Blue Bombers preview: Rookie coach stresses need to win early
O’Shea lauds pre-season work of new QB Drew Willy
If training camp and pre-season are the gauge, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are a better team this season but not a winning team, at least not yet.
As they bottomed out last year at 3-15, tying a record for futility in the 18-game Canadian Football League set under coach Jeff Reinebold in 1998, the Bombers cleaned house.
They have a new general manager, new coaches and a new starting quarterback to lead them back to the light. Max Hall, the last quarterback standing after the curtain closed on 2013, was released at the end of training camp last week.
"The biggest need for our team is to promote competition," general manager Kyle Walters said before camp. "We didn't win many football games last year … We need to overhaul a lot of things."
Mike O'Shea won respect as special teams co-ordinator for the Toronto Argonauts and is earning it in Winnipeg as he settles into his first gig as a CFL head coach. His priorities are clear as the season starts.
"It's important from my perspective that we start winning right away," he says, upping the ante a few days later after his final cuts.
"There's only one reason to start the season and that's to win the Grey Cup."
He's making the throws we want him to make, he's making the deicisions we want him to make and he's hungry to get better.- Blue Bombers coach Mike O'Shea on QB Drew Willy
Making that come true depends largely on the arm of new starting quarterback Drew Willy, backup for two years to Darian Durant in Regina.
To hear O'Shea and Walters tell it, he was always in their sights, even though the Bombers made a play for CFL veteran Henry Burris, who instead opted for the expansion Ottawa Redblacks.
O'Shea says Willy hasn't disappointed.
"He's proven all camp he's very accurate," he said. "He's making the throws we want him to make, he's making the decisions we want him to make and he's hungry to get better."
With Hall gone, CFL rookie Brian Brohm will start as Willy's backup at quarterback and Robert Marve, another rookie, is in the third slot.
O'Shea also insists he has no concerns about any aspect of the team, despite two pre-season losses to the Argonauts and Calgary Stampeders.
On the plus side, the Bombers lost by a combined total of only five points, unlike the 70 that separated them from their opponents last pre-season.
With the return of Ottawa, Winnipeg heads back to CFL West, where they last played almost a decade ago.
It may be the Bombers' spiritual home but their siblings are a tough crowd. Saskatchewan just won a Grey Cup, B.C. is a favourite this year when the game returns to B.C. Place and Calgary led the CFL last season.
Only Edmonton, which finished 2013 at 4-14 and like the Bombers missed the playoffs, seems to be a team Winnipeg might beat on any given day.
But this is the CFL, and things can change pretty quickly. The Bombers, for example, were in the Grey Cup in 2011 with a healthy Buck Pierce behind centre.
Despite 10 wins and a league-leading 24 appearances, 1990 was the last time the Bombers took home the Cup and no CFL team has gone longer between wins.
Question marks still hang over the Bombers offensive line and their new no-book defence has players excited about the potential, although so far it hasn't stopped the team from losing in the pre-season.
The Bombers lost star Canadian linebacker Henoc Muamba to the NFL. And after courting Canadian Graig Newman they lost him for several months, perhaps the season, to a broken and dislocated ankle.
But veteran defensive back Johnny Sears says they really haven't showed everything they plan on bringing to the regular season, after giving up the most points in the CFL in 2013.
"Any defence should have a chip on their shoulders but I think this one especially," says Sears, who promises the Winnipeg defence is going to be more aggressive and work more to dictate the play rather than just respond.
Mix of veterans, talented rookies
He says there is a good mix of veterans and talented rookies.
"They [the opposition] can take what they want from it but I guarantee they're not going to see the same thing or the same team come regular season."
Ejiro Kuale has impressed at middle linebacker, the hole left by Muamba, and the Bombers also picked up Winnipeg native and free agent Donovan Alexander for the secondary. Injuries mean he won't make the season opener.
He spent the last three seasons in Edmonton and Canadian depth is one thing Winnipeg seems light on this season, although O'Shea insists he isn't worried about that either.
They traded Canadian receiver Kito Poblah to the B.C. Lions for veteran all-star defensive back Korey Banks and he too is starting the season on the injured list.
Players to watch at receiver this season include Nick Moore, signed as a free agent and ranked third in the league last season, and Bomber veteran Clarence Denmark.
With Terrence Edwards retired, the Bombers need both to step up and Denmark has had a good camp and pre-season, hauling in some spectacular catches. Aaron Kelly also looks like a starter this season, after joining the Bombers late in 2013.
Laval Rouge et Or product Julian Feoli-Gudino also looks like he might see a lot more action as a receiver than he did in two seasons with the Argonauts, where he spent more time with O'Shea on special teams. He joins Canadian veterans Cory Watson and Rory Kohlert.
"It feels good, that was the plan coming here," says Feoli-Gudino, who was born in Costa Rica but grew up in Montreal.
At running back, rookies Paris Cotton and Nic Grigsby are challenging Will Ford for the starter's job, although, with injuries, right now O'Shea is wondering who will be able to start Thursday, when the Argonauts visit to open the CFL season. O'Shea had to bring in another import tailback just so the Bombers could practise.
The Bombers have already given Western Mustangs product Lirim Hajrullahu the nod as their new kicker, joining veteran punter Mike Renaud.