The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: postmortem on a lost Lions’ season

The Lions were resilient until the very end against the Calgary Stampeders, falling short in their late comeback to the tune of 21-16.

It was the 13th loss of their disappointing season. Let’s be frank, no one wants another rehash of a bad defeat and I certainly don’t want to write it, so this week I’ll take a different approach.

With the recent firing of DeVone Claybrooks, here is my post-mortem thoughts on a Lions season, the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good

Second to None
For all the struggles the Lions have had at many different position groups, their defensive secondary has been the best in the league. Without the benefit of a consistent pass rush, they’ve managed to hold opponents to 230 yards per game, good for third in the league, and allowed both the lowest amount and percentage of first downs through the air.

Initially, it looked like the defensive system would be too much for them to handle but after early struggles, no team had a bigger turnaround in performance. They showed the capacity to grasp complex responsibilities and adapt to the Rich Stubler defensive philosophy.

Regardless of whether or not Stubler is brought back, the first priority of this off-season should be to ensure this group remains largely intact. T.J. Lee is reportedly under contract for next season, but the status of the quartet of Aaron Grymes, Branden Dozier, Garry Peters and Crezdon Butler will be in question. General manager Ed Hervey simply cannot afford to lose more than one of them and ideally all should be re-signed.

Young ‘Nucks
Much has been made about the Lions’ inability to find young talent, a subject that I will tackle later, but that certainly hasn’t been true on the National side of things. As director of Canadian scouting, Geroy Simon has amassed a core of young Canucks that bodes extremely well for the future.

At receiver, the Lions have the potential to be the next Canadian Air Force, if they play their cards right. Most Outstanding Canadian nominee Lemar Durant is just 27 and is only now reaching the peak of his potential as the group’s veteran. Shaq Johnson has barely scratched the surface of his capabilities after being isolated out wide for all of his career — he’s only 26. The team’s Most Outstanding Rookie, junior product Jevon Cottoy, is 22 and still younger than the majority of draft eligible prospects.

On defence, Isaiah Guzylak-Messam has proven that he is a starting calibre player. The 24-year-old sophomore is a versatile talent who could be either a linebacker, as he was this year or a starting safety. The Lions also stole another junior prospect in Oshane Samuels who will be a special teams’ demon next season as a 23-year-old and could develop into a legitimate starter. Even beleaguered middle linebacker Jordan Herdman-Reed is only 25 and has shown he is a capable player within the right system.

Furthermore, the Lions now have two exceptional fullbacks under 25 in David Mackie and Mario Villamizar, something the right offensive coordinator will capitalize on with varied looks and double tight end sets. Rookie running back Jamel Lyles showed that he too could be a valuable offensive weapon down the line, becoming a fan favourite local kid at 23.

Even the offensive line has some young talent to look forward to. Former first-round pick Peter Godber was one of my favourite prospects in recent memory but didn’t play this year due to injury. He could break out next season in an expanded role. Jean-Simon Roy is a capable starter and great depth piece. Even David Knevel has more potential to unlock. All three are 25.

The best part about the Canadian talent is it will get even better next year. The Lions will be drafting third overall in a very talented draft and hold all their draft picks. With a couple of solid recent drafts under their belts, fans should be salivating about the possible players that will be in Vancouver next season.

Bates and Switch
The silver lining of a miserable season is that it brought the Lions one of the brightest young position coaches in the CFL. Kelly Bates has never gotten his due anywhere he’s coached but his impact is tangible and noticeable on the field.

He’s a teacher, a technician, a demanding disciple of Dan Dorazio, and a difference maker who’s potential goes beyond just coaching offensive line. There is much left to be determined in Bates’ career trajectory, but he is a bright young star and its behooves the Lions to hitch their wagon to him.

The North Stars
No matter how bad things get, B.C. can sleep easy knowing the team has two massive stars to build around.

Bryan Burnham and Mike Reilly are legitimate CFL superstars and they will be back next season. Reilly can absolutely return to his MOP form given proper protection and Burnham could have another career year as his number one target.

Last off-season was all about acquiring flash, big name talent. This off-season has to be about building around the ones they already have.

The Bad

Quarterback is an issue the Lions have to address this off-season and it has nothing to do with Mike Reilly.

Going into this year, you would have probably listed the top three pivots in the league as Reilly, Bo Levi Mitchell and Jeremiah Masoli. All three of those players suffered serious injuries at various points this year. In fact, not a single quarterback in the league was physically able to take a snap in each of his team’s 18 games.

