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Cauz: Bombers’ turnaround started with Mike O’Shea

If you are going to pick the heart-warming story du jour about the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ 33-12 win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, the obvious choice is of course Zach Collaros. I mean the guy checks all the Hollywood boxes: Quarterback/Health scare/Wildly unlikely outcome. But I would like to focus on another remarkable journey, Head Coach Mike O’Shea.

I was always fascinated by O’Shea the coach because he was the opposite of what I expected. I fell into the trap of assuming that O’Shea would enter the league as the cliché conservative first time head coach. Here was a guy who made a name for himself as a hard hitting linebacker, the first Canadian to crack the career 1,000 tackle barrier. No matter what end of the QEW he was plying his trade for, O’Shea was always one of the most fearsome linebackers in the East, earning five Division All-Star awards. So after moving on from a special teams coordinator job with the Toronto Argonauts to take over the Bombers head coaching duties, I expected a low risk offensive attack where games would be won 20-14. Well, just like my Grey Cup predication, I was dead wrong.

I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I believe O’Shea set a rookie coaching record for most fake punts called. Yes, Winnipeg would go 7-11 in his first year (A marked improvement from the team’s 3-15 campaign in 2013!) but you couldn’t take your eyes off that team because you had no idea what O’Shea was going to call. There are reasons why Tweets like this exist.

You don’t get dubbed the “master of trick plays” without, you know, calling a whole array of plays meant to confuse and keep opposing coaches on their toes. Of course, it didn’t always work out that way. Just go back to the 2017 Western Semi Final, where a failed fake punt played a big part in turning a close game against the Edmonton Eskimos into an eventual 39-32 loss. While we are here, let’s also give credit to General Manager Kyle Walters and Bombers ownership for not making a coaching change. Coach O’Shea failed to win a playoff game in his first four years but management chose to stay the course and on Sunday night that decision paid off.

When I look at his entire body of work as head coach, what stands out the most is O’Shea’s ability to win with a variety of different quarterbacks. Mike O’Shea got his first career win with Drew Willy (308 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-21 win over the Argonauts), his first playoff win with Matt Nichols (An efficient 169 yards and one touchdown with a heavy dose of Andrew Harris in a 23-18 victory over the Saskatchewan Roughriders) and then won his first Grey Cup with the unorthodox approach of a dual quarterback system. This is taking nothing away from so many brilliant coaching staffs with recent Grey Cup wins, but it’s one thing to win it all with a Ricky Ray or Bo Levi Mitchell and an entirely different set of circumstances when your quarterbacks are a human bowling ball and someone who, before Week 19, had “played” for more teams (three) than thrown pass attempts (zero).

In a division loaded with elite quarterbacks like Bo Levi Mitchell, Mike Reilly, 2016 Jonathon Jennings (come back!) and the now emerging Cody Fajardo, the Bombers have averaged 11 wins the past four years and they always found a way to generate points. In 2017 and 2018, Winnipeg led the CFL in points scored despite not having the same level of stability at the quarterback position enjoyed by many of Winnipeg’s divisional rivals. Even the most diehard fans of Drew Willy or more recently Matt Nichols would have to agree that Winnipeg would consistently enter each season with no better than the third best passer in the division. That is not a slight on those players, just the harsh reality of playing in the West. Like every other team, the Bombers have gone through a great deal of roster turnover in the past six years, but the one constant has been O’Shea and his ever expanding beard.

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As for this past month, I don’t know what O’Shea dominated more, the annual “will you let your players have sex before the big game?” question or the team’s post-season run. As for the first part, you find me a coach who has given a better answer than this:

“Well it’s been eight years since we climbed into this position and another 29 since we finished the job, so there’s going to be some nerves. The expectations are very high and the anticipation can sometimes ruin the event. So, I guess my guidance to the players would be don’t exhaust yourself in the warmup.”

As for the post-season, I imagine most fans did not envision Winnipeg finding a way to go on the road for three straight weeks and defeating three teams who finished the year with a combined 40-14 regular season record. The shocking part of the Grey Cup was not that Winnipeg won, rather just how thoroughly they dominated a 16-3 Tiger-Cats team. Credit goes to the Bombers offensive and defensive lines for consistently controlling the play and of course the individual brilliance of Andrew Harris, but this game also saw three different players completing passes for the Blue and Gold. There was so much creativity on both sides of the ball for Winnipeg and O’Shea deserves a great deal of credit for fostering such an intelligent environment.

One final thought as to why I wanted to write about Mike O’Shea was seeing those shots of him hours after the game taking photos and signing autographs with the fans. Marshall Ferguson tweeted out footage of this wonderful moment saying “Two hours after winning the #GreyCup #Bombers Head Coach Mike O’Shea still signing every autograph, taking every picture, in a t-shirt, with a beer. Dude is the #CFL.”

I could not have said it better myself. Congratulations to the entire Winnipeg Blue Bombers organization for a well-deserved Grey Cup win and congratulations to Coach O’Shea. Looking forward to see what you do next.