March 29, 2020

Upon Further Review: Winnipeg Blue Bombers

Johany Jutras/

There is an old saying in football that “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

It is widely credited to legendary Packers head coach Vince Lombardi as part of the lore that he built over time as one of the NFL’s first leader of men with championship aspirations. While the quote actually originated with then UCLA football Head Coach Red Sanders, the spirit of the statement remains true and often defines championship teams, but the 2019 Winnipeg Blue Bombers can be characterized by a different simple slogan: Timing is everything.

I like to romanticize the ‘team of destiny’ concept but reality often brings those theories back to earth. No team of destiny would have their best offensive player suspended for two games, lose their starting quarterback and have to trade for another passer — whose 2019 resume featured four snaps.

Teams of destiny don’t lose back-to-back games on the road after a week-long road trip where players bond as dormitory roommates and they don’t lose to winless teams when leading by 20.

The 2019 Bombers were a running team in a passing league. They went against the status quo in style and relied heavily on internal confidence rather than outward bravado.

» Throwback SZN: Ranking the best games of 2019
» MMQB: Bounce back candidates for 2020
» O’Leary: Under-the-radar players in the West

Winnipeg Blue Bombers running back Andrew Harris leads the team out of the tunnel ahead of the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw. (Johany Jutras/

They should have fallen apart at various times through the marathon CFL regular season. One could argue they actually did, but like a football mutant unfazed by human weapons, the Bombers just kept stumbling forwards towards the goal.

A Grey Cup championship. They did it through perseverance, flexibility and offensive creativity.

First a look at the work of each key arm employed by the Bombers in 2019, with Collaros playing closer to opening day starter Matt Nichols and setup man Chris Streveler.

Matt Nichols Zach Collaros Chris Streveler
2nd Down Pass Playcall %  78.9% 87.3% 60.4%
Yards in Air Per Pass Attempt 8.81 10.78 8.03
Accuracy Grade 68.0 67.0 64.2
2nd Down Pass Production Grade 50.2 44.0 48.2

With one glance it becomes clear how differently Collaros allowed Paul LaPolice to call games. More aggression, more trust, and more variety than possible with Streveler, as shown by passing depth through the first two rounds of the playoffs — both Collaros’ road wins.

None of that takes away from the positives Streveler brought to Winnipeg’s 2019 season. They simply couldn’t have won without him supplying the punch to offset Collaros’ artful brush strokes.

Go back even further and you realize it wasn’t just one landmark shift in approach Winnipeg had to survive last season but two. Here are the differences in targeted touches to offensive skill position players in the Nichols-to-Streveler change.

Targeted Touch Percentage (Change from Nichols to Streveler as starter)
Chris Streveler 17.5%
Darvin Adams 2.1%
Daniel Petermann -0.2%
Nic Demski -0.8%
Lucky Whitehead -1.5%
Andrew Harris -2.3%
Drew Wolitarsky -2.9%
Kenny Lawler -4.8%

And the accompanying differences in production-grade for those targeted skill position players.

Production Grade when Targeted (Change from Nichols to Streveler as Starter)
Kenny Lawler +32.2
Daniel Petermann +21.7
Andrew Harris +4.6
Nic Demski -2.5
Chris Streveler -4.0
Lucky Whitehead -4.2
Drew Wolitarsky -6.5
Darvin Adams -7.1

In every section of the field, every down and distance and every quarter the approach for Winnipeg’s offence was thrown into a complexity different stratosphere. This is easy to see numbers on but to interpret them is to understand the complexity and effort it takes to install completely different systems based on the starting quarterback available.

Percentage of Called Pass Plays as Starter Matt Nichols Chris Streveler
First Quarter 48.3% 53.4%
Second Quarter 68.5% 53.6%
Third Quarter 67.3% 45.2%
Fourth Quarter 701.% 28.6%
First Down 55.8% 39.6%
Second Down 79.0% 55.8%
Win Zone 65.4% 46.1%
Field Zone 67.3% 44.7%
Score Zone 59.2% 34.6%

Due to the run games, prominence passing statistics took a hit across the board for Winnipeg in 2019. My favourite example of this is the Grey Cup champions’ leading receiver — Kenny Lawler — having just 637 yards on the year.

That was the 24th-best total league-wide.

Collaros was extremely selective with his vertical passing, trusting the system in place and pushing the ball predominantly on second down as shown by his attempts heat chart for all four games played in Winnipeg.

Check out that boundary slip screen zone to Collaros’ short left. About as efficient a throw as there is in the modern CFL and the eye of his affection.

In the Grey Cup, LaPolice and the offence pieced it all together. The game had variety while still sticking to staples that got them there, mixing in off-tendency calls that took the Ticats’ breath away.

Harris averaged 7.5 yards per carry on 14 first-down carries that cold Calgary night, allowing the Bombers to play free on second down. He only had three second-down carries, but one was a 26-yard backbreaker on 2nd and 17. He had every answer.

There were plenty of plays to pick from highlighting what all of that means, but to me, none showcased calling the right play at the right time to keep a defence off-balance than Harris’ first-half receiving touchdown from Streveler.

Harris was only targeted beyond 10 yards in the air twice all season (2.2% of targets). He caught both, but neither from Streveler’s time as the starter. One on a gadget from receiver Darvin Adams, the other from Nichols.

So catching a touchdown pass more than twice that depth of target in coverage? Yeah, you can imagine how it made LaPolice, Harris, and the entire Ticats bench feel after a week of intensive study and practice.

At the end of the up and down two men deserved much of the credit — even though they’d never admit it. Bombers

GM Kyle Walters and Head Coach Mike O’Shea kept the Bombers trending upwards. From a playoff loss in BC to a home playoff loss to Edmonton to a Grey Cup against all the odds in the face of injury, suspension and transaction anxiety and for that, they will forever be remembered in Winnipeg as the men who ended the drought.