BC Lions crank up excitement level with QB Mike Reilly at the controls
KAMLOOPS — In his five seasons with the B.C. Lions, Bryan Burnham has recorded three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons while averaging over 15 yards a catch.
The receiver’s best season came two years ago when he caught 79 balls for 1,392 yards. Last year, he was tied for third in the CFL with nine touchdown catches while being named to the all-CFL team for the second straight season.
By any measure Burnham has enjoyed a standout career, but when he looks over the rocky terrain of his time here there’s only stat that matters. Over his five years, the Leos have won one playoff game.
That’s why Burnham, and everyone else at Training Camp 2019, looks at the new quarterback and, for the first time in almost a decade, allows himself to believe this can be the year of the Lion.
“It’s exciting, man,” Burnham says. “It’s been a lot of fun so far. I hate to use that word potential, but there’s a chance this could be something great.”
And that’s hardly a minority opinion. Poll any player, coach or staffer and the same response comes back. Mike Reilly has changed everything for this franchise — changed the culture, changed the standards, changed the expectations.
He’s also changed the offence and we’ll get to that in a minute. But for the first time in forever, there is an unbridled sense of optimism around these Lions and it’s because their best player is also their leader and hardest worker.
And he’s now six days into his Lions’ career. Just think how it’s going to look and feel in October.
“It’s a gi-normous advantage,” says Lions offensive coordinator Jarious Jackson, who’s in his third go-round with Reilly as a teammate and coach. “It’s like having a Tom Brady or a Drew Brees or any elite guy who puts in the work. That’s who he is.”
“First and foremost this dude is a competitor like no one else,” says defensive back Aaron Grymes, Reilly’s teammate in Edmonton. “He doesn’t care about his contract. He doesn’t care about his status in the league. He just comes out here and works. He wants to be legendary.”
As for the legend himself he feels it, too.
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“I think it’s been awesome,” Reilly says. “There are camps where things start off slow. This hasn’t been that camp. I feel like we’ve come out firing since the first morning.
“Guys understand these kind of opportunities don’t come around every day, where you’re put in a place where you can accomplish some great things. We have a long way to go but guys are excited.”
And it’s been a while since the Lions could say that.
In the time before Reilly, there was hope to be sure. There was hope Travis Lulay could stay healthy. There was hope Jonathon Jennings would emerge as a franchise quarterback. There was hope Jeff Tedford could turn around the team. There was hope Wally Buono would rekindle the magic.
Sadly, that hope turned into despair when Lulay was injured, when Jennings plateaued, when Tedford failed, when Buono couldn’t save a wretched situation.
But this time around, it’s different and it’s different because of Reilly. It helps, as Burnham says, “There isn’t a spot on the field that’s out of Mike’s range.” But it goes deeper than that.
The Lions, in fact, have become a cult of Reilly and if that sounds over the top, just listen.
“He’s a great leader, you know,” says offensive tackle Joel Figueroa, another former teammate in Edmonton. “It’s not about him. It’s about everyone coming together for the good of the team and that’s what he brings to us.”
“In the grand scheme of things, you have to have the quarterback that other players want to play for,” says GM Ed Hervey. “You watch Mike and guys want to play for him. They want to work hard for him. You talk to guys on the defensive side of the ball and they want to play with him because he gives them a chance to have success.”
Reilly doesn’t hide from his responsibility nor does he downplay it. He embraces it, talks openly about it. Another player, especially one who’s making more than his entire receiving corps combined, wouldn’t be able to get away with it but Reilly inspires a sense of confidence and loyalty because, to borrow from Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young, he’s as real as the day is long.
“The biggest thing is being authentic,” he says. “When you’re fake, people see right through the crap. Everybody knows that’s not really you. I’m going to be myself because that’s the only way guys will believe it and want to follow it.”
And they believe in Reilly, not because he’s a swell guy who can wear a hat, but because he backs up everything he talks about. You just have to watch him at this camp, spraying balls all over the field, forming a chemistry with Burnham and Duron Carter, making players like Lemar Durant and Shaq Johnson look dangerous.
Jackson, Reilly’s former teammate with the Lions and his position coach in Edmonton, says the Leos are basically running the same offence they ran under Lulay and Jennings. The difference is the guy at the control panel.
“He’s executing the same offence,” Jackson says. “He just knows how to read defences and he knows where to go with the ball.”
Jackson is asked how much he coaches Reilly.
“You coach him the same as everyone else,” he answers. “But he probably knows what you’re going to say before you say it.”
And so it begins. The Lions gambled their future on Reilly, gambled that he could take all the pieces Hervey accumulated this off-season and mould them into a championship-calibre team in the matter of a month.
When he signed back in February, that seemed like an outrageous proposition.
Suddenly, it doesn’t seem as outrageous.
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