Three months ago, when they suffered a 43-7 blowout in Baltimore, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers looked nothing like a playoff team. Now, the Blue Bombers have gone through so many personnel changes they hardly resemble the team that began the 1995 season.
Due to a combination of injuries, trades and free-agent signings, Winnipeg has dressed 75 players this year, or the equivalent of two active rosters. In Monday's 31-20 loss in Toronto, the Blue Bombers started the same 12 players on offense for the second straight game, the first time that has happened this year.
And yet, because of its weak remaining schedule, sixth-place Winnipeg (5-11) looks like a solid bet to claim the final playoff spot in the Northern Division, meaning the Blue Bombers would revisit Memorial Stadium for a first-round playoff game on Nov. 4.
The Blue Bombers can ensure that by winning their final two regular-season games, both at home, against the Toronto Argonauts and Ottawa Rough Riders, the worst teams in the CFL.
Fifth-place Saskatchewan (5-10) has a far tougher road, with back-to-back games against the Calgary Stampeders before its regular-season finale in British Columbia.
Then again, nothing is a shoo-in for the Blue Bombers. In the Toronto loss, they lost Ken Burress, their only veteran in the secondary, to a knee injury. He could miss the rest of the regular season.
Add Burress to the pile of bad breaks that has symbolized the Blue Bombers' season.
They have been without linebackers Paul Randolph (torn biceps) and Doug Hocking (pinched nerve in neck) for a month. Free safety Daryl Sampson broke his thumb two weeks ago and is probably lost for the season. Perhaps the costliest loss came three weeks ago, when kick returner Shannon Baker, who was leading the CFL with a 24.4-yard return average, suffered a separated shoulder against the Stampeders. He is out for the year.
"Injury-wise, I've never seen anything like it. I don't know how we can keep replacing them. We're running out of bodies," Winnipeg coach Cal Murphy said.
Hope remains for Winnipeg, mainly because the Blue Bombers have stabilized their quarterback position after auditioning six players there. Since joining Winnipeg through an August trade with the Birmingham Barracudas, Reggie Slack has fixed the passing game. In his past four starts, Slack has thrown for 1,129 yards and six scores.
Slack also has played a big role in the resurgence of slotback Gerald Wilcox. He has returned from an elbow injury -- it sidelined him for four games -- to catch 24 passes for 358 yards and three scores in his past three outings.
If Winnipeg comes to Baltimore, two players would line up against teams they have left recently. Since getting released by Baltimore last month, Robert Presbury has been starting at defensive end in the Blue Bombers' 3-4 alignment. Since his release by Winnipeg six weeks ago, slotback Gerald Alphin has
become a starter for the Stallions.
Hurting in Texas
San Antonio's 38-28 loss at Birmingham on Sunday cost the Texans a chance to all but clinch second place in the Southern Division. But the defeat was much more damaging to San Antonio's roster -- three key players went down with serious injuries.
Running back Troy Mills, who had scored nine touchdowns and amassed 797 yards from scrimmage in six games, tore two ligaments in his right knee and is lost for the year. He will need major reconstructive surgery.
Kick returner David Lucas suffered a possible career-ending HTC injury by fracturing and dislocating his hip. And linebacker David Harper, the team's leading tackler with 65, broke his collarbone and probably will not return before the playoffs.
The Winnipeg injury rash hasn't affected 40-year-old offensive left tackle Miles Gorrell. He has played in a CFL-record 302 games and has not missed a start this year. . . . Birmingham quarterback Matt Dunigan, who threw for two touchdowns and ran for another in the Barracudas' crucial 38-28 win over San Antonio, leads the CFL with 4,225 yards and 30 touchdowns, despite missing the season's first two games with a broken finger.
Saskatchewan's Donald Narcisse is among the league's most productive and consistent receivers. In his nine-year career -- all with the Roughriders -- Narcisse has amassed 8,486 yards and 57 touchdowns.
He also has caught at least one pass in 141 straight games and has gone over the 1,000-yard receiving mark in a season seven times, both CFL records.
Here is a breakdown of his past seven seasons, during which Narcisse has not missed a game:
Year ... GP ... Rec ... ... Yds. ... ... Avg. ... TD
1989 ... 18 ... 81 .. .. .. 1,419 .. ... 17.5 ... 11
1990 ... 18 ... 86 .. .. .. 1,129 .. ... 13.1 ... 9
1991 ... 18 ... 76 .. .. .. 1,043 .. ... 13.7 ... 7
1992 ... 18 ... 80 .. .. .. 1,034 .. ... 12.9 ... 7
1993 ... 18 ... 83 .. .. .. 1,171 .. ... 14.1 ... 9
1994 ... 18 ... 72 .. .. .. 1,004 .. ... 13.9 ... 6
1995 ... 15 ... 97 .. .. .. 1,079 .. ... 11.1 ... 7