Best CFL receiver? Let the debate begin

The talent evaluation side comes out when the greatest receiver in CFL history talks about Nik Lewis but as a general manager in waiting it’s also quite clear Geroy Simon is also still capable of leaning on his sense of political correctness.

The director of Canadian scouting for the B.C. Lions was asked this week for his take on the 35-year-old Lewis, who is still performing a functional role for the Montreal Alouettes, who drop by for their annual torture test Friday at B.C. Place Stadium. Each team is trying to end a three-game losing streak.

Simon no longer holds two of the league’s most significant career receiving records, having been surpassed last week by Lewis in career pass receptions. B.C.’s legend still has a substantial advantage when it comes to career receiving yardage but the milestone achieved by Lewis at least fuels a debate about their relative order of standing in league history.

With 1,036 catches, Lewis achieved his mark in 15 fewer games, and has one more 1,000-yard receiving seasons (10) than Simon, with an outside chance for another this year as he rolls along with the 3-7 Als.

Greatest receiver? You’ll have to start that argument somewhere else.

“You can’t even compare because we’re two totally different players,” said Simon, who receives his formal induction into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame next weekend and was announced Thursday as an inductee into the B.C. Football Hall of Fame. “Call a spade a spade, in the grand scheme of things Nik has been a very good receiver for a long time.

“Quarterbacks trust him on second down. He had big plays first 11 years of his career; the last few years he’s basically become a tight end/fullback that gets the ball checked down him when things breaks down. He’s not going to be a big play guy. There’s times nobody covers him; it’s not a knock on him. Why not throw it to him because he’s got some of the best hands ever to play in this league. Quarterbacks know he’s gonna catch the ball and he’s going to fall forward for a first down.”

It’s a respectful assessment from a former player, but also one rooted in honesty by someone making a living making talent evaluations these days.

It’s not a big debate, however, because another truism is that the 5-5 Lions have more important things to figure out than creating talk-show fodder, just as it might be fair to assume the first game in Vancouver as head coach for Jacques Chapdelaine isn’t generating headlines with the Als either. Same for the 10 Montreal players on various Alouettes rosters with ties to the Lions.

Simon’s focus these days is helping out a group of Lions receivers who seem to have misplaced their collective ability to separate and become better targets during their three-game losing streak, something Lewis does in his own way. It’s one of the big reasons why Travis Lulay will run the Lions offence in the foreseeable future instead of Jon Jennings.

Emmanuel Arceneaux, the Lions’ biggest target, seemed to suggest there might have been some validity to the area of the team that means to most to Simon.

“Last three or four weeks, we’ve had some fence-straddlers,” Arceneaux said this week. “It’s time to be all-in. It’s holding every man accountable. It’s about action speaking louder than words. Coach can always say ‘are you all-in?’ It’s easy to say yes but when you get out there we’re not putting together four quarters of football.”

Accountability has always been big with coach/GM Wally Buono, who began the week looking to bench two defensive starters in addition to Jennings until Mich’ael Brooks was shut down Wednesday and fellow tackle Bryant Turner was given a reprieve.

“We can’t keep talking about accountability but do nothing when production isn’t there,” said Buono, who will give increased playing time to rookies Junior Luke, Kenneth Boatright and Micah Awe, along with veteran Ricky Foley.

That same kind of talk generally resonates with Simon, though he’s getting good at the fine art of political persuasion too. A subtle difference showing up in the Lions offence at practice has been to put second-year receiver Shaq Johnson closer to the quarterback, a move which comes in part thanks to a little Simon lobbying.

“He has potential to play like an American. He has the skill set of an American receiver who played in the NCAA,” Simon said of Johnson, a fourth-round pick last year who got Simon’s attention initially running 4.39 seconds at the CFL combine.

“That being said, it’s not just time to be on the field but to take the next step and have an impact on the game.”

Strong words about a sophomore. When the player who has the most pass receptions in league history is the topic, you tread more lightly, which may be the first time anyone has associated finesse with the 240-pound fireball who’ll be in position to snare passes from Darian Durant Friday.

“I definitely respect his game and success,” Simon said of Lewis. “No matter what anybody says the guy has shown longevity and has had an impact on the game to this day, eight yards at a time.”

Lewis said he could do more if asked to provide in a different manner.

“What I do and what I’m allowed to do is what it is. I’m going to take my role and be the best I can be. Geroy wasn’t even a fast guy; he was effective at how he got open. I used to watch Geroy and Milt Stegall all the time. I would never sit down on the sidelines; how they were patient with their routes.”

“Nik’s a different guy than Geroy,” said Chapdelaine. “What’s similar about them is they’re both very very good at understanding the game around them.” They each also now own one of the game’s most prestigious receiver records.

LIONS TALES: The current predicament of the Lions in the West Division, in last place during the month of September for the first time in the Buono era, is not lost on the team’s veteran players…. “Whether we want to believe it or not there is a sense of urgency, particularly coming off three straight losses,” quarterback Travis Lulay said. “Pressure’s a good thing,” suggested wideout Marco Iannuzzi. “Whatever we were doing the last three weeks wasn’t working so how about lighting some fire under us? It’s not a negative pressure. It’s a good pressure.” Buono knows it too. “As they say in golf, we’re out of mulligans,” he said.

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.