Stay afloat or sink quickly.
That’s the challenge the Winnipeg Blue Bombers face to begin the season after starting quarterback Matt Nichols went down with an undisclosed injury to his right knee during practice last week. He’ll miss four to six weeks.
Now, the CFL club with a 27-year Grey Cup drought will find out if it can pull off some victories with a trio of unproven pivots until his return.
After disclosing Nichols’ injury last week, head coach Mike O’Shea said he “absolutely” thinks he has the quarterbacks on hand in starter Chris Streveler, Bryan Bennett and Alex Ross.
Only Ross has CFL experience, but it was 12 passes in four games with the B.C. Lions last season. Streveler just graduated from the University of South Dakota, while Bennett was with the Bombers in the 2016 pre-season and spent some time with Saskatchewan but has no regular-season stats.
Following Monday’s practice, O’Shea said rookie Streveler won the training-camp competition and will start Thursday when Winnipeg opens the regular season at home against the Edmonton Eskimos.
“I think he gives us a good chance to go out there and lead the team and win games,” O’Shea said. “But it’s not always solely on the quarterback’s back, either.
“We’ll play our game, execute the way we should and win a football game.”
The Bombers found themselves with no veteran quarterback insurance when off-season acquisition Darian Durant suddenly retired early last month.
Winnipeg’s offence finished second in the league last season with an average of 26.7 points scored per game. It also allowed a league-low 71 quarterback pressures and 38 sacks, tied for fourth fewest.
“It’s not based on one person,” receiver Darvin Adams said. “We all love Matt and we know Matt is a leader on this team, on and off the field, but we still have to keep continuing to play football.”
He’s buoyed by additions such as 10-year receiver Adarius Bowman.
“I think we plugged in some good pieces,” Adams said. “I feel like we can’t do nothing but go up.”
Last year’s inconsistent defence will have to pick up the slack. It finished second last in the league by allowing 7,144 yards net offence (396.9 yards per game), but forced 42 turnovers, second to Calgary. It scored a league-high 166 points off those changes in possession.
Adding four-time CFL all-star middle linebacker Adam Bighill brings leadership, while new defensive lineman Craig Roh and defensive backs Anthony Gaitor and Chandler Fenner have experience.
“Our whole goal is to limit those yards and ramp up those turnover,” veteran cornerback Chris Randle said. “Bringing those types of veterans into our defence helps make us more wise.”
Breakdown of the 2018 Winnipeg Blue Bombers
Mike O’Shea, entering fifth season.
Finished second in the West at 12-6; lost division semifinal 39-32 to the Edmonton Eskimos.
Three-time CFL all-star Adarius Bowman was released by Edmonton and quickly signed up for a second go-round with the Bombers. Winnipeg also added local product Nic Demski, who spent three seasons with Saskatchewan’s receiving corps, but has had injury troubles. The defence gained middle linebacker Adam Bighill, the 2015 CFL defensive player of the year, veteran end Craig Roh and defensive backs Anthony Gaitor and Chandler Fenner.
Backup quarterback Dominque Davis signed with Ottawa and veteran pivot Dan LeFevour retired. The team didn’t re-sign long-time receiver Clarence Denmark or 2016 all-star guard Travis Bond. Defensive end Jamaal Westerman signed a lucrative contract with Montreal. Two-time CFL all-star defensive back T.J. Heath returned to Toronto, a team that traded him to Winnipeg in 2016. Recent cuts included defensive back Brian Walker, who played 15 games in his rookie season, and Winnipeg’s first-overall pick in the 2017 CFL draft, defensive lineman Faith Ekakitie.
Players to watch
Take your pick of the quarterbacks vying to play while Matt Nichols is injured. Receiver Adarius Bowman will try to get back to a 1,000-yard season after putting up 534 yards in 12 games last year. Adam Bighill has to return to CFL form after being with the NFL New Orleans Saints last season.