- FREE AGENCY
An air of superiority swirled around the Winnipeg Blue Bombers for the first seven games of the CFL season, but the team now heads into one of the toughest stretches of its schedule looking very average following two disappointing losses.
Over the next five weeks, the Bombers host the Calgary Stampeders and BC Lions before going on the road to play the Edmonton Eskimos. After that, it’s the Labour Day game in Regina against the Roughriders followed by the return engagement in Winnipeg.
“We’re going to have an opportunity to be able to separate ourselves or make things interesting,” middle linebacker Adam Bighill said about the upcoming schedule.
The Bombers looked to have all the answers when they began the season with five straights wins. Winnipeg is now facing some questions after losing 23-15 to Hamilton July 26, then blowing a 20-0 lead and allowing Toronto to battle back for a 28-27 victory Friday night that gave the Argonauts their win of the season.
“Any time you lose it poses an opportunity to learn,” said Bighill. “That’s what we have to take it as, a learning experience.
“There are matter-of-fact reasons why you lose. It’s ball security, giving up explosion plays, not getting enough takeaways. It’s poor second-down conversion percentages, it’s missed assignments, execution. There are reasons why you lose. It’s hard to beat teams when you’re also kind of beating yourself.”
Against the Argos, Winnipeg quarterback Matt Nichols completed 21 of 31 passes for just 169 yards and a touchdown. The Bombers were good on nine of 20 second-down conversions and allowed Toronto return specialist Chris Rainey to ramble for 229 total yards.
“We didn’t get our job done,” head coach Mike O’Shea told reporters in Winnipeg. “All three phases made too many mistakes.
“You make those mistakes and don’t make enough big plays to counteract those mistakes, you end up losing. Every guy understands his role in the outcome.”
One positive for the Bombers was the play of Bighill. Playing in his second game back after missing three weeks with a hamstring injury, Bighill had 10 tackles against the Argos. He had a combined eight tackles in his previous three games.
“The way offences scheme our defence, sometimes you have more opportunities,” said Bighill, the CFL’s most outstanding defensive player last season when he had 105 tackles and four sacks. “Sometimes they come to you, sometimes they don’t.
“It’s always good to get some good strikes on the ball carrier. Get 10 in a game it’s always fun. That game is not all about tackles. You like to make the plays that come to you.”
What frustrates Bighill the most about Toronto loss was Winnipeg looked to have the game under control with a 20-0 lead, then were outscored 28-7 over the last 32 minutes. The Argos won the game on a nine-play, 72-yard drive in the final 90 seconds, ending with an S. J. Green touchdown catch in the dying seconds.
“Great teams put people away,” said Bighill. “We’ve shown we can do that throughout the season.
“It comes down to every single week you’ve got to repeat that. You can’t just think you’re going to do it because you’ve done it before. You’ve got to actually go out the and really grind it.”
The Bombers and Stampeders are tied with 5-2 records so sole possession of first place in the West will be decided in Thursday’s game at IG Field. Edmonton and Saskatchewan are 4-3.
“First place in the West to me is the key phrase,” said Bighill. “That’s an important thing to consider. It’s a tough conference.
“We’re really starting to get into a stretch where we are going to be playing a lot of western opponents. We’re starting in a good position.”
Nicholls has thrown for 200 yards or less three times this season. Winnipeg’s most consistent offensive weapon is running back Andrew Harris who has 646 yards on 95 carries.
Instead of dwelling on the two losses, Nicholls is concentrating on the upcoming games.
“I’ve been playing professional football for 10 years,” he said. “I’ve been through many highs and many lows. For me, it’s real easy to hit the reset button.
“We’re sitting in first place. We get to play at home in front of our crowd. We are going to be better this week.”
Bighill said it’s better to have a two-game losing streak in mid-summer than late in the fall when playoff spots are being decided.
“If you’re going to drop two it might as well be two now,” he said. “Learn from those so you don’t have to make those mistakes and lose against western opponents. Move forward with a whole new sense of learning and improving.”
Bighill agreed the CFL has been like a soap opera this year with plot twists and surprises.
“Great teams put people away. We’ve shwon that we can do that throughout the season.”
– Adam Bighill
Both Saskatchewan and Calgary lost their starting quarterbacks but have remained competitive with Cody Fajardo and Nick Arbuckle — who both started the season as backups — at the helm.
The Montreal Alouettes looked like roadkill when they lost their first three games but used three consecutive wins to climb into second place in the East.
After signing quarterback Mike Reilly and loading up on free agents the BC Lions were expected to be beasts in the West but look like kittens with a 1-6 record.
“You look at some teams, they are looking to find consistency, connect with new players on their roster and build that chemistry,” said Bighill.
“Everyone is improving.”