Will B.C. Lions' bold moves pay off in 2019 CFL season?
Since their 2011 Grey Cup victory, a staleness has enveloped the B.C. Lions that has been reflected in their attendance figures.
There are any number of reasons for their fall from grace. They’ve lacked both star power and an identity. Their offence has been flat and unimaginative. Their defence was usually decent but it wasn’t good enough to compensate for their shortcomings elsewhere in the lineup.
Add it all up and the Lions have recorded one playoff victory over the last seven years — the West semifinal in 2016 — while squandering whatever goodwill they’d built with their fan base during the aughts and the height of the Wally Buono era.
But that all changes this year. In no particular order, the Lions backed up the Brinks’ truck to sign star quarterback Mike Reilly, hired charismatic head coach DeVone Claybrooks, remade the offensive line with Vancouver kid Sukh Chungh as one of the centrepieces and signed mercurial wide receiver Duron Carter.
As for the defence, we’ll get there in a minute.
The 2019 season, then, is crucially important to this franchise for any number of reasons but, mostly, it sets up as a plebiscite on the Lions’ place in the market. The team has made a series of audacious moves that promises an exciting on-field product. They have as good a chance as any team to emerge from a Western Division in a state of flux. They’ve made a clean break from their past and marked a course to the future.
But here’s the biggest question facing the Lions: Will anybody care beyond their most loyal followers?
THE MAIN MAN
Don’t have to spend a lot of time on this one. Reilly is the point around whom the entire franchise will revolve this season. For this to work, the Lions require an MOP-calibre season from their quarterback and an offence that can outscore its defensive weaknesses.
Reilly is a unique figure, a great player but also a leader who changes the team’s internal dynamics and culture. This off-season he signed a massive four-year, $2.9-million contract. All things considered, he might be underpaid.
THE SUPPORTING CAST
In 2018, Ed Hervey’s first season as GM, the Lions brought in 13 new starters.
Turns out that was just a warmup act. This season the Lions will have — wait for it — 16 new starters plus a new kicker plus, it goes without saying, a new long snapper.
But the changes also go deeper than a horde of new faces. As they’re currently configured, the Lions will start 11 Canadians, four over the league-mandated minimum.
The offence will have eight Canadian starters — four on the offensive line; receivers Shaq Johnson, Lemar Durant and intriguing rookie Jevon Cottoy as well as fullback David Mackie. Wayne Moore, another Canadian, will back up at running back.
The defence will feature returnee Anthony Thompson at safety, cornerback Dominique Termansen and Jordan Herdman-Reed will factor into the linebacking corps
“As far as we’re concerned, our plan is to always maximize the Canadian talent,” said Hervey. “Everyone’s always asking how can I get to seven (the minimum amount of Canadian starters)? Well what’s wrong with eight or nine or 10? If we can go plus-one or plus-two (on the ratio) it makes us so much better.”
Beyond the questions of quantity, the Canadian starters offer quality. On the offensive line, veteran guard Hunter Steward moves to centre between guards Chungh and David Foucault, who earned a starting job at training camp, The long-awaited Brett Boyko starts at right tackle, giving the Lions a line that averages 6-5 and 310 pounds.
Termansen beat out a couple of imports to win the field corner job. Cottoy, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound athletic freak, was the surprise of training camp.
“We’ve always said the best guys are going to play,” said Claybrooks. “They just happened to be Canadian and in this league you win by having great Canadian depth,”
They won’t always line up with their full complement of Canadian starters but the point is they can and that gives the Lions an enviable degree of flexibility with the lineup.
YES, BUT …
Back in the day, when he had Doug Flutie directing the explosive Calgary Stampeders’ offence, Buono used to tell his defensive coaches, “You have to hold them to 35 because Doug can get us 38.”
Don’t know if it will be that bad with the Lions’ this season, but it could be close.
The Leos will have eight new starters on a defence that was decidedly mediocre last season. The good news? Halfbacks T.J. Lee and Aaron Grymes, late of the Eskimos, are all-star calibre and defensive tackles Davon Coleman and Claudell Louis are rock solid.
The larger question with the Lions’ defence is can they generate a pass rush? Odell Willis has been a great CFLer but he’s 34 and no longer dominates. Rookie Mat Boesen holds down the other defensive end spot and the Lions need a big season out of the former TCU star.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers vs. B.C. Lions
7 p.m., B.C. Place Stadium, TV: TSN, Radio: Team 1040 AM
Claybrooks made his coaching bones as the Stampeders’ defensive co-ordinator under John Hufnagel and this year the Lions brought in veteran CFL assistant Rich Stubler as the DC. Stubler’s calling card is a bend but don’t break defence that, theoretically, should complement Reilly and the offence.
The fear, however, is the Lions’ D will do more breaking than bending this season.
Claybrooks, for the moment at least, has turned the kicking chores over to Sergio Castillo. Last year, in what might have been the ultimate commentary on the team, kicker Ty Long was the Lions’ nominee for MOP. They don’t require that calibre of season out of Castillo. They do require some consistency out of the veteran.
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