The CFL's lengthy layoff wasn't all bad for Matt Nichols.
The COVID-19 pandemic did cost the veteran quarterback a full season — and 18 game cheques. But it has also allowed Nichols to join the Ottawa Redblacks and reunite with head coach Paul LaPolice.
"There's no way to put a value on playing for someone you want to play for and who makes you a better player," Nichols said during a recent video conference. "I'm excited to play for coach LaPolice again.
"I think he gets the best out of me."
Nichols and LaPolice spent four seasons together (2016-19) in Winnipeg, where LaPolice was the club's offensive co-ordinator. The six-foot-two, 215-pound Nichols thrived in LaPolice's offence, registering career highs in passing yards (4,472) and TD passes (28) in 2017.
Nichols was enjoying a banner '19 campaign before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. He'd led the Bombers to a 6-2 record before being hurt in a 32-16 home win over B.C., having completed 171-of-240 passes (71.25 per cent) for 1,936 yards with 15 TDs and just five interceptions.
Nichols could only watch as veteran Zach Collaros, after being acquired from Toronto later that year, went 4-0 as the starter and led the Bombers past Hamilton 33-12 for their first Grey Cup title since 1990.
After losing LaPolice to Ottawa on Dec. 7, 2019, Winnipeg re-signed Collaros on Jan. 27, 2020 and released Nichols. Nichols wasn't unemployed long, signing a three-year deal with the Toronto Argonauts.
But Nichols never got to play for Toronto as the CFL cancelled the '20 season due to the global pandemic. The Argonauts released Nichols prior to owing him a $220,000 bonus.
Hours later, Nichols, 34, signed with the Redblacks, who subsequently released quarterback Nick Arbuckle. Arbuckle then signed with Toronto.
"The year off allowed me to be in this position and in Ottawa," Nichols said. "If we played last year that probably wasn't the case and so that aspect of it was huge for me.
"I feel like every year I put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself. As the quarterback you're responsible for a lot . . . I'm very comfortable in that leadership position. I plan on imparting my knowledge of what it takes to be a winning football team."
LaPolice and Nichols have plenty of work to do in Ottawa. The Redblacks were a CFL-worst 3-15 in 2019 and have lost the likes of receiver Brad Sinopoli and offensive lineman Alex Mateas — both Canadian starters — to retirement this off-season.
"I don’t know if I'd love Matt Nichols if he wasn't the hardest-working guy in the building,” said LaPolice. "I wouldn't love him if he wasn't great to his teammates, I wouldn't have a great relationship with him if he wasn’t a good husband and all those things.
"When you do all those things and then you're a very good quarterback and play well when your number's called, then that relationship gets created."
CFL training camps open Saturday, but teams won't have the benefit of pre-season games before the 14-game regular season kicks off Aug. 5. The Redblacks open in Edmonton on Aug. 7.
"Having someone who has started over 70 football games, not having pre-season games, there just is a bigger comfort level,” LaPolice said. "We want that to provide dividends."
For Nichols, that will mean teaching young players to practise with game intensity.
"At my position, practice feels like a game," he said. "But I do think for any young guys that step it up and earn starting jobs, they're going to just have to find a way to be professionals and treat practice like a game and come every day with the mindset that you'd have on game day.
"It takes everyone on the team buying into practice and going full speed and making sure when you hit that first game that the speed doesn't feel like it's a notch up."
Having had two years to heal, Nichols said he feels great physically and is raring to go. But he admits there will be some rust to brush off once camp begins.
"I think for many guys it's hard to replicate the hitting aspect of football," he said. "And for quarterbacks, I can throw to receivers and into nets and work out and do all of those things but there's no way to replicate throwing against a defence.
"I think there will probably be a little bit of a learning curve that first week or two but that's what camp is for. I think it's just everyone catching back up to the speed of the game."
LaPolice and Nichols will have to wait to face the Bombers. Winnipeg isn't on Ottawa's schedule this year but the two teams could meet in the playoffs in a crossover scenario or the Grey Cup game Dec. 12 in Hamilton.
Not that LaPolice is overly concerned, though.
"We've got bigger fish to fry," he said. "It's outside of our control and so we'll play our games, play who they give us to play and we'll go from there.
"It's kind of a weird scenario. We don't even know how it will look when we go to a city . . . and so it makes it even less of an issue."
Added Nichols: "It is what it is. We're going to play who's in front of us. Hopefully we do get to play them at some point this year."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 6, 2021.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press