The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are acutely aware they have a target on their backs. That happens when you’re the defending back-to-back Grey Cup champions — people tend to take notice.
Ask around a group that consists of several players from the 2021 title team — with many still left from the 2019 championship club — and the focus is firmly on the future. As for the past, while there have definitely been some good times, including plenty of proud moments, the Bombers refuse to buy into their own hype.
In fact, nobody is even mentioning the word threepeat, at least not anyone in the locker room.
"Not at all. The only people that ever talk about it is the media," said offensive lineman Patrick Neufeld, who returned to practice Monday after missing all of training camp due to injury. "I know it sounds cliche, it’s just not what we do."
Indeed, it can be like pulling teeth around these parts asking players to talk about their successes, whether it be individual or as a team. After all, the Bombers had 11 CFL all-stars on the roster, and boasted the league’s top defence and offence.
None of that matters this season. That’s the message from head coach Mike O’Shea, the main architect behind the Bombers culture.
“Not at all. The only people that ever talk about it is the media... I know it sounds cliche, it’s just not what we do.” – Patrick Neufeld
Staying humble and focused on the task at hand is just something that’s been ingrained since O’Shea arrived in Winnipeg ahead of the 2014 CFL season. And now that it’s finally working, it’s only hardened the approach.
"There’s probably 1,000 books on that. I don’t read them, but I’m sure you can dial up anything like that and I’m sure you’ll find 1,000 books on (the importance) of focussing on the present," O’Shea said, letting out a chuckle. "It’s the only way to do it. I don’t even know how to describe the other way."
That’s not to suggest the Bombers aren’t confident. Coming off two great seasons, including an 11-3 record in last year’s COVID-shortened campaign, they understand what’s at stake this year. They also know what another great season would mean to the province and their fans.
"We want to stay humble. We want to stay in the moment," Bombers defensive end Willie Jefferson said. "The Grey Cup and all that, that’s all in the rear-view mirror. We’re looking forward to 2022 and doing bigger and better things than the last two years. Like Coach O’Shea said in our first meeting, ‘that’s all behind us. We’ll let everyone else talk about it; we not talking about that."
With the final roster cuts made over the weekend, the Bombers have built a team they believe can compete for another Grey Cup. That pursuit will begin in earnest when Winnipeg welcomes the Ottawa Redblacks to town for the season-opener at IG Field Friday night.
"It’s the fact that we got camaraderie and chemistry on both sides of the ball," Jefferson said. "We got chemistry with the running backs to the quarterbacks, quarterbacks to the receivers, the offensive line knowing (quarterback) Zach (Collaros). On the defensive side of the ball, everyone knows everything. We’ve pretty much got our whole defence back."
"On the defensive side of the ball, everyone knows everything. We’ve pretty much got our whole defence back.” – Willie Jefferson
Neufeld said he’s the kind of player that keeps a close eye on the league, watching which team does what over the offseason. He believes the CFL has more parity than ever and feels this is the season the East Division finally keeps pace with the West.
When you ask him what edge the Bombers have over their competition, he’s quick to point the finger. He said with Collaros, the reigning league and Grey Cup most outstanding player, behind centre, there’s no limiting the offence.
"When you have No. 8 back there, you’re always going to think you have a chance," Neufeld said. "Having Zach back there from a leadership perspective, from a talent perspective is just phenomenal. And then our defence is still super-good. They’re such a tremendous unit that plays well, plays physical, and just makes plays out there. It’s incredible to see how many plays those guys make on a daily basis."
The Bombers are looking forward to kicking off the new season against a familiar face in Paul LaPolice. LaPolice, now the head coach and offensive co-ordinator for the Redblacks, spent four seasons as the Bombers OC under O’Shea and was a big part of the 2019 championship run.
It’s the first time the teams will meet since LaPolice’s departure, after the two teams were somehow not scheduled to play each other in 2021. Needless to say, the Bombers defence is looking forward to seeing what LaPolice comes up with under his new offence led by quarterback Jeremiah Masoli.
"There will be a lot of misdirection, a lot of the things that you saw from us in 2019," Jefferson said. "We plan to see a lot, and we plan to bring it like we do every week."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.