Ullrich: Chris Rainey adds a little sunshine in Lions beatdown of Bombers

WINNIPEG — It all makes sense now. The reason behind nearly two months of misery for the B.C. Lions? Mistaken identity.

The hopelessness of their playoff plight, not to mention the fact ghosts and goblins will invade the streets in a few days, has had Chris Rainey in a playful mood. That’s saying something, considering Rainey will take his job seriously but is not beyond pushing the boundaries from time to time.

At various points last week during meetings, Rainey showed up wearing different Hallowe’en masks, and when it came time another game against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers Saturday, the gifted flash showed up for warmups alongside fellow Floridian Loucheiz Purifoy in disguise.

Obviously, offensive coordinator Khari Jones mistook Rainey all these months for Count Dracula. When Rainey got his first real chance in two seasons to be the primary backfield focus, he was downright scary.

With Jeremiah Johnson at home, Rainey romped for 195 yards from scrimmage, part of a 305-yard performance overall. In a game in which the Lions were reintroduced to the promise of quarterback Jon Jennings, they put an end to their worst road losing streak in 11 seasons. They played a team who had lost Andrew Harris for the second straight meeting and were down to their third-string quarterback, but the Lions nonetheless were deserving 36-27 winners over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Rainey has been an enigma for the Lions ever since they scooped him off the free agent scrapheap over two years ago. Coach/GM Wally Buono has been well aware of Rainey’s potential but the Lions for the most part have been unwilling to make a wisp of a runner at 5’8” and 180 pounds their feature back. Too fragile, they contend. Lose Rainey and there’s no replacement like him.

Though Buono would never outwardly admit as much, stating Rainey got a chance to be the feature tailback because the Lions wanted to look at rookie Tyler Davis as a returner, it appeared to be reaching a point where the club had to find out if they could ever turn the offensive keys to him for more than a few plays.

Too often in the past opponents knew that when Rainey was in the game, he’d likely get the ball. Making things worse was the fact Rainey was often in the ear of Jones and Buono wanting the ball despite not always aware of where he needed to be on the field. Few guys his size are known for their blocking skills.

As such, Buono said Johnson will likely play in the final game against the Toronto Argonauts Saturday in a bid for his first 1,000-yard rushing season, but Rainey’s contribution to the offence has to give the Lions pause for off-season thought.

The key, said Buono, is not only how to use Rainey but to manage him as well, as the coach did last week when he told Rainey to knock off the scare tactics in meetings.

“We’ve had him for two years and he’s never been an issue. He can be a distraction if you focus on him. He’s not malicious. You just tell him to shut up,” said Buono.

Did Rainey show the Lions something?

“He showed me what we thought— you run the ball, then he’s going to pop one,” the coach said.

Some people have seen Rainey running and popping ever since he was a one-man wrecking crew in high school in Lakeland, Fla., which preceded Rainey’s starry stay at the University of Florida.

“Been pitching for him for a long time,” said Purifoy, who was a Florida teammate in 2011 of Rainey. “Like, you want him on your team. You look up to people like that. No matter how he is, he’s going to give you his all. He’s a real back.

“You can say what you want. He’s small. You just got to give him a chance and now hopefully the (coaches) can finally see that. Maybe (not being assignment pure) was on him. He’s got to get in the film room and study but at the same time that’s an inspirational talent.”

Almost every interview with Rainey since he joined the Lions carries some form of question about his usage. There was no need after he sliced up Winnipeg with 105 yards from 15 carries on the ground, which sparked an additional 89 yards through the air.

“People don’t think I can last long in a game,” said Rainey. “I’ve been dying to be a starter forever but I’m too small for everything so I have to prove everybody wrong. I got my opportunity so I took full advantage. All my life I’ve been proving people wrong and I got to keep doing it.”

Either that or the Lions thought they had somebody else behind Jennings.

“He’s a special cat,” Jennings said. Scary too.

A few other observations:

Back? He never left: if Rainey poses a nice quandary for the Lions next season, the four-touchdown, 408-yard season-high passing performance of the Lions quarterback might suggest he’s back.

Jennings would suggest he never left, just the victim of a bad break or two.

