10-1, meaning this loss would be their last home defeat of the season. This moment represents the apex for both LaPolice and the entire franchise. For the Lions, this started the beginning of a championship team that would outscore their next 11 opponents by a nearly 200 points.
So to quote Fred Willard…”What happened?”
For BC, I believe it was a combination of a couple of important acquisitions and faith. Let’s start with the easy part. Lost in the 30-17 defeat was the innocuous stat line of four receptions for 34 yards.

That game marked the debut of Arland Bruce, fresh off of wearing out his welcome in Hamilton.

Bruce gave Lulay a legitimate #2 WR behind Geroy Simon and eased the pressure off of younger wideouts like Akeem Foster and Shawn Gore. Later on, the Lions would add Tad Kornegay, a calming and stabilizing force for a secondary that would become the most dangerous in the league.

Now on to faith.

Lulay did not have a good game; he barely completed 50 per cent of his passes for a modest 103 yards and was replaced by Jackson in the third quarter. This was the first season where Lulay was the undisputed leader of the team.

Because it’s pretty safe to say that being a starting quarterback is the hardest job in sports, it’s perfectly understandable to assume that perhaps the pressure of the job, combined with all the losing was getting to him.

However, Buono handled the situation perfectly.

He spread the blame equally among the entire team, delivered a message to the fans that the offence had to do better and most importantly, and without hesitation, announced that Lulay would starting the following game against Edmonton.

Buono easily could have given the veteran Jackson another start, instead he went back to the man he entrusted his team with.

Next week, the Lions beat Edmonton 36-1; Lulay threw four touchdowns, while Bruce hauled in nine passes for 129 yards and two majors. The rest, as they say is history.
So what about the Blue Bombers?

When you take a good hard look, it’s safe to say they overachieved.

Listen, they had plenty of talented players but good fortune play a major part in their success.
Winnipeg finished 10-8 but they scored as many points as they allowed; a sure sign they were playing above their heads. It felt like karmic payback for the 2010 season that saw the team win only four games, but easily could have won twice as many with the odd good bounce.

In 2011 the bounces went their way. Buck Pierce stayed healthy enough and the defence feasted on big plays, leading the league in both sacks and interceptions.

All of this coincided with a down year by Montréal (by their standards) and a horrific year for Toronto. By the time the playoffs rolled around, Winnipeg snared home field advantage, won an ugly playoff game against Hamilton and they were in the Grey Cup facing the same team they had swept earlier in the year.

Equals in the sense they were the final two teams standing, however that is where the similarities end.
BC would win the Grey Cup easily and have not looked back since.
Winnipeg lost stars on both sides of the line in Brendon LaBatte, Odell Willis and Doug Brown.

Pierce’s health has once again failed him and all the good fortune, all the bounces that went Swaggerville’s way in 2011 have eluded them in 2012.

One team looks poised to defend its title, the other is getting ready for Commissioner Cohon to say who they’ll draft first overall.

Who knew any of that would happen early last August?