CFL Pass

From grief to belief, Lions plan to avoid toe tag in tilt with Ticats

Here’s a summation of their situation as the B.C. Lions prepare for a two-game road swing and their last hope at redemption in 2019:

The Lions are 1-6. On Saturday they meet the East Division-leading Tiger-Cats in Hamilton, then travel to Winnipeg where they face the 5-2 Blue Bombers the following Thursday. Two losses there and you can put a toe tag on this Lions’ season.

Before you ask, a split doesn’t do them much good either. For them to entertain any hope of salvaging this CFL campaign, the Lions need two wins against clearly superior opponents.

But the standings, as depressing as they are, tell only a portion of the Leos’ story.

Given the events of this off-season — the free-agent signings of Mike Reilly, Sukh Chungh and Duron Carter, the promise of an exciting, aggressive brand of football, a new and dynamic coaching staff — the credibility of the Ed Hervey-DeVone Claybrooks administration is the larger issue in play.

Hervey, the second-year GM, appears to have made some colossal misjudgments in B.C.’s personnel department. Claybrooks, Hervey’s hand-picked successor to Wally Buono as the Lions head coach, has been ineffectual in his first year on the job. The Lions are 1-6 and in football you are what your record says you are.

Now that’s bad enough. But this is also taking place in a market where the Lions have a tenuous hold on their fan base. Since winning the Grey Cup in 2011, attendance has declined in virtually every season. And after three home games in 2019, the Leos are averaging 18,678 fans per game.

The good news is six of their last nine games are at B.C. Place Stadium. The unfortunate news is a 1-8 record isn’t exactly the best marketing tool for this franchise.

So given everything they confront — questions about Hervey, questions about Claybrooks, questions about the offence and protecting Reilly and don’t get us started about the defence — how do they change their story? How do they provide hope? How do they make things better?

Sorry, I’m just the writer here. For answers we direct you elsewhere.

“I knew what was at stake when I took this job,” Claybrooks said Thursday. “You understand when you sign a star free agent (Reilly) it comes with expectations but I’ve never seen anyone accomplish anything by setting low expectations.

“You have to have high standards and we understand we haven’t lived up to the standards we’ve set. I’ve been put in this situation to lead this team. I can’t expect my guys to have resilience and not waver if I’m wavering.

“I have to believe because they have to look at me and see that belief and trust in that belief. We’ve got to believe.”

But first they need a reason to believe and that has to start Saturday in Hamilton.

The football gods have granted the Lions one small mercy in their meeting with the Tabbies. Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli is out with a torn ACL and has been replaced by Dane Evans, who’s played in six games over the last two seasons.

The Ticats, however, still have an assortment of weapons, including the mercurial Brandon Banks who returns after missing last week’s game against Saskatchewan. Banks was leading the CFL in receiving before he sat out against the Roughriders. As it is the Ticats lead the CFL in scoring and are third in scoring defence.

Did we mention they crushed the Lions like a grape in last year’s crossover playoff game?

The Lions, meanwhile, are hanging their hopes on a reconstituted offensive line, the emergence of return man Ryan Lankford and the idea that things can’t possibly get any worse.

With two returns for touchdowns, Lankford was the lone bright spot in the loss to Saskatchewan two weeks ago but the larger issue is the offensive line.

With the signings of Reilly, Chungh and Carter, the Lions were built to outscore their problems while the defence found itself. The performance of the O-line, however changed that. The Lions have surrendered the most sacks in the CFL. But their inability to protect Reilly has also rocked the team’s collective confidence.

At Thursday’s practice, one member of the Lions’ staff talked about the team’s lack of mental toughness, how they’ve consistently folded this season when placed under pressure.

Against Hamilton, they’ll start three imports in the latest iteration of the offensive line. This time it has to work because there’s no Plan F.

“We’re surprised to be 1-6 but we knew it was a process,” Claybrooks said. “When we looked at the roster, we knew we had holes. You can’t just make wholesale changes. You have to do it methodically.

“We knew we needed a returner (Lankford). We knew we needed a free safety (Branden Dozier).A field corner (Crezdon Butler), the offensive line. Every time we’ve needed to do something, we’ve been able to make a move. That’s what makes you think you can do the things you want to do.”

Claybrooks was asked about the fragility of his team and the danger of its start infecting the rest of the season. As it turns out he’s aware the Lions are 1-6. The trick is preparing like they’re 6-1.

“We have to bring the energy,” he said, before adding. “You have to focus on executing the next play and let that snowball into a quarter, a half, then a game.

“We’ve had more ebbs and flows in the last seven weeks then most teams have in a year. I think that’s galvanized us to deal with our situation.”

And maybe that wasn’t the original plan but, at this point, anything will do.



B.C. Lions vs. Hamilton Tiger-Cats

4 p.m., Tim Hortons Field, TV: TSN; Radio: TSN 1040 AM

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