The planned success formula for the B.C. Lions this year is a case of addition by subtraction.
B.C. begins its attempt to return to CFL playoffs with a date against the Montreal Alouettes in the regular season opener for both clubs Saturday. It’s the first meaningful opportunity to assess the rebuilding effort of new Lions general manager Ed Hervey, which includes a controversial cost-cutting plan.
Hervey has brought in 33 new faces after the Lions missed the playoffs last season, ending a 20-year run. The majority of B.C.’s holdovers, meantime, were all asked by Hervey during the off-season to take pay cuts, as first reported by Postmedia.
Contract restructuring is hardly new in the CFL. A general manager asking for money mere weeks onto the job is novel and could have been a recipe for discord at training camp in Hervey’s first season in charge of the Lions.
However several players say the request had an opposite effect. If the Lions defy the odds and pull off their seventh Grey Cup win in franchise history this year, veteran players say they will look at their decision as an investment in their own success.
Solomon Elimimian wasn’t in line for a reduction after setting a league record with 144 defensive tackles last year. The B.C. linebacker, also a vice-president of the CFL Players Association, was initially skeptical about the cut request and met for several days during the off-season with Hervey.
“I needed to know what we were going to do with the money. A year ago I probably wouldn’t have done it, but losing teaches you some bitter lessons. The way we lost I kind of understood things had to be done,” Elimimian said.
“It’s one thing when a team wants a pay cut but it’s another when they explain what they want to do with the money. It’s a choice. Ed laid out his vision. Ed said ‘I respect you too much to force you to do anything’.”
Elimimian’s move had a snowball effect. Quarterback Jon Jennings, who led the CFL throwing 19 interceptions, took a restructured deal. So did Bryan Burnham, whose receiving yardage went down in 2017 but had more catches in fewer games.
“(The request) caught me off-guard at first but the more I thought about it I’ve always prided myself on being an unselfish player,” said Burnham.
“You got guys like Solly taking a pay cut; who would I be to say no? What Ed’s trying to create here is something bigger than me. Right now I think it’s worth it. I think were going to have a pretty good football team.”
Hervey naturally thinks the same way, pointing to the depth on the Lions injured list which is at the disposal of coach Wally Buono heading into his final season.
“I (presented) the fact we’re going to put veterans on our team that are versatile will help expand the number of players we could keep. I could get $100,000 from one guy by removing him from the team or I could get $100,000 from 10 players,” said Hervey.
“The reality is that without everyone taking a big hit to the pocketbook it allows them to invest a little bit in the team’s future and the season. With Wally returning I wanted to put ourselves in position to where we had an experienced team that could compete. If we were going to blow everything up, Wally doesn’t need to have that in his final year.”
What Buono and the Lions need is a return to the form displayed as a starter in 2016 by Jennings, who threw for 1,587 fewer yards in two fewer games in 2017 and lost his starting job to Travis Lulay after a shoulder injury.
“It was a frustrating year. It was an interesting year. A lot of circumstantial stuff happened. “ the 25-year-old Jennings said. “I’m not young anymore. I can’t make excuses. I have to be smarter.”
Jennings, whose restructured contract will make him a free agent after the season, admits it’s a make-or break year.
“That’s the nature of the business. You’re going to have to make plays and win. It’s always make-or-break,” he said.
Helping the quarterback attempt to get more production is first-year offensive coordinator Jarious Jackson. Left tackle Joel Figueroa, part of the biggest free agent haul in the modern-day history of the Lions, is another key addition.
Several veterans on the Lions are of the belief their financial sacrifice was a factor in acquiring players like Figueroa as part of a much-needed overhaul of the offensive line.