The difference between the good teams, like Calgary and Hamilton, and the bad ones, like B.C., is that they had young studs waiting in the wings. Dane Evans may have won the job permanently in Hamilton and could cement his status with a Grey Cup ring. Nick Arbuckle had a higher passer rating than Bo Levi in his nine starts. Some kid named Cody Fajardo, who the Lions let walk in the off-season, established himself as the face of the franchise in Saskatchewan. For their part, B.C. rolled out Danny O’Brien, who was 37-of-61 for 334 yards, a touchdown and two picks in two-and-a-half games of action.

B.C. needs to protect itself and attack finding the next guy on the scouting trail. To win in the CFL, you need two legitimate quarterbacks. The Lions don’t have that and that should scare management about the team’s long-term prospects.

On a side note, as volatile as he is at quarterback, the Lions should consider bringing back Brandon Bridge. The league will limit teams to two ratio-exempt quarterback spots next season, but having a quarterback with a Canadian passport will allow the team to dress the traditional three. The front office should also strongly consider drafting or signing one of the young Canadian quarterbacks available this off-season.

All the King’s Men
It was a steep and slippery learning curve for DeVone Claybrooks as a first-time head coach, one that often exposed his inexperience. What was promising, and the reason I had hoped he’d return next season, is the amount of growth that he demonstrated throughout the season and the fight that his team demonstrated on his behalf. There were building blocks there for him to become a good head coach, he simply had to be given the opportunity.

Perhaps his biggest mistake was the hand-picked coaching staff he put together. It was a group just a little too young and inexperienced for the roles they were thrust in to. There were exceptions, I’ve already praised the late addition of Bates and I believe Ryan Phillips was fantastic as defensive backs coach, but all of the others will almost certainly be shown the door.

There were five first-time coaches on the staff and, other than Phillips, their performance was mixed at best.

In the complex world of coaching quarterbacks, I’m not sure how much value Reilly received from Drew Tate. Chris Ellis came in with only two seasons of positional coaching in college at New Hampshire and made some questionable decisions. He likely needs more seasoning. Nik Lewis is one of my favourite players of all time and his running backs were excellent on the ground, but I personally believe his lack of familiarity with the position hurt them in pass protection. Keith Stokes was the generic assistant helping both on offence and special teams but didn’t do much to ensure the consistent success of the return game in which he made his money as a player.

Special teams coordinator Taylor Altilio also seemed to struggle in his first season as a coordinator in the CFL. The Lions allowed three kick return touchdowns, boast the lowest net average in the league on both punts and kickoffs, and have the lowest average punt return in the league. The specials’ improved slightly as the year went on but Altilio never fully capitalized on his Calgary pedigree.

While changes to his staff were absolutely needed, the firing of Claybrooks is a massive black mark on the franchise. It signals to potential candidates that this is an organization without patience, one more than willing to throw you under the bus and will hit the reset button on any progress made this season. If Claybrooks’ undoing was hiring a raw staff, then it is the person who allowed a rookie head coach to do so who is truly at fault. That same person is the one who failed to provide him with the necessary pieces to win. This firing was done to save face and save a job in the front office, and that is frankly shameful.

Finally, it’s time for the Lions to move on from offensive coordinator Jarious Jackson, despite his relationship with both Hervey and the franchise. His rigidity in scheme and play-calling has actively hurt the team over the last two seasons and its time to give the controls to someone with a little more innovative ability. The pieces on this offence are too good to keep being wasted. I would encourage the Lions to think outside the box with this hire. There are some brilliant offensive minds in Canadian football and many are looking for their first chance at a pro offence.

Changing of the Guard
After moving on from Solomon Elimimian, the Lions suffered at linebacker. Ultimately, it will be the right decision in the long run but the key will be finding his replacement, something they have not yet done.

There is some promise in the linebacking corps. Isaiah Guzylak-Messam has opened some eyes, although I’m still not convinced he is a long-term fit as a WILL linebacker. Kevin Haynes looks like he has the makings of being Adam Bighill lite, but he is more suited to the traditional WLB role. That still leaves a gaping hole in the middle, the beating heart of the defence, and Maleki Harris, while being serviceable, is not the one to fill it.

The Lions should be attacking this position aggressively in the off-season. Hervey planned to save money on linebackers and it hurt the team. If he intends to be that frugal again, he better be prepared to bring in a bushel of young middle linebackers to compete for the spot.

