A common theme among Winnipeg Blue Bombers players Tuesday was that they were trying their hardest to contain the excitement and emotion that was welling up inside them just two days before their first CFL season opener in more than two years.
They were trying, but they weren’t really succeeding.
“I try to keep emotions out of it when it comes to football but I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t excited,” Bombers receiver Nic Demski said after the team held a closed practice at IG Field.
“I’ve got some butterflies talking about it right now because it’s different — usually you don’t have this long of a gap between games. I just can’t wait to go out there and fly around and play some football again. Going out there and catching the ball, going out there and making a play … the whole aspect of football, it just gets me excited.”
Demski, a 27-year-old Winnipegger, will get to watch as the organization raises the 2019 Grey Cup banner at IG Field, in front of 30,000-plus fans, before the team kicks off the season against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
It will be the first game in 621 days for the two teams — the Bombers beat the Ticats 33-12 in the 2019 CFL championship game — and will be a moment to cherish for all those who love Canadian football.
The league was unable to play in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2021 season has been delayed by two months and shortened from 18 to 14 games.
“I’m over here trying to hold back excitement because we don’t play the game until Thursday,” defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat said. “But I’m extremely excited. Back to playing ball. It’s been a long time off, way too long. It’s just exciting to get out there and we’re gonna get to play Hamilton again. It’s gonna be fun.”
Even the veteran players admit that they are anxious heading into Game 1. There were no pre-season games this year and training camp activities were limited because of COVID-19 protocols. No one really knows how things are going to go in the season opener, against the team most prognosticators have picked to win the Grey Cup in 2021.
“I’m a little bit nervous but nervous just means that you’re ready,” veteran safety Brandon Alexander said. “It’s been a while since we’ve been out there and put on pads and just gone out there and played. There’s a little bit of butterflies starting to set in, just being so real that it’s about to come in two days. There’s definitely a lot of excitement going on and I just can’t wait till we get out there and it’s time to go.”
Bombers coach Mike O’Shea is never a fan of distractions and works hard to keep his players from getting too high or too low at any point during a season.
But even he admits this is a bit of a different situation.
“Well, I hope they don’t look at me too closely, because I’ll be fired up myself,” O’Shea said. “
I think part of my job as a head coach is to just keep making them aware that it will be an emotional event, obviously, stepping on the field for the first time in a long time, to play the game you love with your teammates you care deeply about. So, couple that with seeing fans that have been waiting a long time for this, it’s going to be emotional and one of those things that you just have to make sure we temper that.”
The significance of this game is not at all lost on O’Shea, who is Canadian and has been in the CFL as a player or a coach since 1993.
“Well, I mean it is the first game of the 2021 season and it’s been, obviously, a long time — 600-plus days — since a CFL game has been played,” O’Shea said. “And it’s also the first major sporting event with a lot of fans, basically a full barn allowed, in Canada, really.
“So, it’s big not just for the CFL but for Canadian sports fans.”
Though O’Shea closed practice to the media on Tuesday, as he often does two days before a game, the league’s new injury report revealed that star defensive end Willie Jefferson did not participate because of an ankle injury, a bad sign just two days before the season opener.
He joined running back Andrew Harris (calf), wide receiver Darvin Adams (shoulder) and linebacker Kyrie Wilson (thigh) — all projected to be big parts of the team this season — on the sidelines.
Harris and Adams haven’t practised for weeks and are almost surely out for Thursday night against Hamilton and Wilson has been out for a while as well.
Jefferson practised Sunday and Monday, so his status is up in the air, but he was the CFL’s most outstanding defensive player in 2019 and would be a huge loss for the defensive line.
At this point it looks like Winnipegger Brady Oliveira will make his first career start at running back and share duties with veteran Johnny Augustine, while Charles Nelson will start in the receiving corps with Adams out. Nelson will play inside receiver, while Kenny Lawler moves outside in place of Adams.
Rookie Jontrell Rocquemore, from the University of Utah, is likely to start in place of Wilson at weak-side linebacker.
The Bombers still have solid defensive ends in Jonathan Kongbo and Jackson Jeffcoat, but replacing Jefferson will be no easy task if it comes to that.
