Third swing at playoffs for these Blue Bombers absolutely must connect this weekend
REGINA — They have more wins than every team not called the Stampeders over the last three CFL seasons.
A 33-21 record, built on
11-7, 12-6 and, most recently, a 10-8 campaign, is pretty solid stuff from the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
But two swings at the playoffs have produced only whiffs.
The Bombers, with the same core players and coaching staff, will step to the plate for a third time in Saskatchewan, Sunday, wielding a fairly hot bat against the 12-6 Riders.
They may not be favoured by the oddsmakers, but there’s no shortage of prognosticators who say they’re a better team. It’s time to prove it.
Or choke on it.
Whiff a third time, and they’re just an also-ran that can’t win a game that really matters.
“You can’t strike out,” Chris Randle was saying, Friday. “You can’t strike out. You know, there’s only two moments bigger than this. And we’re trying to get to those. Let’s stay relaxed. When things get heated, let’s say if I get beat, hey, it’s not our Grey Cup. It’s just a play. Get back to your fundamentals, your responsibility.
“That’s easier said than done when those moments come.”
Randle, a Bomber for five years, is cursed, in a way.
The 30-year-old cornerback appears to have a photographic memory of sorts — when it comes to the bad stuff.
“I can remember everything I did wrong, I feel like, my entire career,” he said. “I don’t know why. I can think of a lot of plays. That’s just how I’m built.”
So when it comes to the Bombers’ last two playoff games — West Division semifinal losses to B.C. and Edmonton — Randle knows exactly which plays he’d like back.
“Two years ago in B.C. I had a pass interference, and it affected me for a couple of series,” he recalled. “Last year opening drive, me and T.J. (Heath) missed communication on that deep (touchdown pass) to Adarius Bowman. Zylstra beat me .... ” You get the picture.
Randle has learned something from those two games, though.
“Just try and not let those moments last, is the key,” he said.
Enough of this team has been together through those two losses. The Bombers should be playoff-hardened by now.
There really are no excuses this time.
Quarterback Matt Nichols is rested and healthy. So are the receivers. And the running back. And most of the defence.
The offensive line has three all-stars, and two more players who could have been.
Everybody’s been practising in the cold all week, so the weather in Regina should result in a shrug, and nothing more.
Returning to the baseball analogy, this at-bat will go a long way to defining this team’s place in franchise history.
Step up, fellas. And show us what you’ve got.
“We’ve been trying to hit the home run too much,” O-lineman Jermarcus Hardrick, a three-year Bomber, said. “We need to just try to get to first base. You can’t hit the home run unless you hit the ball first.”
If that means don’t look ahead, the Bombers seem to have that down pat. There’s lots of talk about going 1-0 this week, and only the odd mention of the bigger picture.
Like Randle, Hardrick laments plays that could have made a difference in playoff games past.
“I just remember last year in the off-season, after I watched the playoff game ... I was like, man, just a couple plays here or there for me,” Hardrick said. “That’s all you think about all off-season. And I don’t want to do that again.
“It was vital, the experience we got in those. All of us were young guys at the time.”
They’re all grown up, now. Hardrick’s 28, same as receiver Darvin Adams, defensive back Kevin Fogg, linebacker Ian Wild and D-lineman Jake Thomas (next month).
Safety Taylor Loffler is 26, along with O-linemen Sukh Chungh and Matthias Goossen.
The older guard includes Nichols and running back Andrew Harris (both 31), O-linemen Pat Neufeld (30 next month) and Stanley Bryant (32), receiver Weston Dressler (33), and kicker Justin Medlock (35).
All in blue and gold the last three seasons, at least. All older and wiser.
All 0-2 as Bombers in the playoffs.
“Nobody wants to go home in the first round,” Fogg said. “The last two years we’ve felt that. It’s channelling that into something positive, and not using it as a type of fear.”
Here’s another motivating factor.
This group is running out of chances.
With a boatload of free agents, the clock will strike midnight the next time they lose a game.
“You can feel that in here, too,” Hardrick said. “You’re not ready for this to be over.”
Blue Bombers’ Chris Randle says he is able to recall every misplay throughout his career, though he hopes to have something more positive to remember at the conclusion of Sunday’s playoff game against the Riders.