Cauz: What’s going on with the Blue Bombers?

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The reason why we use the “football is a game of inches” cliché all the time is a simple one: it’s because in just about every game, the result comes down to inches.

There are many images that stick out from the Ottawa REDBLACKS 23-19 win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers beyond all the rain. Zach Collaros getting sacked by Lorenzo Mauldin IV on third down ending any chances for a Bombers comeback comes to mind.

But what about one play earlier where for a split second it looked like Collaros was going to hit Dalton Schoen for the potential game winning touchdown only to be thwarted at the last moment by Damon Webb knocking the ball away?

Think about how differently we would be viewing the Blue Bombers start of the year if Webb was off by a couple inches. There would still be concerns about pass protection, injuries and Collaros, but now with the team starting out 0-2 for the first time since 2016, the spotlight just got a lot brighter on coach Mike O’Shea’s team.

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My reaction to their start is that I don’t even recognize what I’m seeing on the football field. I feel like the entire team, that has averaged over 12 wins a year for the past seven seasons, has been kidnapped.

I will get to the sacks and interceptions part of the equation in a moment, but there were three smaller moments that stood out. In the first quarter, Ryquell Armstead broke off a 31-yard run after breaking a Brandon Alexander tackle. To see a rookie running back take a direct shot from 2023 West Division All-Star Alexander was jarring.

Later, TSN’s Rod Smith was as confused as the rest of us when on a second-and-10, a wide-open Drew Wolitarsky dropped the easiest pass he’ll ever receive. Wolitarsky was turning upfield for extra yardage without having secured the ball, a mental mistake you don’t expect from this team.

In the third quarter, Dominique Rhymes was dragging multiple defenders for extra yardage. Usually, it is Winnipeg that wins most of the physical matchups. Not on this night.

Then there is the curious case of Zach Collaros and the slow starting Winnipeg offence. Against Montreal in Week 1, Collaros had one completion in the first quarter and last week Ottawa held Winnipeg to 18 yards and one first down in the opening 15 minutes. In two games, Collaros is completing just 55 per cent of his passes for 494 yards with three interceptions and has yet to throw a touchdown pass. One of his interceptions you can chalk up to bad luck as his pass was deflected by Michael Wakefield right to Adarius Pickett.

But the other two turnovers were poor decisions by the two-time MOP. Collaros called his Week 1 interception to Marc-Antoine Dequoy “inexcusable,” a proper adjective when you watch Collaros under-throwing Schoen on a throw he probably shouldn’t have attempted with the amount of pressure in his face.

Flash forward a week and Winnipeg was in a good spot right before Collaros’ second interception. They were leading Ottawa 17-16 and driving into enemy territory until Alonzo Addae took away all momentum reading Collaros from the snap of the ball until the thievery.

Collaros tried to hit Schoen deep, but missed. Collaros has set the bar so high as the game’s top quarterback that it is particularly confusing when you see him one-hop throws or miss open receivers. Yes, he did not play a down during the preseason but there is only so long you can use that as an excuse.

The offensive woes cannot be all traced to the quarterback. Injuries have taken out 2023 rushing leader Brady Oliveira and the always reliable Kenny Lawler. The interior of the offensive line has done their quarterback no favours with Collaros was under heavy pressure, especially in the second half against Ottawa.

You know things are off in Winnipeg when Sergio Castillo missed a 38 and 40-yard field goal against the Alouettes after having gone 31-for-31 from that distance in 2023. Not even the return of Chris Streveler has been able to shake whatever odd voodoo is going on.

A month from now the conversations surrounding this team could be so different. We are forever away from OK Tire Labour Day Weekend, so any talk of doom and gloom may all look foolish by late July, but something just feels off with this group.

They started the year at home against the team that beat them in the Grey Cup and we all expected a big, revenge-fuelled win. Instead, their first touchdown came with just over a minute left trailing 27-5. Nic Demski had a fumble in the game, and the defence was fooled on a 76-yard flea-flicker from Cody Fajardo to Tyson Philpot.

The season started in such an uninspiring way, then a bizarre, rain-drenched loss in Ottawa. Now the injuries are starting to mount. Maybe this is all just a blip, the result of being to the last four Grey Cups, which takes a toll on you physically.

Two games into the season, I’m not saying 2024 is lost for the three-time West Division champs. But if you were to write a story about a team’s fall from the top this is what the beginning of that tale would look like.

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