No asterisk on excellence (and seven other thoughts on the Lions’ dominance of Toronto)

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/

With every game remaining do-or-die for their playoff hopes, the resurgent Lions controlled the Toronto Argonauts from start to finish on the way to a 55-8 blowout victory.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Throwing context to the wind

The B.C. Lions improved offensive line has made a significant difference during the team’s recent win streak. I’ve tried to put those performances in context based on the quality of the competition. Well, I may be willing to put an asterisk beside good games, even great games, but I absolutely refuse to discount the complete and utter physical domination of opponent that the B.C. big men put forth against Toronto.

From top to bottom, it was as spectacular an outing from the boys up front as you’ll see from any team this season. Those lucky enough to be in attendance on Saturday night witnessed what can only be described as a clinic in the run game.

The Lions’ offensive line generated displacement on nearly every snap, cutting wide lanes for John White whether he was running inside or out. Blockers were successfully up to the second level on every play and White often found his way into the third level of the defence before facing first contact. The line showed they were equally capable kicking someone out on a pull, washing the whole defence out with down blocks or spreading wide on the outside zone.

The Argos’ two leading tacklers were both defensive backs on an evening where the Lions had 39 combined rushing attempts at almost 4.5 yards per carry, despite a large number of QB sneaks. It was textbook hat-on-a-hat blocking that allowed B.C. to control the ball for three full quarters of game time.

The unit’s performance in the passing game may have been even more impressive. Toronto gave B.C. a number of different looks throughout the night and routinely sent heavy pressure. It didn’t matter at all, the Lions simply refused to surrender a sack. It was the type of cerebral unity that the Lions completely lacked to begin the season, with each player not only understanding his role in the scheme but also that of every other player on the line. There was to be no miscommunication in this game and they routinely provided Mike Reilly with six or seven seconds worth of time to make a throw downfield.

This wasn’t a decent offensive line meeting expectations against a weak opponent. This was a soul-crushing, rip their hearts out and step on their throats dismantling of a professional football team. While Toronto’s defensive line has struggled this season, both Davon Coleman and Cleyon Laing were all-stars just last season and Freddie Bishop was an 11-sack player who just returned from three years in the NFL. You could not have picked them out of a lineup on Saturday.

The real test now comes this week as they face an Edmonton Eskimos’ unit that leads the league in sacks and took the Lions to the woodshed for a combined 14 takedowns in their previous two contests. I have a feeling that it will be a very different result this time around.

Don’t @ Me

I think Odell Willis said it best to the TSN camera on the sideline.

“Best receiver in the league! This is not a debate. Don’t @ me! You already know. All he does is hit buckets and catch balls!”

I can’t speak to how well he “hits buckets” but Bryan Burnham is absolutely the best receiver in the CFL — I don’t think its close. He was simply transcendent against the Argonauts, showing sharp route running, impressive physicality, incredible hands and freakish athleticism. Two of his three touchdowns will be in the conversation for catch of the year.

I drew the ire of Tiger-Cats’ fans mid-game when I proclaimed this very point on Twitter and said Burnham should win the league’s Most Outstanding Player award over the current clubhouse leader Brandon Banks. It’s a point that I’ve made before on this platform, but one I’m more serious about than ever.

In the same number of games, Burnham now has 67 more yards than Banks, a higher average yards per catch, the same number of receiving touchdowns and 12 plays of over 30 yards, tied for the league lead with Shaq Evans and five more than Banks.

Let’s be absolutely clear, Banks is a dynamic superstar who is more than deserving of the praise he gets. That said, he benefits from an offence that is excellent at scheming him open in space and he may not even be the best receiver on his team with Bralon Addison nipping at his heels in both yardage and explosive plays. Burnham doesn’t benefit from the same schematic advantages and is undisputed as the top player on a much less potent offence.

If Banks has your MOP nod at this point, it has to be based purely on team record, his one additional rushing touchdown and his two missed field goal return scores. Those are entirely valid reasons to prefer his candidacy, just don’t say it’s because he’s the league’s top receiver. Its not Shaq Evans either, as Cody Fajardo would have you believe. That player resides in beautiful British Columbia.

You shall not pass!

I still have serious concerns about the Lions’ run defence going forward but being up big early gave them an opportunity to do their best Gandalf the Grey impression.

A lot of heat has been placed on the Argos’ quarterbacks this season, but their struggles in the passing game against B.C. went beyond poor play from their pivots. The duo of James Franklin and McLeod Bethel-Thompson were a combined 15-of-23 for a respectable 65.2 percent completion percentage.

That was able to generate just 126 yards through the air, an atrocious 5.4 yards per attempt. There are 19 quarterbacks in the league who currently have a higher average per throw on the season, including both Argos. It wasn’t just that the Toronto quarterbacks weren’t good on Saturday, there was nothing for them to throw to.

