- FREE AGENCY
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Hamilton Tiger-Cats had some critics to prove wrong on Sunday. For the Ticats it was one individual player under the microscope; on the Bombers side, there were a few players with a bright spotlight upon them. In all cases, though, loud statements were made.
All Jeremiah Masoli has done this season is get the job done and answer critics, yet there were many wondering how Hamilton’s quarterback would perform come playoff time. I’ve been one of Masoli’s biggest boosters all year long, and even I was concerned heading into Sunday’s Eastern Semi-Final.
The Ticats looked like a different team in the six meaningful quarters they played without Brandon Banks in the regular season. Banks meant so much to that offence and Masoli and company struggled against Ottawa without him. But they adjusted in a huge way in Sunday’s win over the BC Lions, and Masoli was at the forefront.
Masoli was dialed in from minute one and had Hamilton’s offence in fine form as they opened up a 28-0 halftime lead. Honestly, I didn’t evaluate anything in the second half, because it looked like both teams wanted to get out of there unscathed. But when this game was still in the balance, Masoli was accurate and decisive and resoundingly answered any questions about how he’d perform with playoff pressure.
Masoli has been questioned all season long, and has answered each one in stride. Can he beat out Johnny Manziel? Can he lead an offence from the start of the season as opposed to coming in midway through? Can he get his interceptions down? And can he perform when all the chips are down?
Masoli has answered yes each time and has a chance to underline that next weekend. The Ticats struggled in their two crucial late season games against Ottawa, but now Masoli and crew have a chance to win when it truly matters most.
Winnipeg’s situation was a little different, because there were three key figures I had my eye on: Matt Nichols, Andrew Harris, and Mike O’Shea. You can count those three as the central figures in a Bombers resurgence that started in 2016 but hadn’t led to any post-season success. Until now, that is, because Winnipeg went into a hornet’s nest on Sunday afternoon and won.
With their 23-18 win over Saskatchewan at Mosaic Stadium, the Blue Bombers have their first playoff win since returning to relevance. It was one of those three central figures leading the way, too; Harris drove the bus against an elite defence and that bus will roll all the way to Calgary next weekend. With 153 rushing yards and a touchdown, Harris now has a defining playoff performance in blue and gold.
It’s funny, because Nichols was very much under the gun against the Riders, but it’s not like he hasn’t played well in Winnipeg’s last two trips to the Western Semi. In fact, Nichols was statistically much better in losses to BC and Edmonton the last two years than he was Sunday, but the result is all that mattered. Nichols got the job done and I’m really happy for him, because you could tell how much it meant to him.
And finally, how can we not mention O’Shea? With just 12 wins in his first two seasons as head coach, many believed O’Shea’s job was in jeopardy early in 2016. At 1-4 that year, O’Shea kept calm, didn’t change his demeanour even a little bit, and made one key decision installing Nichols at quarterback.
Now his Bombers are a win away from playing for the Grey Cup. It’s nice to see negative stories turn positive this day and age.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve had the privilege of voting on year-end CFL awards. In the interest of transparency, here’s how I voted for the 2018 Shaw CFL Awards and why. I can’t speak for the rest of the Football Reports of Canada, but here’s where I landed.
Most Outstanding Player: Bo Levi Mitchell, Calgary. I voted for both Mitchell and Masoli coming out of their divisions, and those two will go head-to-head in just over a week on awards night. But Calgary’s Mitchell got my ultimate MOP vote, even though it was a tough decision.
Mitchell’s numbers speak for themselves; he led the league with 35 passing touchdowns and finished third with 5,124 passing yards. Consider, though, he did that with an injury ravaged group of receivers for most of the second half of 2018. He was the league’s most consistent quarterback all season long, but his second half is what sealed it for me.
Most Outstanding Defensive Player: Adam Bighill, Winnipeg. With no disrespect to Hamilton’s Larry Dean, who had a great season, Bighill was the runaway winner for me. In his first season with Winnipeg, and in his return to the CFL, Bighill had a dominant season at middle linebacker.
Bighill didn’t lead the league in tackles, but he finished tied with Dean for third at 106. But look where he impacted the game that contemporaries like Dean, Alex Singleton, and Henoc Muamba didn’t. Bighill finished the season with four sacks, two interceptions (including a touchdown), and four forced fumbles. He was literally all over the field in 2018 and even made a strong case for Most Outstanding Player.
Most Outstanding Canadian: Andrew Harris, Winnipeg. This was a close one for me, because Brad Sinopoli was a very deserving East Division nominee. But I skewed for a few different reasons. Harris led the league in rushing for a second straight season, led all running backs with eight rushing touchdowns, and was the focal point of his team’s offence all season.
Sinopoli had a career season and is a key piece of Ottawa’s aerial attack, but I don’t know if there’s a non-quarterback in this league as central to his team’s offensive success than Harris. Here’s the crazy part: his 1,390 rushing yards shattered his career numbers and he did so at the age of 31 and in his ninth CFL season. That’s not supposed to happen.
Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman: Stanley Bryant, Winnipeg. That’s a third straight member of the Bombers, but Bryant deserves it for his 2018 campaign, much like he did last year when he won the award. Bryant is the league’s most consistent left tackle and that remained the case this season.
Winnipeg led the league in rushing yards and Bryant played a huge part in Harris’s career season. The Bombers also finished tied for third with 36 sacks allowed, but Bryant was a vault all season protecting Nichols’s blindside. Finally, Bryant playing tackle as opposed to Hamilton’s Brandon Revenberg at guard did factor into my decision
Most Outstanding Special Teams Player: Lewis Ward, Ottawa. As good as Ty Long was handling kicking and punting duties for the BC Lions, Ward just completed the single greatest kicking season in professional football history. I’d be shocked if this wasn’t a unanimous vote when it’s all said and done.
Ward completed 98.1 per cent of his field goal kicks in 2018 to shatter the prior record of 94.7 per cent set by Rene Paredes in 2013. That alone is enough to get him this award, but it’s only the beginning. The REDBLACKS rookie completed his last 47 field goals, setting a new league record for consecutive attempts, besting Paredes’s 39. And just to drive it home, Ward broke Adam Vinatieri’s pro football record, which was previously set at 44.
I also voted Ward as my Most Outstanding Rookie over Saskatchewan receiver Jordan Williams-Lambert for all the reasons above. Give Williams-Lambert credit, though, because he was a big reasons the Riders got their offence on track around the midway mark of the season.
Coach of the Year: Chris Jones, Saskatchewan. I know the Riders lost in Sunday’s Western Semi-Final, but voting for these awards took place following the end of the regular season. Knowing what the Riders accomplished this year, Jones deserves this award.
After a slow start to the season, Saskatchewan went 9-2 down the stretch and made things very interesting for top spot in the West Division. This was an elite defence all season long, but their true might wasn’t felt until the second half when the Riders figured things out offensively.
In all honesty, Hamilton’s June Jones was my vote coming out of the East Division, but I was in the minority. That has almost nothing to do with Rick Campbell and was more about June’s work with Masoli and that offence, while the Tiger-Cats battled significant injuries all season long. In the end, though, my final vote would have gone to Chris Jones regardless.