“I’ve been comfortable. I’ve been fine. I know what I can do. When you get in a slump you think about things but it’s not like the end of the world. You’ve got to have trust in the process,” Jennings said.

Jennings could still use more time from an offensive line which had three new starters, but his offensive output Saturday allowed him finally to at least even his touchdown-to-interception ratio on the season at 16 apiece.

Bad rap: It doesn’t often take long to establish a reputation, and when Harris was knocked loopy in the second half from a huge hit by second-year linebacker Dyshawn Davis the Lions drew considerable heat from Winnipeg fans behind their bench.

It wasn’t that long ago when fellow linebacker Micah Awe took out Calgary’s Jerome Messam which earned him supplemental attention in the form of a fine. To some, the Lions may have earned the reputation of being nasty hitters. If so, Solomon Elimimian had a rebuttal.

“That hit was not a dirty hit,” said Elimimian. “You got to understand the consequences of playing football. Obviously our hearts go out to Andrew. We hope he’s OK. You have to respect Andrew and how he plays. But that’s football.”

Elimimian had five tackles, meaning he’ll need 11 against Toronto to break his own league record. But for the second straight visit he led a defence which didn’t surrender a touchdown to Winnipeg, even if the Bombers went from Matt Nichols to Dominique Davis to Dan LeFevour behind centre. B.C. also two picks from TJ Lee to end a five-game turnover drought.

Looking ahead: It’s not much of a silver lining, but the early end to the season will provide the Lions a slightly faster chance to determine which of the 24 players eligible to become free agents will be re-signed.

The biggest decision will involve injured quarterback Travis Lulay of course, along with receivers Emmanuel Arceneaux, who also went over the 1,000-yard receiving mark Saturday, and Nick Moore. If the Lions wanted to clean house on the offensive line, and Buono this week acknowledged the team needs more Rob Murphy/Sherko Haji-Rasouli aggression in the lineup, all five starters are also playing out their contracts.

On defence, Purifoy would be near the top of the list but is expected to seek NFL opportunities. Chandler Fenner, who has previously sought NFL work, will be the toughest to sign on the strength of his work at nickleback and on special teams, which has him within range of a 100-tackle season. Three of the four import starters in the defensive secondary could be on the market when the signing lottery commences Feb. 13.

Fenner, part two: Fenner went into the Winnipeg game off the best performance by a special teams player in 12 years in the league with six tackles against Edmonton, and is stringing together a year which again underscores the lottery aspect of player recruitment. It is not lost on the 27-year-old Fenner that he was released by the Lions last season when they thought they had their secondary needs covered, only to find a home at nickel back this year.

“In one sense you can say that you never know, but in another you can say that you always have that confidence in yourself and get ready. If I wasn’t prepared the story would be a lot different than what it is right now. You just really have to have the relentlessness to keep going to matter what happens to you,” said Fenner, whose six tackles against Edmonton was the best performance by a Lions special teamer since Mike Maurer had a half dozen takedowns in a 2001 game.

It could be argued that improved numbers from Fenner have come as a expense of decreased numbers from Purifoy, but if you’re looking to identify defensive starters who need to be brought back, you could start here.

Still caring: The regularly-scheduled beatdowns of the Lions the last two months have developed into a case study on the human spirit, best exemplified by receiver Bryan Burnham. Few players take losses as badly as the receiver who finally got over the 1,000-yard mark Saturday.

Teammates shoo reporters away from Burnham in the locker room after games, aware he likely could say something he might later regret, but the receiver gathers himself regularly and by the following week again presents an optimistic picture once again.

“After the game it’s like, what else can I personally do? I’ve given so much,” said Burnham, whose season actually began with a protracted tour of NFL job opportunities. “There’s so much disappointment and there’s so much anger after games.

After the (Edmonton) loss, I have no more tears, no more anger to show. But it goes away. Day one on the practice field you’re ready to go again, because at this point it’s about pride and playing for the name on the back of your jersey as well as the name on the front.”

Veteran players on the Lions have suggested less experienced teammates have strayed from the script when defining reasons for the season-long train wreck. They’d do well duplicating Burnham’s act.

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.