I’m a tad uncertain as to why the Winnipeg Blue Bombers hadn’t been getting a ton of respect heading into their marquee Week 5 showdown with the BC Lions. Maybe it was a form of Blue Bomber fatigue, or perhaps it was the lack of “style points” in their first four wins. Whatever the case, Winnipeg served notice on Saturday night. They’re still on top of the mountain.
For me, it was never really a question. We’re talking about the two-time defending Grey Cup champions here. Yes, everyone is a year older, and they said goodbye to a few significant players. But the players who the Bombers DID return make up the core of the league’s most dominant teams in years.
That starts with reigning Most Outstanding Player Zach Collaros. Up against phenom Nathan Rourke on the other side, Collaros was dynamic Saturday and finished with 288 passing yards and three touchdowns against just seven incomplete passes and no interceptions. In a pretty dang good year already, it was Collaros’ best performance.
Since Collaros took the reins late in 2019, the Bombers are almost perfect. In games Collaros has started, including the playoffs, Winnipeg is 22-2, and one of those losses was a meaningless game to close out the 2021 season. That’s why I didn’t quite understand some of the criticism the Blue Bombers were taking this year, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
And, at least so far, Winnipeg has absorbed their personnel losses in stride. While neither Brady Oliveira nor Johnny Augustine has emphatically stepped up to grab the job of feature back in Andrew Harris’s absence, the Bombers have had an effective run game thus far.
And with three touchdowns and 366 receiving yards in five games, Greg Ellingson has been a perfect fit with Kenny Lawler no longer in the fold. Mix in rookie standout Dalton Schoen’s three majors and 333 yards and, well, it just underscores how strong Winnipeg’s player evaluation has become.
Oh, and then there’s the other side of the ball. We’re seven paragraphs into a conversation about Winnipeg and haven’t mentioned their defence. That’s because they remain at a different level, which is par for the course. In their five wins to start the season, the Blue Bombers have allowed a league-leading 17.0 points against per game. They’ve allowed just six total touchdowns and lead the league in categories like interceptions and pass knockdowns. And we’re not even at Labour Day.
Winnipeg has challengers in the West Division. Even with Saturday’s big win, they were pushed at times by Rourke and the 3-1 Lions. The Stampeders are up to 4-0 on the year with a lopsided win over Edmonton, while the Riders have won two straight in emphatic fashion. But until they lose a November game, the Bombers remain the gold standard.
Saturday just reminded us of that.
I thought Khari Jones did a solid job in his tenure as head coach of the Montréal Alouettes. Prior to this year, the Als had a 17-15 regular season record with a pair of playoff appearances with Jones at the helm. Yes, they’re off to a tough start in 2022, but I appreciated the majority of Jones’s work in Montréal.
Let’s not forget how his tenure started. Looking to snap a streak of four years out of the playoffs, the Alouettes fired then head coach Mike Sherman just days before the start of the 2019 season. Jones was promoted with next to no time to prepare for his first head coach job in professional football.
What followed was a resurgent season for Montréal. The Als finished Jones’s first season at 10-8 and made the playoffs for the first time in five years. Even with a COVID cancelled season to stall the team’s momentum, Montréal made the playoffs for a second straight year in 2021 with a 7-7 record. Considering the circumstances, I think he did a good job.
That’s why I was a little surprised by the team’s decision to go in a different direction so early on. General manager Danny Maciocia made the decision and he’ll also take over as head coach for the rest of the season, returning to the sidelines in a CFL game for the first time since 2008. And while I wonder if the decision looks a little hasty from the outside, Maciocia does have something going for him.
At 1-3, Montréal is off to an underwhelming start, no question. But so is the rest of the East Division. Along with Toronto, the Als are one of two teams in the division to have won a game this year, which means the road to the playoffs is wide open. If Maciocia can steady the ship, Montréal is in a good position to lock up what looks like one of two playoff spots out east.
Have you looked at who’s leading the league in receiving yards through five weeks of the season? That would be Calgary’s Malik Henry, who has been perhaps the league’s most dangerous player. The last two games have seen Henry go off for 173 and 150 yards and he has a touchdown catch in three of the Stamps’ four wins thus far. In an offence already boasting Reggie Begelton and Kamar Jorden, the speedy and elusive Henry seems unfair.
Finally, I’m really liking how Saskatchewan’s run game is coming along. Frankie Hickson led the way in Friday’s 28-13 win over Ottawa with 92 yards and a touchdown, but his backfield partner Jamal Morrow chipped in heavily with 78 yards on 16 carries. Morrow leads the league in carries (62) and rushing yards (335), while Hickson provides a very dangerous change of pace.