CFL: Blue Bombers look for fifth straight trip to Grey Cup


Zach Collaros could have a problem this season, but it’s a good one.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers veteran quarterback has to divvy up passes and touches to keep his hungry offensive teammates happy as the CFL team aims for a fifth straight trip to the Grey Cup.

“It’s a problem that everybody would want, obviously,” Collaros said. “And I wouldn’t even call it a problem.

“We’re built the right way here and those guys wouldn’t be here if they weren’t team-first guys. So whomever it might be game by game who has the most catches or the most carries and touchdowns and all those things, I truly don’t think it matters to them. It’s all about the win.”

The Blue Bombers have won a lot over the past four seasons (51-17), but have twice come up short in the biggest game of the year.

After capturing the Grey Cup in 2019 and ’21, Winnipeg lost the championship to the Toronto Argonauts in ’22 and the Montreal Alouettes last season. The margin of defeat in those two losses was a combined five points.

Winnipeg hosts the Alouettes in Thursday’s season opener.

The sting over the losses lingers, but the Bombers have confidence they can overcome the departure of key players and build off last season’s top performances on both sides of the ball that earned them a 14-4 record.

“We do have spots available, and more than we’ve ever had,” Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said.

Players who’ve been backups will be counted on to expand their roles and newcomers will get their opportunities, he added.

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“If they’re in our building, we have a lot of faith in them and believe that they can step in and help us win football games,” O’Shea said, noting the club had salary-cap challenges.

Winnipeg’s offensive line is missing right tackle Jermarcus Hardrick, the league’s runner-up for most outstanding lineman last season, after he signed a big-money contract with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Fellow OL starter Geoff Gray was also a victim of the cash crunch.

The offence is also without starting receiver Rasheed Bailey, but kept Nic Demski, Kenny Lawler, Dalton Schoen and Drew Wolitarsky.

Winnipeg’s biggest splash in free agency was re-signing Schoen and star running back Brady Oliveira, a double achievement that had been financially in doubt.

Oliveira was the league’s top Canadian last season and runner-up for most outstanding player.

In his second season as the starter, the popular hometown product led the CFL in rushing with 1,534 yards — the second-highest total by a Canadian in league history. He recorded nine touchdowns along the ground and four TDs off 482 yards receiving.

Oliveira missed training camp with an undisclosed injury, but O’Shea expects him to be ready for Thursday’s opener.

Collaros said the main challenge of the rejigged offensive line is the communication level, not the talent level. Once the group gets more snaps together, he predicts having time to throw the ball and holes will open for Oliveira.

“I fully expect Brady to pick up where he left off last season,” he said.

Eric Lofton rejoins the Bombers and replaces Hardrick. He started 14 games with the Saskatchewan Roughriders last season and was with Winnipeg in 2022.

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Winnipeg’s defence also took some hits in the off-season.

Fan favourite Willie Jefferson is back rushing opposing quarterbacks, but fellow end Jackson Jeffcoat wasn’t re-signed and retired.

Cornerback Demerio Houston took his interception prowess to the Calgary Stampeders and defensive tackle Ricky Walker was unsigned. Linebacker Adam Bighill missed training camp and was put on the six-game injured list.

“(The challenge is) to see how well we can communicate, build a chemistry with the guys who stepped in for those guys (who left) and how dynamic we can still be,” Jefferson said of the defence.

Championship losses can motivate players to work harder in the off-season, he added.

“Then come in this year and it’s your time to basically showcase that and try to put your best foot forward again,” Jefferson said.

“We’ve done it four years in a row. This year, we just need to have a better outcome at the end.”

Winnipeg’s special teams could be its Achilles heel.

The team was auditioning players at camp to return punts and kickoffs and awaiting other clubs’ cuts after it couldn’t afford to keep Janarion Grant. The franchise’s all-time leader in return touchdowns (eight) in 41 regular-season games signed with Toronto after four seasons with the Bombers.

Kansas product Chris Smith took a punt back 109 yards for a TD in Winnipeg’s exhibition loss to Calgary last Friday, but was injured in the game and among the team’s weekend cuts.

2023 record: 14-4, first, West Division

Did you know?: The Bombers have won more regular-season games (51-17) than any other team over the past four years.

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Key additions: QB Chris Streveler (NFL), OL Eric Lofton (Saskatchewan),

Key losses: OL Jermarcus Hardrick (Saskatchewan), CB Demerio Houston (Calgary), DE Jackson Jeffcoat (retired), KR Janarion Grant (Toronto)

Players to watch: QB Zach Collaros, RB Brady Oliveira, QB Chris Streveler, WR Kenny Lawler, SB Dalton Schoen, OL Eric Lofton

   This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 3, 2024.

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