It was yet another stifling performance by the B.C. secondary that forced Toronto to live underneath for almost the entire game. This has been the league’s best secondary through the second half of the season by a wide margin. T.J. Lee was spectacular against Toronto. Aaron Grymes is still terrifying. Brandon Dozier is an all-star. Gary Peters is having a career year. Crezdon Butler has locked down the field side and brought the whole thing together. If the Lions can sneak into the playoffs, no quarterback wants to match up against this group.

Mike vs. the man-cold

According to the internet, the infamous man-cold remains undefeated. Don’t tell that to Mike Reilly.

After missing walkthrough with illness, suffering from a sore back and what I can only hope is an injured tailbone that is forcing him to sit on an inflatable cushion, Reilly just went about his business and threw five touchdowns against the Argos.

I think Reilly would readily admit that it was far from his finest performance. There were times where he didn’t look sharp. He missed a couple of early throws badly and he seemed understandably groggy. However, he continued to show the perseverance to push through less than ideal circumstances that has defined his career.

It was a game where the impressive statistics didn’t tell the whole story. Reilly did what he needed to do and didn’t press or overexert. It was the type of game that only a savvy veteran can put together. A performance that was less clean than the perfect stats but simultaneously way more impressive.

Short yardage o’ffence

With Reilly battling ailments, the Lions made an important change and gave the reins of their short yardage offence to Danny O’Brien.

Let’s be honest, the short yardage team was not as good under O’Brien but that was to be expected. Reilly may be the best short yardage quarterback in football, with the possible exception of Chris Streveler. It would be extremely unlikely, if not impossible, for O’Brien to ever match Reilly’s production, physicality or drive in the pile.

That said, I liked this move by the Lions. Taking hits away from Reilly will always be a positive, especially late in the season. It seemed to be the move by a team that was planning for the long haul. That hasn’t always been the case this season and it was a breath of fresh air.

Reilly has always wanted to do it all and never leave the field, it’s part of what makes him great. That has not always been in his best interest and DeVone Claybrooks is learning to manage his quarterback’s usage and health far more effectively. It’s a sign of growth and maturity that bodes extremely well for the young coach going forward.

Newsome, new man

There may have been no greater enigma over the last few CFL seasons than Jonathan Newsome.

In his rookie year with Indianapolis, Newsome recorded 6.5 sacks before being cut the next season for marijuana possession. He has shown flashes but has never matched that production in the CFL.

It seems like he may finally have put it all together in the B.C. system. Newsome has been impactful in each of his six games in the orange and black. He was a difference maker on Saturday.

A sack, a forced fumble and a deflected pass that resulted in an interception should go down as one of the season’s finest defensive efforts. Newsome is now one sack away from matching his career-high in just a short time in Vancouver.

Newsome being an affordable and effective pass rusher has been a key to the Lions’ turnaround and his continued success is essential for the future.

Full value fullback

There have been a lot of highlight performances during the Lions’ win streak, but an underrated catalyst has been the play of rookie fullback Mario Villamizar.

The sixth-round pick from Laurier has delivered in every capacity since David Mackie was placed on the six-game injured list. My second rated fullback in last year’s draft has established himself as an impact blocker as an in-line tight end and a core special teamer. He is noticeable almost any time he has stepped on the field.

Mackie is an extremely talented fullback in his own right and was sorely underutilized before his injury, but Villamizar has blossomed as the positional role expanded after Mackie went down. There will be no eye-popping statistics, highlight reel plays or nominations when award season rolls around, but the Colombian kid deserves some recognition for his play of late.

Coaching contrast

Many in the CFL community had their doubts during early season struggles, but we are starting to see the emergence of the head coach that was promised when DeVone Claybrooks was hired. The contrast between he and Argos’ first-year bench boss Corey Chamblin was painfully obvious to anyone watching.

Mere weeks ago, these two teams were sitting in identical situations with long-shot playoff hopes, more talent on their rosters than win totals would suggest and a hard road ahead. Since then, Claybrooks has galvanized his team. He’s created unity and identity. He’s made some decisive changes to his staff and approach and in turn that staff has made decisive changes to the scheme. Chamblin came in to their matchup with the same broken systems and a team that looked to have entirely quit, despite not being officially eliminated from playoff contention.

Chamblin is a good man and a good coach, I’ve heard rave reviews from players about him as a coordinator, but he has failed to do the thing that great coaches must: adapt. Claybrooks, despite being less experienced than Chamblin, is learning how to and showing he can do just that. It’s why one of them will likely return next year and, sadly, the other likely will not.

From rookie players, we expect growth not perfection. The same should be said for coaches. Claybrooks had lofty expectations but they were frankly unrealistic for a first-time bench boss. Now he is starting to develop in to his potential and he deserves a chance to blossom in year two.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.