WINNIPEG — It’s an image that still causes many to vigorously give their head a shake and rub their eyes before a second look.
Right there in the black and white of the Canadian Football League standings are the Winnipeg Blue Bombers atop the West Division with a 5-1 record. This is the same organization, it bears reminding here, which won all of three games last season and was an absolutely pathetic 9-27 from 2012 to 2013.
And so as this squad has reached the one-third mark of the campaign there are any number of theories being floated as to what has sparked the Bombers’ astonishing turnaround.
The easy answer is to point at quarterback Drew Willy, named Tuesday as the CFL’s Offensive Player of the Week for the second time already this season.
Lots of folks, and rightfully so, are also tipping their caps in the direction of head coach Mike O’Shea, GM Kyle Walters and big boss man Wade Miller for their imprint at the top of the football operations department.
But here’s another take, courtesy defensive tackle Bryan Turner, a man who survived last year’s disaster to offer an intriguing comparison:
“This really is one of the best group of guys I’ve ever been around,” began Turner after practice on Tuesday. “We have no cancers. We have no one going against the system. Whatever we say we want to do, no one goes against it. Everybody is hands in and for it.
“You can say that’s happening just because we’re winning, but I don’t think that. Everybody here has been around football teams all our lives. You can find the guys that go against things whether you’re winning or losing. We don’t have those guys. We’ve looked for them in our room, but we haven’t found them and we won’t find them.
“We just don’t have them.”
As the club is through a third of the season, here are some key factors behind the Bombers’ 5-1 start:
• QB1 — Pardon us for playing the role of Captain Obvious here, but Drew Willy has done in six games what the Bombers have spent the last couple of years desperately seeking: he’s brought stability to the most-important spot on the depth chart.
Willy has already thrown for 1,662 yards with seven TDs against four picks. A year ago the Bombers headed into their seventh game by handing the starting QB chores to Max Hall — this after Buck Pierce (4) and Justin Goltz (2) had started in the first six games.
No one player better represents the upward arrow that the Bombers new QB1.
• More Thoroughbreds — The quote that best described 2013 — and helps explains the start of 2104 — came from former Bomber coach Tim Burke last summer when he said ‘You can’t win the Kentucky Derby with a mule.’ Management made the deal to land Willy this winter, traded for shutdown corner Chris Randle, welcomed back Jason Vega and signed Nick Moore in free agency to bring in some “name” CFL talent. But it’s the play of some of the lesser heralded additions — Matt Bucknor, Bruce Johnson, Moe Leggett, Nic Grigsby, Lirim Hajrullahu, among others — that has considerably cranked up the overall talent level.
• A Defensive Identity — Building a dominant defence isn’t complicated, although the Bombers certainly made it seem so over the past couple of years. Teams need a shutdown corner — hello, Chris Randle — they need to pressure the quarterback — Winnipeg’s 20 sacks is second to Saskatchewan’s 21 — and be solid up the middle to stop the run — the Bombers are third-best against the rush.
Gary Etcheverry’s defence may be difficult to describe, but it’s a nightmare to line up against.
» Winnipeg Free Press