This coming Thursday night, the 3-0 Winnipeg Blue Bombers will play host to the 3-0 Edmonton Eskimos in a battle for first place in the Canadian Football League’s Western Conference.
Last year these two teams were 3-15 (Bombers) and 4-14 (Eskimos). It’s amazing what a quarterback and a head coach can do.
Last year, without Mike Reilly, the Eskimos were horrible. This year, with a healthy Riley and a swarming defense led by Winnipeg’s own Eddie Steele, the Eskimos are unbeaten. Friday night, they whipped the expansion Ottawa RedBlacks as Reilly went 22-for-33 for 256 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed eight times for 48 yards.
Meanwhile, the Bombers were a simply horrendous football team last year, an embarrassment really. This year, with Drew Willy and a functional offensive line, the Bombers are unbeaten after three and on Friday night, won their first game on the road.
Behind 33-28 on Friday night with just 28 seconds remaining, Willy drove the Bombers deep into Montreal territory and found Montreal’s own Julian Feoli-Gudino for a 17-yard touchdown and a 34-33 victory.
Willy finished 24-of-38 for 256 yards and that lone major. It’s amazing how similar Willy’s and Reilly’s numbers were on Friday. Kind of spooky.
So this week, two teams that were out of it by this time last year, are now the best in the game simply because the coaches are different and the quarterbacks are better.
In Edmonton, Reilly got healthy and Chris Jones took over from Kavis Reed as head coach. That’s a completely different team – especially on defense, where a small fast kid from Kelvin named Steele controls the middle.
In Winnipeg, Kyle Walters replaced Joe Mack as GM, Mike O’Shea replaced Tim Burke as head coach and Drew Willy replaced a handful of imposters as quarterback.
Walters was always going to be a star. No one knows the Canadian game better and the good thing is, he’ll only get more adept at his job. Nobody was certain about O’Shea. After all, he came to Winnipeg with no head coaching experience. But because Walters knew O’Shea’s character, he knew what he was getting and that says as much about the GM as it does the head coach.
Despite the constant screw-ups from the board and club management over the past decade, the presence of Walters and O’Shea will be remembered as strokes of genius. Sure, we’re only three games into a season that could end 3-15 (although I really doubt it), but already this is a better football team that the one that pranced around Investors Group Field last year.
For one thing, it can score and in the Canadian game an ability to put points on the board can hide a lot of shortcomings in other places. Friday night, the Bombers put up 34 on the road. That’s 45, 36 and 34 (on the road) in the first three games. So what if the defense occasionally looks like somebody’s plaything? When you can score, almost at will, you can win a lot of games on that big field.
This Bomber team is fast, gifted, interesting and brand new. And thanks to Kyle Walters and Mike O’Shea, there is a good chance it will stay that way for awhile.
Thursday night, we’ll find out if it’s the best team in the West.