Blue re­main true to game-ahead script

Winnipeg Free Press - - SPORTS - JEFF HAMILTON jeff.hamilton@freep­ress.mb.ca Twit­ter: @jef­fkhamil­ton

OR many, the abil­ity to over­come the phys­i­cal toll of pro­fes­sional foot­ball is most im­por­tant to a team’s suc­cess. Af­ter all, play­ers put their bodies on the line for the com­mon goal of win­ning.

But there is an ar­gu­ment to be made that men­tal tough­ness is just as im­por­tant. For some, man­ag­ing how a team thinks can play an even greater role in pre­serv­ing its long-term suc­cess.

Per­haps no other team ex­em­pli­fies this more than the Win­nipeg Blue Bombers and their stub­born ded­i­ca­tion to a strict one-week-at-a-time, onegame-at-a-time ap­proach to busi­ness.

It’s a the­ory that has come to de­fine the Bombers in re­cent years. Wher­ever they find them­selves on the emo­tional roller coaster that comes with ev­ery Cana­dian Foot­ball League sea­son mat­ters lit­tle. What hap­pened in the past, or what might ar­rive in the fu­ture, isn’t as im­por­tant — or as con­trol­lable — as what oc­curs in the present.

“That comes from the cul­ture we want to build around here,” said Bombers

Fquar­ter­back Matt Ni­chols. “When you have a lot of like-minded guys around, when new guys come in they kind of see real quick how it is here. You ei­ther fit in or you don’t.” It’s a cul­ture Mike O’Shea be­gan to form when he was hired as head coach prior to the 2014 sea­son. The phi­los­o­phy is one that O’Shea, who played 16 sea­sons in the CFL, win­ning three Grey Cups, has stayed true to. With it, the goal is sim­ple: build a win­ning cul­ture in the locker room and the re­sults on the field will fol­low.

In nearly four sea­sons, the lineup has changed dra­mat­i­cally, with just nine play­ers re­main­ing from the 2014 ros­ter. Though it’s im­pos­si­ble to sug­gest just how many of those per­son­nel de­ci­sions were di­rectly re­lated to achiev­ing the right fit, each player’s char­ac­ter is con­sid­ered when de­cid­ing if some­one should stay or go.

“We like our group for what they bring ath­let­i­cally, their foot­ball IQ and es­pe­cially their char­ac­ter,” O’Shea said. “Th­ese guys are smart guys that know how to be good team­mates, know how to con­duct them­selves pro­fes­sion­ally.”

This means stick­ing to the one-gameat-a-time phi­los­o­phy in how the play­ers con­duct them­selves with the me­dia. It can be com­i­cal at times just how rare it is for any of the 60 or so play­ers to wa­ver from the script. While ques­tions of­ten range in topic, the re­sponse is of­ten the same, clichéd an­swer.

“Th­ese clichés or what­ever you want to call them — one game at a time — they’re pop­u­lar say­ings be­cause they’re true,” said O’Shea.

By stay­ing con­sis­tent with what they’re say­ing in­di­vid­u­ally, de­fen­sive tackle Jake Thomas said it makes it eas­ier to re­main uni­fied as a team. It’s not that play­ers don’t dwell on a loss, it’s just that the griev­ing process doesn’t seep out­side the locker room.

“We have a rule of 24 hours and then we flush the last game. It’s good for prepa­ra­tion, so when you do have a bad week you’re not kick­ing a dead horse the whole time,” said Thomas. “The me­dia may not like the mantra of ev­ery week’s a new week but, re­ally, that’s how we take it and how we ap­proach our busi­ness.”

Thomas cred­ited a strong lead­er­ship group for the repet­i­tive di­a­logue, with play­ers such as cor­ner­back Chris Ran­dle lead­ing the charge. By watch­ing Ran­dle, among oth­ers, stay com­mit­ted to this be­lief sys­tem, its only helped strengthen the team’s re­solve.

Ran­dle called it as much a mind­set as a process, one that has been tested over his time in Win­nipeg. Hav­ing joined the team the same year as O’Shea, Win­nipeg com­bined for just 12 wins in 36 games over the first two sea­sons.

“It’s been a long jour­ney and you take your bumps and bruises with it but you con­tinue to im­prove and that al­lows for ev­ery­one to hop on board,” said Ran­dle. “We’re not done with the process yet.”

Ran­dle said although the Bombers weren’t win­ning of­ten, it was easy to see im­prove­ments. By dis­sect­ing game film and iden­ti­fy­ing their weak­nesses, they be­lieved it was only a mat­ter of time be­fore things turned around. The last thing they needed was to ap­pear di­vided. If some­one had some­thing to say, it was done in the meet­ing room.

“We all un­der­stand our sit­u­a­tion, we all un­der­stand what we’ve got our­selves into and what we’re try­ing to get to,” said Ran­dle. “That’s how we roll and it’s go­ing to be a ma­jor key in us be­ing suc­cess­ful.”

The tide even­tu­ally turned last year, with the Bombers fin­ish­ing the 2016 sea­son 11-7 be­fore los­ing to the B.C Lions in the West semi­fi­nal. Head­ing into Satur­day’s home game against B.C., Win­nipeg is 10-4, sec­ond in the West and primed to earn a home play­off game for the first time since 2011. A vic­tory would clinch a play­off berth for the Bombers and snap the Lions’ 21year run of post-sea­son ap­pear­ances.

T.J. Heath, who is among the Bombers’ most vo­cal play­ers, might be tempted to veer from the usual chat­ter given just what is at stake Satur­day. But the de­fen­sive back wouldn’t bite. In his mind, the play­offs are too far ahead to worry about and what hap­pened with the Lions at the end of last sea­son is long for­got­ten.

“How we talk about it is we want to win one game at a time,” he said. “That’s the ul­ti­mate goal and as long as we do that we’ll be OK for the play­offs.”

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