NO COVID CASES
There was good news from the CFL head office Tuesday regarding COVID-19 testing among players in training camps.
From July 15 until the end of training camps last week, about 6,000 COVID-19 tests were performed on CFL players and personnel and not a single positive test was returned.
“I truly believe that our players in this league are very committed to all sorts of initiatives, including playing this season, which means a lot of sacrifice to adhere to all the protocols that were handed to them to get this thing off the ground and comply with the government regulations,” O’Shea said. “So, it is a testament to their commitment. I do believe that CFL players, in general, are very committed to be playing.”
NO VACCINE? FORFEIT POSSIBLE
Part of the success with testing could be due to fairly strong vaccinations rates among players. The league announced that 79% of CFL players are fully or partially vaccinated. Three of the league’s nine teams have more than 85% of their players vaccinated. The other teams have between 67% and 81% of their players inoculated.
Of course this still means that 21% of players in the league are not vaccinated and the league has taken measures — similar to the NFL — to make sure players and teams understand the consequences.
The new rules, announced by commissioner Randy Ambrosie, spell out that a team can forfeit a game if it cannot be played because of COVID-19 issues. This could apply to one team being unable to field a full team because of positive COVID-19 tests or it could apply to both teams in a particular match.
If a team can prove that 85% of its’ players under contract have been vaccinated, at least once and preferably fully, its players will receive their salary for the cancelled game. If the team falls below that 85% threshold, the entire team will not receive its salary.
Those could be very strong measures that currently would apply to six of the nine teams. It’s not known what the vaccination rate is with the Bombers.
O’Shea had not seen the full memo when asked about it after practice on Thursday but he has said the Bombers have been encouraging players to get vaccinated.
“One of the things that we talked about as a team wasn’t just about getting started, it’s making sure we finish,” O’Shea said. “So, we’ve got to be vigilant the entire year to make sure we play all our games.”
It’s believed the Bombers are in “good shape” when it comes to vaccinated players, though neither the organization, nor the league, would reveal if the team has reached the 85% threshold.
In the later stages of the 2019 season, there was a significant improvement in the Blue Bombers’ defensive play and it coincided with Alexander moving from halfback to safety for the first time in his CFL career.
Alexander thrived in the new role and was able to utilize his leadership capabilities from the middle of the secondary.
“I’m a talker so I’m able to talk almost from corner to corner,” Alexander said Tuesday. “I’m able to see everybody, everything on the field. I can at least, always, talk to my halfbacks. I’m even talking to (middle linebacker) Adam Bighill sometimes. It’s just that communication and I’m able to touch just about everybody on the field. That’s what matters. You get everybody on one page and the sky’s the limit.”
Alexander did such a good job that O’Shea said during training camp that he was vital to the defence. The Bombers have historically used a Canadian at the safety position but changed their ratio around to fit Alexander into the spot.
“I believe that my best asset on a team is to make other guys comfortable, which makes them play better,” said Alexander, a 27-year-old fourth-year pro.
“It’s really not about me, at the end of the day, it’s about having team success. I believe me being at that spot allows me to basically be a blanket over everybody and have them play their best ball. That’s all I care about. I believe I make guys better on the field.”
THE MASOLI TREATMENT
The Bombers will take on a different quarterback Thursday night than they faced in the 2019 Grey Cup game.
Jeremiah Masoli, who was having an MOP-type season before he got hurt in 2019, was replaced by Dane Evans as the Tiger-Cats quarterback for the latter half of the season.
Evans did a fine job himself, but Masoli won the competition in training camp and will start in Game 1 against the Bombers.
He’s slippery and elusive and strong enough to throw while in the clutches of a defensive lineman. And that makes him very tough to play against.
“The guy’s very resilient,” Jeffcoat said. “He stays in the pocket, he’ll take a hit and he can still connect on long balls with pressure in his face, being tackled. He does a good job of just extending his plays, slipping tackles. He doesn’t look to run but he can run if he wants. He’s just an all-around athletic guy. That’s a guy you have to make sure you contain, keep him uncomfortable and not allow him to just sit back there and play seven on seven.”