A hope, a prayer — and a Bighill to climb

A hope, a prayer — and a Bighill to climb

For the 28th consecutive spring, the people who run the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have tried to put together a football team that can win the Grey Cup.

The last 27 years, they’ve failed.

Those two-plus decades have included all kinds of big-name, free-agent signings, countless trades, probably as many prayers as players and enough coaches to fill a church.

Year 28 gets underway, Thursday, against the team that buried the hope of Year 27, the Eskimos.

At least one observer, slightly biased as he may be, figured this was going to be the year.

“My Grey Cup favourites,” Bomber great and current TV talking head Milt Stegall was saying, Wednesday. “They were it. They had everything in place.”

The words “were” and “had” were no more accidental than Stegall’s orange shirt.

The knee injury to starting quarterback Matt Nichols (four to six weeks) has changed every conversation surrounding this team, adding a “but” to the start of every sentence.

The Bomber offence simply can’t be as effective with the green-as-grass Chris Streveler at the helm as it would be with the veteran savvy of Nichols.

But with better defence and the same spirited special teams, maybe this team can tread water instead of sinking like a stone out of the gate.

A realistic hope for the number of wins without Nichols?

“Let’s be honest,” Stegall said. “If he’s out four games, one. Five or six, I say two. Because the West is so tough you don’t want to get too far behind.

“If he misses six games, and they lose all those six games, it’s hard to recover from that.”

Something for Bomber fans to reach for: the weakest part of their schedule is the first third — four of six games against teams that missed the playoffs last year.

Something more robust to latch onto: fire hydrant linebacker Adam Bighill, who should provide relief for a defence that was torched all too often a year ago.

“That was a big signing,” Stegall said. “The most important signing of the off-season out of any team. They had a bunch of all-stars on there, but they gave up some big plays… a lot of yards. Putting Adam Bighill there, that can make a lot of the difference.”

The 29-year-old began making a difference soon after he walked through the doors.

In talking to Bighill, you get the immediate impression the Bombers signed not just a middle linebacker and not just a badly-needed quarterback for the defence, but another coach.

“It’s discipline,” Bighill said of what ailed Winnipeg’s defence last season. “It’s not lack of athleticism. It’s lack of discipline and understanding what we’re trying to accomplish. And lack of communication.”

Acknowledging he’s taken charge, Bighill completely changed the way the defence was thinking and communicating.

“After about a week of being here I brought a lot of things that I’ve done previously to communicate with guys around me that maybe they hadn’t learned, yet,” he said. “Or maybe they’re young and haven’t been told that, yet.”

How that’s possible, with veteran defensive leadership like head coach Mike O’Shea and co-ordinator Richie Hall at the helm, I don’t know.

Bighill says the idea is to get the defence prepared for anything and everything, pre-snap, so there are no surprises.

“The CFL’s the most confusion that could ever happen for a defence in professional football… it’s the most organized chaos out there,” he said. “Because of the motion. The key word is ‘organized.’

“So I look for ways that we can organize that better and make sure the little things are being talked about before they even happen.”

O’Shea says Bighill will hold everybody accountable, the implication being the defence had nobody like that the last two seasons.

“At his position — that’s the leader of the defence,” end Jackson Jeffcoat said of his new teammate. “He helps with the secondary, he helps with the front. He can make a big difference.”

He’ll have to.

Because while the defence could take the ball away better than anybody, they’d also get burned more than almost everybody.

“Our expectations are higher,” Bighill said. “There is no acceptance for any big play. It should never happen. It should not get over our head. If they go up and we compete for a ball and they catch it, they get paid, too.

“But we’re not going to give away big plays.”

That sounded a lot like a promise.

The Bombers will need every bit of that kept in order to hold the fort until their offensive leader returns.

A little magic from a rookie quarterback wouldn’t hurt, either.

This organization has never started a season quite like this before.

When you think about it, something different from the last 27 years is exactly what they’re looking for.

pfriesen@postmedia.com

Twitter: @friesensunmedia

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