Suddenly, an uphill climb for Lions

Ricky Foley thought he had the perfect analogy about his new/old team upon joining the B.C. Lions last week.

“There’s kind of a couple of teams at the top right now and a few other teams trying to figure out who wants to go chase them,” he told 3DownNation. “It’s like a cycling race, you know? Two teams kind of broke away from the pack. You can sense this team, with the way the offence is, has a chance to chase them.”

If that comparison from the new/old defensive end of the CFL team drew up visions of the Tour de France, consider the Lions to be somewhere behind at the bottom of the Swiss Alps and not even remotely close to the peloton.

If you only looked at the 41-8 drubbing Sunday at the hands of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, you might even think this team has found the ditch.

The sense at the start of the season, with most of the talk coming from the Lions, was that they were seeking to stay level with the Calgary Stampeders and Edmonton Eskimos. Wally Buono’s 12-6 record last year and 5-2 start validated the talk. In their own eyes, they were further ahead of a group of teams, like the Riders and Winnipeg Blue Bombers, and much better than anyone in the East Division.

That still might be the case. There was something disturbing, however, about the tepid manner in which they approached Sunday’s game. With a chance to bury Saskatchewan, the Lions came out so flat Buono called his team out for what he sensed was disinterest in the proceedings even before they exited the locker room, surely what will be the last time this team allows a TSN camera crew under their tent.

Add that to the fact Buono took ownership for the manner in which he failed to get his team ready before another divisional matchup in Edmonton two weeks ago and its fair to ask whether the Lions are occasionally a beaten team before kickoff.

Buono has always been low on pre-game rhetoric and high on self-motivation, preferring to suggest his players are responsible for manufacturing their own energy. When they don’t, what happened Sunday is the result. The directive by Buono caught on camera for captain Rolly Lumbala to speak to the team before the game because they weren’t listening will surely be viewed in some circles as if the players have tuned out the coach.

That the Lions looked as if they started play with a 30-0 lead, which was the score of their previous meeting with Saskatchewan with three minutes left, perhaps shouldn’t be much of a surprise, however.

Though Jon Jennings had a solid 10 days of practice getting ready for his return from a shoulder injury, the Lions starting quarterback wasn’t even close to capable of dealing with a real pass rush at game speed.

Jennings easily had the worst outing of his young career, as measured by a 23.6 quarterback rating, and as he has done before, wore the result.

“I’m not going to hold my head down from this. I’m going to learn from this. A lot of good players go through this. This is the first time this has happened to me. I’m gonna learn from this and get better,” Jennings said.

He’ll get his chance to get better too, because though Jennings deserved to get pulled the Lions aren’t about to make a pivot from the future of the franchise on the basis of one game.

Travis Lulay was solid during his three-game relief stint, but Buono later admitted he shouldn’t even have given his veteran a chance to play, acknowledging a rib issue which came from the shot he took from Willie Jefferson a week earlier is still causing problems.

As needs go, having two capable quarterbacks is well down the list, substantially behind finding an offensive line that doesn’t routinely succumb to three-man pressure like the group that played in Regina Sunday.

“It wasn’t just the protection,” Buono said. “The quarterback has got to get rid of the football. At times they got to stay in the pocket. It’s a combination of things.

“The things that are concerning is that we knew we were coming into a hostile place. This level of intensity had to be matched. They matched the intensity in practice. They didn’t in the game…

“We’re not going to give up on the quarterbacks just because they have a bad outing. Who knows the psychology (surrounding Jennings’ return). The injury, not playing, a hostile environment. What you counted on you don’t count on anymore. It just builds up.”

And in less than two weeks, the Lions are suddenly staring up at a bigger portion of the Swiss Alps otherwise known as the West Division standings.

Lowell Ullrich has covered the Lions since 1999 and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2014. He is also a contributor to TSN1040.