CFL season preview: The Winnipeg Blue Bombers

So who needs the NFL? Preseason football begins this week north of the US border and the CFL kicks off its 2016 season on June 23. Before then, Os Davis presents previews for each of the Canadian Football League’s nine teams right here on The Grueling Truth. This time out, a look at the Winnipeg Blue Bombers

The history: In recent history, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have become the CFL’s most beleaguered team: These Bombers are currently on a “run” of four consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance and 25 without a Grey Cup win, both currently the longest such streaks in the CFL.

(These droughts may not seem all that impressive or angst-inducing to fans of, say, the Cleveland Browns, Oakland Raiders, Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, etc., but remember that in most of the aforementioned half-century, the CFL was an eight- or nine-team league – and that the second-longest term without a Grey Cup title is the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ stretching back to “only” 1999. P.S. Going into the 2016 season, the Ti-cats are more or less considered the favorite to take this year’s Cup.)

But it wasn’t always this way; in fact, Winnipeg boasts an all-time best 24 Grey Cup appearances, and the team’s 10 titles – all between 1935 and 1990 – the third-most in the CFL.

The past decade has been marked by a choppiness to the Blue Bombers’ fortunes, with wild fluctuations in performance from year to year. In 2006, Kevin Glenn enjoyed his first truly successful season as a starting quarterback after playing backup to Khari Jones until mid-2004. Teamed with Milt Steagall, often called the greatest WR in CFL history, Glenn helped Winnipeg to earn a 9-9 record and squeak into the playoffs in the East, where the team had been realigned for the season.

Glenn’s turning of the corner plus Steagall’s continued stardom propelled the Bombers through to the Grey Cup, except … an injury to Glenn in the East conference final meant backup Ryan Dinwiddie would call the 2007 Grey Cup game his first-ever CFL start. All things considered, the Bombers’ 23-19 loss in that game despite four turnovers from Dinwiddie himself is not at all unimpressive.

The Bombers would return for another try at the Grey Cup in 2011 after a season of incredible parity in the CFL (five of the league’s eight teams ended at 11-7 or 10-8), but fell short against a red-hot BC Lions team that entered the championship game on a 12-2 run.

Since then, well … the Bombers have amassed a cumulative record of 21-51; the last head coach to have amassed a winning record in Winnipeg (Doug Berry, at 27-26-1) left in 2008. An even within a league where short contracts are the norm, the Bombers have repeatedly suffered notable roster churn. Furthermore … ah, you get the idea.

Last season:Technically, the Bombers were not mathematically eliminated from playoff contention until week 19 of the 20-week CFL season, but the keyword there is definitely “mathematically.” Winnipeg diehards might have given up on the season much more quickly, had the stumbling BC Lions not kept things suspenseful with surprising losses – not the least of which were the pair of games dropped to the Bombers in weeks 6 and 16.

And even in a CFL season loaded with quarterback injuries, few teams were as woeful at the position as Winnipeg in 2015. Veteran QB Drew Willy (formerly of University of Buffalo, the Indianapolis Colts, and Las Vegas Locomotives) was lost for the season in week 7. Backups Brian Brohm (U. Louisville, Buffalo Bills) – now retired – and Robert Marve (Purdue) proved, let’s say, not ready for prime time in their turns at the pivot, leading to a surprising September trade for the Edmonton Eskimos’ Matt Nichols (Eastern Washington U.). Nichols was shown the door in Edmonton after three seasons there (not to mention a 5-2 mark in ’15) on September 2; he started for Winnipeg in a 22-7 win overly admittedly equally hapless Saskatchewan 10 days later.

Ultimately, though, the Bombers went 1-5 the rest of the way with none of the 5-13 team’s wins coming against a team with a winning record.

Bright spots? A few. First-round draft pick SukhChungh (U. Calgary) became a solid talent on the offensive line by season’s end and, um, well, Nichols looked OK despite the record…

The offseason: The Bombers’ announced return to mid-2000s style uniforms is symbolic of the optimism in Bomber fandom this offseason. And after several seasons of fits and starts, GM Kyle Walters made some nice, forward-looking acquisitions this offseason.

Positivity in the Bombers camp started early, as Paul LaPolice was wooed back to the club from his broadcasting gig with TSN. Last seen on Winnipeg sidelines while coaching the Bombers to the Grey Cup in 2011, LaPolice will be handling offensive coordinator duties this season.

And Walters went out and armed that side of the team: WR Ryan Smith (North Dakota State) comes over from Saskatchewan, where he created an impressive individual highlight reel and managed just under 1,000 yards receiving in 16 games in the CFL’s weakest passing attack. First-round pick WR Brian Jones (Acadia U.) was considered to be one of the top two or three “skill players” available coming into the 2016 CFL Draft and a safer bet in the short term than Tevaun Smith of Iowa, who may be playing NFL ball this season and/or in the near future.

In hopes of bolstering a weak OL, Jeff Keeping (U. Western Ontario) comes over from the Toronto Argonauts and probably the best under-the-radar signing of the offseason was welcoming aboard kicker Justin Medlock (UCLA, Kansas City Chiefs) from Hamilton to replace LirimHajrullahu (U. Western Ontario), who maddened Bombers fans enough in ’15 to induce them to learn the spelling of his name in order to slag him off properly on social media.

Expectations for 2016: Could the tide be turning in Winnipeg? Positivity is certainly high, and early reports out of training camp are brimming with positivity. LaPolice is, in most accounts, getting early credit for reinvigorating the offense, and the Bombers’ depth chart at QB already looks better than it did 12 months ago with Nichols still under contract.

On the minus side is the competition awaiting within the Bombers’ own division. We’d daresay the Calgary Stampeders and Saskatchewan Roughriders have improved their rosters; and even despite the Riders and NFL teams picking at the Eskimos, Edmonton’s roster still looks better on paper than Winnipeg’s.

We’ll predict a fourth-place finish for the Bombers, but no matter: That could certainly be enough to get them into the CFL playoffs in 2016…

Next: The Saskatchewan Roughriders