Veteran lineman Neufeld feels culture a powerful element for Blue Bombers
The allure of CFL free agency has been lost upon Pat Neufeld.
Since 2019, the veteran offensive lineman has signed an extension to remain with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers rather hit the open market. In fact, the six-foot-five, 290-pound Regina native agreed to a one-year deal last November, months before the start of CFL free agency.
Neufeld isn't alone. Winnipeg's roster is chock full of veterans who have opted to remain in Manitoba rather than test free agency.
"It's so cliché and it has been said for years but it's the culture," Neufeld said. "It's something that when new guys come, we want them to be involved with.
"We just do things a certain way in our locker room. The best part about it is (head coach Mike O'Shea) has really put the accountability on the players."
O'Shea, 52, of North Bay, Ont., brought a winning pedigree to Winnipeg when he was hired as head coach in 2014. He was a part of three Grey Cup-winning teams as a linebacker with the Toronto Argonauts (1996-97, '04) and another as the club's special-teams co-ordinator (2012).
But success wasn't immediate, as Winnipeg was a combined 12-24 its first two seasons under O'Shea. Since then, the Bombers have recorded 10 or more regular-season victories in each of the last six seasons and made three straight Grey Cup appearances.
O'Shea, who was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2017 as a player, has twice been named the CFL's top coach (2021-22).
Winnipeg has been especially dominant the last three seasons, amassing a 37-13 regular-season mark and reaching the Grey Cup each time. The Bombers fell just short of having recorded three straight championship victories, dropping a 24-23 decision to Toronto in November after the Argos blocked Marc Liegghio's 47-yard field goal try with under a minute remaining.
Neufeld, 34, has experienced it all. He was acquired by Winnipeg in a trade with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2013.
"I think (Bombers' culture) has been cultivated over the years and took some tinkering," Neufeld said. "I'm extremely grateful (president/CEO Wade Miller) and (GM Kyle Walters) allowed coach O'Shea to go through those growing pains in 2014 and '15.
"I think that's kind of rare now where teams are allowing a longer leash to develop that. It has definitely paid off for us."
More importantly, Bombers players have bought in. Since the '19 championship, the franchise's first since 1990, an overwhelming number of veterans have opted to remain in Manitoba, including quarterback Zach Collaros, defensive linemen Willie Jefferson, Canadian Jake Thomas and Jackson Jeffcoat, linebacker Adam Bighill, offensive linemen Stanley Bryant and Jermarcus Hardrick and receiver Nic Demski, a Winnipeg native.
Some players have moved on — Canadian offensive lineman Mike Couture (B.C.), receiver Greg Ellingson (Montreal) and defensive lineman Casey Sayles (Hamilton) departed in free agency. But American receiver Kenny Lawler, who spent last year with Edmonton after playing 2019 and '21 with Winnipeg, rejoined the Bombers as a free agent.
The harsh reality of life in a salary-cap world is some Bombers must settle for less to remain. However, many do understanding playoff money and a huge championship ring are always within reach for a competitive Winnipeg squad.
"Nothing is given to us but we feel like we have a great capability to go out and earn the right to play in the playoffs and work our way toward the Grey Cup," Neufeld said. "It's been pretty cool to be a part of and build something where guys are willing to sacrifice to stick around.
"I think that speaks to your kind of everyday life."
And everyday life for Bombers players is putting in the work necessary on a daily basis and not merely punching a clock.
"For practice, we're mandated from basically 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. but there's a lot of guys who're in the building anywhere from 6 a.m. and leave after 5 p.m.," he said. "It all comes to: what do you want your life to look like as a football player?
"How much do you value that holistic approach to your mental health, your physical health, the assistance you get, the camaraderie and atmosphere?"
Another factor could be franchise's consistency at the top. Neufeld has been negotiating his own contracts since the '19 championship and says his experiences with Walters have been fair.
"I can't speak for anyone else but for me, it's been exactly that," Neufeld said. "It's been pretty seamless . . . and something that's definitely helped me in my understanding of this business, where teams put value on players and how teams evaluate you.
"That's been pretty cool."
Neufeld feels having former players like O'Shea, Walters, Miller and assistant GM/American scouting director Danny McManus in the front office has been beneficial for the Bombers.
"They're been able to say, 'I've been in that chair before, I know what you're going through,'" Neufeld said. "They understand that part of it . . . .they have a little more vision, I guess, about what the player is going through."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 22, 2023.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press