The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are all set to kick off a brand new season in what they hope will be a fourth straight trip to the Grey Cup game.
The Bombers host the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in their season opener on Friday at IG Field and for the Winnipeg Football Club, it’s all about continuity. All 24 of their listed starters on offence and defence for this season also started games for the blue and gold last season.
But after three straight trips to the championship game and recent back-to-back Grey Cup wins, how long the championship window can stay open is a big question.
“The window’s there every season for every team,” said quarterback Zach Collaros. “There’s always so much turnaround. Obviously, there hasn’t been a lot of turnaround for us, to your point, but there haven’t been any discussions about that. I’m just being honest with you. I still think that we all believe that we can do this at a high level, and nobody in there is thinking about retirement or anything like that.”
The Bombers have 11 starters at the age of 30 or over, as many of their key players belong to a, shall we say, older age group.
“I don’t know that that’s the case,” said head coach Mike O’Shea. “I mean, we have a smattering of guys all over the map and they’re very good players. Why wouldn’t you want to roll with them?
“How did Milt (Stegall) know when he was old? I don’t know what that looks like.
“And if Milt wanted to come back we’d probably talk about it.”
All kidding aside, there weren’t any surprises on the Bombers’ initial 45-man roster, but they did place both injured defensive backs Jamal Parker and Winston Rose on the six-game injured list.
The first game is usually about trying to limit the mistakes and the Bombers really aren’t sure what to expect from a new-look Ticats team that made several upgrades in the off-season by adding players like quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell.
“It’s always hard with it being the first game,” said Collaros. “It seems like guys usually are who they are, but … there are some new guys there. There’s some new guys they brought in that are very, very good football players.
“I think trying to settle in the first and second quarter to figure out where personnel is gonna be, how they’re trying to defend certain things that we do is always important, especially, it seems more magnified this early in the season.”
And the Bombers will be looking to hit the ground running, literally. The Bombers’ ground attack really struggled in the early portion of last season. First-stringer Brady Oliveira rushed for just 258 yards in their first seven games before things really took off in the second half with Oliveira eventually eclipsing the thousand-yard mark.
“With myself being a younger back last year and just needed some games under my belt and some experience,” Oliveira said. “As the season went on and as I stayed true to who I am, who I am as a running back, I played to my strength. I think you started to see the success of our team overall started to change. I think when the running game was going well, we started doing well on offence and being efficient on first down and winning football games.”
A new rule in the CFL being introduced this season allows teams to designate two so-called nationalized Americans that have either five years of CFL experience or three years with the same team. One player on offence and another on defence and that player can replace a Canadian anytime after the first play for a maximum of 23 plays per game.
But for week one the Bombers opted to only designate one nationalized American in returner and receiver Janarion Grant. And he can only replace the designated national or his back-up which in the Bombers’ case this week are receivers Drew Wolitarsky and Brendan O’Leary-Orange.
Kickoff on Friday is scheduled for 7:30 pm.