Winnipeg – When a team goes from a last place 5-13 season to an 11-7 mark the following year, there are usually many reasons. For the Winnipeg Blue Bombers that is true. And it all began last winter when GM Kyle Walters decided to invest heavily in the free agent market.
Plagued by inconsistent field goal kicking in 2015, Walters convinced Justin Medlock to leave Hamilton and bring his powerful left let to the prairies. To say Medlock delivered would be an understatement. The most successful field goal kicker in CFL history added to his legacy by making a CFL record 60 field goals in 68 attempts, many from long range. He was instrumental in a number of bomber victories. So was running back Andrew Harris. Returning home to Winnipeg after six years with the B.C. Lions, Harris rushed for 974 yards and added 631 receiving. Beyond those numbers, which were compiled while missing three games due to injury, Harris played with unparallelled grit and determination, providing leadership that was invaluable.
Walters shored up his defensive line by signing Keith Shologan away from Ottawa and bringing Euclid Cummings over from Toronto.
Veteran offensive lineman Jeff Keeping, signed from Toronto, never got on the field due to injury but head coach Mike O’Shea called his presence and leadership in the locker room invaluable. And when the Saskatchewan Roughriders and their new regime decided they could live without Weston Dressler and Ryan Smith, Walters pounced on the two North Dakota products. Dressler, despite missing 4 games and parts of two others, proved he still has plenty of miles left on his 31-year old legs, finishing with 80 catches for 1003 yards, the 6th time in his illustrious career he has topped 1,000 yards receiving. Smith’s impact wasn’t as dramatic but in eleven games, he caught 53 passes for 488 yards. Smith was particularly effective in his last six games, hauling in 32 Matt Nichols throws for 288 yards.
Despite the infusion of talent the Bombers stumbled out of the gate and when they took a 1-4 record into Edmonton July 28th, the outlook was bleak. Three starting lineup changes in that game were instrumental in what would become a dramatic turnaround. Out of patience with struggling Drew Willy, O’Shea started Nichols at quarterback. A third American, 350-pound Travis Bond was added to the offensive line. And a rookie Canadian named Taylor Loffler replaced injured Macho Harris at safety. The results were immediate, the Bombers beat the Eskimos 30-25 to start a win streak that would reach seven games and transform their season. Another development in that Edmonton game played a role in the turnaround. Receivers Darvin Adams and Dressler left the game with injuries, prompting the Bombers to bring back veteran Clarence Denmark. Denmark, who had been an off-season salary cap casualty, turned into one of Nichols go-to receivers, scoring 8 touchdowns in 10 games.
Walters free agent successes and his shrewd drafting along with O’Shea’s steady hand on the wheel finally paid off in an 11-7 record, a 3rd place finish in the West, and the Bombers first playoff berth since 2011. How much farther can this team go? Well, they will be underdogs when they visit B.C. Sunday in the West semi-final even though they defeated B.C. twice this year in thrilling, highly entertaining games. But being sold short is nothing new to these 2016 Blue Bombers. And keep in mind, they were 7-2 on the road this year.