There weren’t many surprised when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers ended up with four of a possible seven West Division nominations for this week’s 2021 CFL Awards. After all, the Bombers were this season’s wire-to-wire best team.
Zach Collaros, Stanley Bryant, Adam Bighill, and Mike O’Shea could all be going home with hardware on Friday night, and all four would be deserving winners. But, also not surprisingly, these four highlighted Bombers are quick to deflect any individual attention to the bigger picture.
“Anytime you receive any kind of recognition, especially as a quarterback in my opinion, it’s usually a by-product of the unit as a whole,” said Collaros, who’s up for Most Outstanding Player. “We have a fantastic unit, starting with our offensive line, then our backs and receivers. (It’s) just a privilege to get to work with them every day.”
Collaros is vying for MOP alongside Montreal running back William Stanback and has a great chance of being the first Winnipeg player to take home the league’s highest award since Milt Stegall in 2002.
Collaros was outstanding in 2021, completing 70.2% of his passes while throwing for 3,185 yards, a league-leading 20 touchdowns, and just six interceptions. Collaros also led all quarterbacks by a wide margin with a 111.00 efficiency rating.
His competition is no pushover, though. Stanback led the league with 1,176 rushing yards in 12 appearances and was a true constant for an Alouettes offence that went through three different quarterbacks. As consistently dangerous as they come, Stanback was a driving force for Montreal en route to a second straight playoff appearance.
In fact, without Stanback’s consistency, I’m not sure where the Alouettes would have been this season, and that’s no knock on them. But having a player like Stanback in the backfield is a luxury that, well, no other CFL teams had this season.
In 12 regular season appearances, Stanback went over 100 yards on six occasions and came close a couple other times. We don’t always see running backs in this league used like Stanback was in 2021. Montreal fed him the ball consistently and it didn’t seem to matter the down, distance, or score. That’s a valuable weapon to possess and Stanback’s work keyed so much of what Montreal did on the offensive side of the ball.
Collaros was right to highlight his outstanding offensive line. Anchored by Bryant, up for Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman, the Bombers had four starters named West Divison All-Stars. Like his quarterback, Bryant is thrilled to be representing an entire group Friday night.
“That’s a great accomplishment for our group,” Bryant said. “I think over the years our group has gotten better and better. It’s just great to see those guys get the recognition they deserve.”
Bryant is no stranger to recognition himself. Already a two-time winner of the award he’s up for (2017, 2018), Bryant could have made it three straight as the West Division’s nominee in 2019. This year saw Bryant lead an o-line that allowed a league-best 16 sacks in 14 games and led the way for a run game that racked up 1,676 yards, which was good for second overall.
Hamilton’s Brandon Revenberg is the East Division’s nominee for top offensive lineman, representing a unit with impressive stats. The Tiger-Cats finished fourth overall with 1,407 rushing yards and their offensive line really found its way in the second half of the season.
On the other side of the ball, the Bombers are represented by linebacker Adam Bighill as the West Division’s nominee for Most Outstanding Defensive Player. On a defence full of elite playmakers, you can imagine getting this nod is quite the honour.
“Our defensive locker room is so talented,” Bighill said. “To be the guy named is very humbling and we did a lot of good things defensively this year. It’s pretty exciting stuff.”
Bighill was one of the CFL’s most impactful players in 2021, as he touched the game in so many different ways. Bighill racked up 70 defensive tackles, two quarterback sacks, two interceptions, and two fumble recoveries. There aren’t many players with the ability to be a difference maker on every single down.
One of those players is Hamilton linebacker Simoni Lawrence, who’s the East Division nominee at MODP for a second straight season. Similar to Bighill, Lawrence was all over the place this year, finishing with 73 defensive tackles, four sacks, and three interceptions. It’s as close a race as you’re going to find.
Of course, if you ask anyone in that Winnipeg locker room, everything starts with the guy guiding the ship. In his seventh season as head coach, and with a Grey Cup title under his belt, Mike O’Shea is up for Coach of the Year for the first time with a lot of well-deserved fanfare. O’Shea has built a culture and set a standard for the Bombers that defines how they go about their business.
“It really starts top down, I really do believe that,” Bighill said when asked about O’Shea. “For him it’s just play for each other. Play clean, tough physical football for each other. It all started somewhere and it definitely started from the top.”
The Bombers clinched top seed in the West Division with a month remaining in the season and O’Shea had his team sitting at 11-1 before losing a couple of meaningless games late. Winnipeg’s 2021 campaign is one of the most dominant we’ve seen in a long time.
The East Division’s Coach of the Year is Toronto’s Ryan Dinwiddie, who just completed an outstanding rookie year. Hired ahead of the 2020 season, Dinwiddie had to wait through a pandemic delay to finally take the reins. When he did, though, he guided the Argonauts to a 9-5 record and a home playoff date in the Eastern Final.
The other battlegrounds
BC linebacker Bo Lokombo was very much in the conversation as Most Outstanding Defensive Player. And, with 66 defensive tackles, four sacks, three interceptions, a forced fumble, and a defensive touchdown, it was hard to deny him the West Division’s nomination for Most Outstanding Canadian.
Opposite Lokombo for the league’s top national player is Montreal’s David Ménard, who was outstanding in year one back in his old stomping grounds. The former standout with the Carabin’s de l’Université de Montréal led the Alouettes with eight sacks, which also tied him for fourth overall.
Lokombo’s Lions teammate and fellow linebacker Jordan Williams is the West’s Most Outstanding Rookie this season. The 2020 first overall selection finished second overall with 92 defensive tackles and picked up one sack, one interception, and one fumble recovery.
Williams’s East Division competition is Toronto’s Peter Nicastro, who stepped right into the starting centre job with ease. Nicastro was part of an offensive line that allowed just 32 sacks this year and he was missed by the Argos when he missed their final four games with injury.
And perhaps the hardest major award to handicap is the battle at Most Outstanding Special Teams Player. Ottawa’s DeVonte Dedmon would be an easy winner most years after leading the league in punt return yards (737) and kick return yards (1,223). With three total return touchdowns, he was one of the league’s most explosive players.
Unfortunately, the guy representing the West Division is in the same boat. Calgary kicker Rene Paredes had one of the best seasons of his future Hall of Fame career. Paredes led the league with 44 total field goals and with a 91.7% accuracy rate. Knowing the issues the Stamps had offensively in the first half of the season, Paredes was a huge reason they stayed afloat.