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January 13, 2020

Steinberg’s MMQB: Bombers face pivotal decision

Jason Halstead/CFL.ca

Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ general manager Kyle Walters knows he has a “monumental decision” on his hands this winter. The Bombers rode three quarterbacks en route to a Grey Cup title last season, and all three are set for free agency in February. So, of Matt Nichols, Zach Collaros, and Chris Streveler, who’s coming back? Deciding the answer to the question tops the list of off-season priorities for Walters.

While Walters knows how important this quarterback decision is, he’s also in no rush, for one main reason. Winnipeg said goodbye to Paul LaPolice in December, which means they’re in search of a new offensive coordinator.

“We gotta get our coaching staff in place,” Walters told me at league meetings last week. “We’ve gone through not only some player turnover to the NFL this year, but also losing some staff with Paul heading to Ottawa. We need to get our offensive staff in place.

“Obviously the quarterback position is the biggest decision that each organization is going to make. We want to make sure that the offensive staff is involved in that discussion. We’ve had plenty of talks behind the scenes of what route we want to go and some of the decisions that need to be made, but before pulling the trigger on that monumental one…we want the offensive staff to at least privy to the plan and hear their input.”

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Both Chris Streveler and Matt Nichols are pending free agents (The Canadian Press)

Getting a new OC in place makes sense prior to making a final quarterback determination. In saying that, it sounds like Walters and head coach Mike O’Shea have a pretty good idea of where they want to go. That leaves us on the outside with plenty of speculation and conversation.

Nichols started nine games in 2019, more than either Streveler or Collaros, and helped Winnipeg to an impressive 7-2 record to start the season. The problem is, Nichols needed season-ending shoulder surgery after Week 9, which means he didn’t see the field in the second half or the playoffs.

Streveler took the reins in the immediate aftermath of Nichols’s injury and showed promise, but also showed how raw and unpolished he remains. As such, the Bombers felt the need to acquire a quarterback with more experience ahead of the post-season, which necessitated the Collaros trade in October.

The rest is recent history. Collaros took over as starter for Winnipeg’s final regular season game, which started a run of four straight wins and a Grey Cup title. It was the only meaningful football for Collaros in 2019 after his injury on his first series of the season while still with Saskatchewan.

It’s fair to say the Bombers took one of the most unusual quarterback routes to a championship, but it worked. The byproduct, however, is the interesting decision, or decisions, now. It’s a good spot to be in, because all three pivots are positive options. That doesn’t make it easy for Walters, though.

For me, the priority should be ensuring Streveler is back for 2020. This is one of the most unique talents this league has ever seen and his ceiling is incredibly high. While it’ll take patience and development, I truly believe Streveler is on track to be a high impact CFL starter and letting him walk would be a mistake.

In saying that, Winnipeg would be advised to keep a reliable veteran in the fold, which opens the door for one of Nichols or Collaros to be re-signed, too. Choosing between the two is above my pay grade, mainly because of the myriad details I don’t have knowledge of. What are the salary asks? Will Nichols be ready for camp? Is Collaros in a spot to stay healthy all season? Is either guy okay with moving aside if/when it’s Streveler’s time?

All things being equal, and without those considerations, I have a slight lean to Nichols. His familiarity with the team and scheme, and his relationship with Streveler, all help tip the scales. Regardless, though, it’s a difficult decision for Walters, but also a desired one. Apparently you can have both.

Coaching ain’t easy

The finalists for 2019 CFL Coach of the Year have more in common than just being really good at their jobs. Saskatchewan’s Craig Dickenson and Hamilton’s Orlondo Steinauer, the eventual winner, were also first time head coaches, at any level, last season. When I spoke to both last week, it became clear they shared a similar experience in adjusting to new positions.

Both Steinauer and Dickenson had years of coaching experience prior to their first head coaching jobs, including multiple seasons in a top-level coordinator position. Despite that, both gentlemen still weren’t totally ready for all the extra details and challenges that come along with being THE guy.

“Until you’ve been in…somebody’s shoes as a head coach, or until you’ve sat in their seat, you don’t know,” Steinauer told me. “You can have an idea (but) it’s just different as a head coach. When you’re a head coach, you’re responsible for more. You are the face of the organization and those sorts of things, so you need to have your clear vision and expectations and goals. It was more joy and more work than I could have ever imagined.”

Orlondo Steinauer was named the 2019 Coach of the Year (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

I can verify I have never been a CFL head coach before, which is why I was fascinated with the year one experience. Steinauer had years of experience as a defensive coordinator in the professional and college ranks. The same is true for Dickenson as a special teams coordinator. It’s not like these are easy gigs that don’t require an extreme time commitment. Yet that first head-coaching gig was still an eye-opening experience for both.

“I would agree with that assessment by coach O,” Dickenson said. “He’s right, you know, things like when is the bus supposed to leave. What time should the pregame meal be? Do we want a dress code on the road or not? Are jeans okay? What sort of shoes? All these little things that you really, to be quite honest, you don’t really care about at the time.

“I’m just trying to watch some film and put together a good game plan and then you get asked these questions. You get a lot of details that you have to worry about as a head coach that you don’t have to worry about necessarily as a position or an assistant.”

I talked to Dickenson and Steinauer separately, which is why their eerily similar responses and experiences jumped off the page. Compare the new wrinkles Dickenson had to take care to Steinauer’s year one reflections.

“You can’t be prepared for all of the little things that come up,” Steinauer said. “It could be a family situation. It could be taking something small like are we taking two buses or three buses. Are we fining people? What time do you want to leave?

“As a position coach and as a coordinator you were often referenced for your opinion, but it wasn’t your decision. You add all those little things up, they make a big difference to your football team and your organization. If you haven’t been through it, then it’s a first. It doesn’t mean you’re unprepared for it, it’s just you haven’t had to go through it.”

We hear stories all the time of the all-consuming nature of being a professional football head coach. And, while I never discounted those experiences, it’s hard to truly understand having never come close to walking in those shoes. Talking to a pair of 2019 rookies gave me a better idea, even if by only a little bit.

“Time management becomes a big deal,” said Dickenson. “There’s only so many hours in the day and if you spend the majority of them doing office or clerical sort of things that aren’t necessarily directly related to football, you find yourself putting some really late night just trying to get your game plan together.”

With a combined 28-8 record in 2019, Dickenson and Steinauer didn’t seem to have any major problems dealing with their new realities, even it was all brand new.