CFL Pass

Willes: This CFL market has to believe in the people doing the selling

With the smoke from this season’s dumpster fire still hanging over the B.C. Lions franchise, general manager Ed Hervey spoke at length Monday about an evaluation process that will take place almost immediately for the Leos.

Hervey’s own future as GM and the architect of the 5-13 team will be the first item on the agenda. Next up will be head coach DeVone Claybrooks, who will have to answer for that record. That will be followed by the rest of the Lions’ largely inexperienced coaching staff who seemed overmatched this season. And there will be a discussion about the player personnel department that left a lot of holes in the Lions’ roster.

You have to admit. That’s a lot of evaluating.

It’s also just the start.

There are the players to consider. With the vast majority of the team heading toward free agency, critical decisions will have to be made on who to re-sign and who to let go. Hervey also promised to shop aggressively in the free-agent market this off-season and is confident he can deliver a couple of big names.

Of course, while all this is going on, the Lions might be sold. Or David Braley might continue to own the team. Hard to say. But whoever’s in charge has to address the most pressing matter facing the Lions: How do you start winning back fans who’ve abandoned this team in droves since 2012?

So add it all up and you can say this about the Leos. They didn’t deliver a lot of excitement on the field this year. It looks like they’ll make up for it this off-season.

“Obviously when you go 5-13 there are going to be changes,” said Hervey. “You have to upgrade.”

Except the Lions have to upgrade virtually every facet of the operation, from ownership right down to the kick returner, and the future of the franchise depends on it.

“We’re having a long conversation about the season; the good, the bad and the ugly and how it gets fixed,” Hervey said. “Whether there’s a belief it can be fixed is entirely in the hands of those who make those decisions.

“I feel I have a compelling case to continue on as the general manager and build something.”

OK, let’s start there. Not everyone will share Hervey’s assessment of his case to stay on, but he owns a contract extension that TSN’s Farhan Lalji reports runs through 2021. Hervey also enjoys a close relationship with team president Rick LeLacheur, who was installed by Braley two years ago.

Those two figure to be back. Then again, so does Braley whose efforts to sell the Lions to a local concern have come up empty. The Hamilton-based industrialist has maintained there are several groups interested in buying the Lions, but he’s also been telling that story for a number of years now.

The plain fact is Braley likes owning the Lions and with his improved health won’t sell unless his price is met. As for a potential buyer, the group that is trying to install a CFL expansion franchise in Halifax has been connected to the Lions.

In these, as in all matters pertaining to the Leos, we invite you to stay tuned.

That brings us back to Claybrooks and the belief here is either the head coach will be fired or the bulk of his staff will be let go. The former Stampeders defensive coordinator was Hervey’s hand-picked successor to Wally Buono last off-season and the GM allowed Claybrooks to pick a largely young, unproven staff. Their inexperience also showed up in the early going, specifically in the protection of franchise quarterback Mike Reilly.

It took until Labour Day for the Lions to sort out the problem on the offensive line and while they rallied briefly, they were also 1-10 before they went on a four-game win streak. In the interests of full disclosure, those wins all came against East Division opponents, which means the Lions finished the year 0-10 against teams in their own division.

That is the most damning indictment of their season and the one that might cost Claybrooks his job. But no matter where they go from here — with ownership, with coaches, with players — there is one thing the Lions have to get right next season and it starts at the top.

In reviewing this dreadful campaign Hervey made an interesting pronouncement. He said the players who survived this season shared something that the Lions can build on; something that will form the foundation of a winning team.

“We feel we have something going into next year we didn’t have this year,” he said. “We have continuity.”

It should be noted Hervey went 4-14 in his first year as the Edmonton Eskimos’ GM in 2013, then came back two years later to win the Grey Cup with Reilly as his QB. He believes the same thing can happen with the Lions provided, of course, he’s left to run the show, but there are a couple of big differences.

Hervey was a franchise icon in Edmonton and the green-and-gold was encoded in his DNA. He had an identification with that franchise that gave him instant credibility. And it helped that he had LeLacheur, the former Esks’ president, in his corner.

But his name didn’t carry the same weight in this market. As such, he’s still finding his way as the leader and the face of this team, and he’s still trying to connect with this fan base.

Yes, that takes time. But Hervey could help himself immeasurably by being more present, more visible. The same goes for LeLacheur and everyone with the Lions in the post-Buono world.

The CFL, after all, is a tougher sell in Vancouver than it is in Edmonton. This market has to believe in the people doing the selling.