After third straight loss, the Lions are a team in crisis

OTTAWA — One minute after the outside world had been let into the locker room, nobody moved.

Three minutes later, same thing. Five minutes had passed and it seemed apparent players on the B.C. Lions had been glued into the back of their locker stalls. Most stared at the floor. One player put a towel over top of his head and left it there.

On the offensive side of the Lions locker room, there were no answers, but there also seemed no doubt. After a 31-24 loss to the Ottawa Redblacks that clearly flattered the visitors, the Lions seemed to understand they are not the team that started the CFL season.

The only words that mattered did not come from Travis Lulay, who gamely tried to capture the despair that has come over the Lions over their last three losses. The only words that mattered came from coach/GM Wally Buono, who had to admit the obvious when it comes to the biggest issue facing a team that has a few of them.

“The good answer is I’ll take the week to mull it over,” Buono said, after losing his third straight for the first time since his coaching comeback, when the post-game discussion quickly centered around the team’s quarterback.

But even Buono had to face facts when it comes to the play of Jon Jennings.

“…But you got to look and what happened. We can’t afford any more mulligans. … At this point I believe Travis has done enough to be our starter.”

There aren’t any metrics left now where it can be stated that Jennings, having thrown only four touchdown passes against nine interceptions, can remain with the starters, and there was little resolve evident about the decision from the 25-year-old quarterback either.

In the relative blink of an eye in a football sense, Jennings has gone from prospect to suspect, from a quarterback who would have looked forward to exploring his NFL options after the season to one who can only hope for another chance at some point.

Lulay, unaware that Buono had come to the obvious conclusion about his starter outside the locker room, as always was left to act as the social conscience of the Lions when explanations were being sought.

“Our guys are disappointed. That means we care,” Lulay said. “If guys were OK with losing three in a row and our effort today then I’d be more concerned. Obviously there’s a great sense of urgency. There’s still hope. If there’s no hope and care in the locker room then I’m scared. I believe we’ll regroup.”

But if there were no immediate answers inside the locker room, some things are more clear looking from the outside, as the Lions grasp tenuously to a crossover playoff position.

Without a reversal in form, the final year of the Lions likely under Buono could end as an era ended with the Calgary Stampeders, out of answers and of the playoffs for the first time under the ownership of David Braley.

They play well at times on defence, but give up far too much field position on special teams and seem rudderless on offence.

A few other points worth noting:

Calling out the play-calling: There’s no direct finger-pointing, but it seems abundantly clear that some players are frustrated with the play-calling of offensive coordinator Khari Jones lately.

Of course, it’s not easy to design a productive offence when once again the offensive line protection for Lulay or Jennings is less than ideal.

Chris Rainey, who may not get check-marks for his assignments on every offensive play but is by far the Lions most versatile weapon, had three offensive touches. Rainey and Chris Williams, who was supposed to be the deep threat option that would make the offence the class of the division, had fewer targets combined Saturday than Marco Iannuzzi, who was targeted seven times but only caught three thrown his way.

Jeremiah Johnson, who started the season producing more points than any on his team, apparently has been placed in a witness protection program. Johnson bit his tongue hard when he had five carries against Calgary, thinking he would be utilized more. He was nearly bleeding with only seven carries against Ottawa.

Rainey was incredulous, and he wasn’t alone among members of the offence, when the Lions couldn’t convert on a second-and-short play to start the third quarter, which was only the second time in the game to that point when the Lions remotely threatened to produce points. To him, it conjured up perhaps the most memorable goal-line play in the Pacific Northwest in his lifetime.

“It felt like the damn Seahawks in the damn Super Bowl,” said Rainey, hardly a ringing endorsement of the play-calling of Jones at that point.

And the solution?

“Ain’t no sugar-coating or beating around the bush. Give your playmakers, who make plays in practice day in, day out, the ball in the games. It’s that simple,” he said.

“We should (stretch the field) but that’s up to the coaches. We got a bye week. They got a whole week to think about it just like all the players got a whole week to look in the mirror. This is ridiculous right now. I can’t take no more of this; no more.”

It was only slightly more rosy on the defensive side of the locker room, where issues have also been identified.

“We’re lacking communication on the field. Off the field we’re good,” said Loucheiz Purifoy, one of the few players who showed fight up to and after the final gun, when he had to be pulled away from some Ottawa players after it was over.

The stress fractures were starting to show.

Fork in the road: Lulay didn’t argue much when it was suggested that the Lions might be at a crossroads. Others were left to ponder whether the 5-5 Lions are a 5-2 team that has simply lost three straight, or one that has lost its way.

“Hell of a question, man,” said Johnson. “Personally I feel we’re that 5-2 team that’s dropped three in a row. When I look at film it’s never effort.” That shifts the focus to coaching once more.

If they’re lucky, the Lions will take the bye week to realize they’re not good enough and somehow hope that 2015 draft pick Brett Boyko finally becomes disinterested in chasing an NFL practice roster spot and joins the Lions.

Buono inferred even before Saturday’s game that changes are coming but also admitted that after three straight games where it takes at least a half before looking even close to dangerous offensively, they won’t be enough without a change of approach from within.

“Every week seems like that,” responded Lulay, when asked if his team is at a crossroads. “This is the time when the entire team and staff (should) do a self-scout on yourself. Look at your own play and what do you want to improve the next eight weeks. This is kind of a moment where the team steps back.”

If the Lions step back just a little bit further, they will be watching post-season for the first time in more than two decades. Small wonder they looked glued inside their locker stalls.

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.