The Ugly

Stopping the Mongol Horde
This off-season, the Lions paid an exorbitant sum for the services of Sukh Chungh and finally hooked their white whale in Brett Boyko. It was their hope that combined with existing pieces, including stalwart left tackle Joel Figueroa, they could create a Great Wall in front of Mike Reilly. They were correct only in the sense that, like the actual Great Wall, they consistently fell at the mercy of the Mongol horde.

The top priority this off-season has to be fixing the personnel issues along the offensive line. The human instinct when faced with a problem of this magnitude is to cling to each vestige of mediocrity like it’s a life raft. The Lions must fight this urge because it will take decisive action to keep their star quarterback upright, and that will require letting a number of serviceable players walk.

Believe it or not, there is currently a bit of a logjam of serviceable players along the Lions offensive line that is preventing long term growth. Hunter Steward and David Foucault were key to patching the issues this season but keeping both, especially if Chungh is brought back, will prevent the long-term progress of the team. Boyko also contributes to that logjam, as the team must quickly decide whether to cut bait or move him inside as they did with Foucault.

With a teacher like Bates now on the staff, there is no time like the present for a youth movement along the offensive line, especially with a chance to lock up a day one starter with the third overall pick. Veterans will have to move out, faith be placed in youngsters, and patience tested in tutelage. That means this line must get worse, at least on paper, before it gets better.

Additionally, the Lions must decide on an identity for their system and, correspondingly, their offensive line. On of the fatal flaws in the addition of Chungh was how incongruous he was with how they wanted to play. They broke the bank for a bruising road grader but didn’t allow him opportunities to dominate in the power game.

The decision on an offensive coordinator must be made swiftly and then the offensive line built around them. If they wish to play a zone game, they need an agile line. Want to hold on to the football and beat every team deep? Better prioritize true pass protectors. If jamming the ball down the opponents throat tickles their fancy, acquire some bruisers. Your line must be built for what you do and not every player is great at all things, so buy the groceries that fit the meal you intend to serve.

Toothless Barbarians
While opposing teams have been successful in their conquest and pillage against the Lions, the B.C. defensive line has lacked the necessary weaponry.

In the modern CFL, there is nothing more important than generating a pass rush and the Lions landed one sack above the dubious mark of worst in the league. That comes down to talent, and for the Leos it’s sorely lacking. Odell Willis has finally hit a wall at the age of 34. Shawn Lemon is still a reliable mercenary. Jonathan Newsome has shown flashes but has the baggage of an inconsistent career. Then there is the gaping void on the interior. While David Menard and Junior Luke are strong rotational components, the Lions simply do not have a presence that can consistently push the pocket.

If the Lions are going to spend any money in free agency, it has to be focused on the defensive line. It should also be a major focus for off-season scouting. The acquisition of a premier pass rusher can put a team over the top and if the Lions want to be contenders in the Reilly-era, they need to get one of their own.

Finding the Fountain of (American) Youth
Off the field, the Lions first priority has to be a complete revamp of their American scouting. For all the work they do, the Lions managed to find just one impactful American rookie this season. That is a simply abhorrent rate of success, part of a larger trend of failing to reload the teams’ talent base in recent years.

In the CFL, success is predicated on your ability to cycle through an endless string of young Americans, maximizing talent while keeping yourself on the right side of the salary cap. Without young American talent, the Lions found themselves tight on the cap and devoid of depth. They couldn’t find that number two receiving threat, dynamic edge rusher, young tackle, gap-stuffing defensive tackle or promising backup quarterback. Nearly every problem listed above can be traced back to the failures of the scouting staff.

Ultimately, this has to fall at the feet of Ed Hervey and the decision to retain him should be predicated on him putting forward a decisive plan to improve scouting. If he does, I would love to see him back next season. If he refuses to change, the Lions should pursue someone who will. When in Edmonton, the Hervey administration was renowned for bringing in scores of talent, but B.C. should fear that was a product of raging talent hounds Paul Jones and Chris Jones. He has not yet lived up to his reputation and it has come to the point where he must prove it.

This off-season has to be one of pounding the pavement and stretching resources to find the best possible players, especially with the XFL posing a new threat. Standing pat and doing things the way they’ve always been done is simply not an option. If the Lions are smart, they will host more free agent camps, in more places than they ever have before. Anything less, is the definition of insanity.

All on your Own(ership)
Finally, the B.C. Lions will never be a competitive franchise again without new ownership.

David Braley is a living legend, a pioneer and a football saviour. He deserves mountains of praise for all he’s done for football in B.C., and Canada in general. However, he is now distant, unwell, and out of touch with the fanbase.

Rumours of the team being for sale have persisted for over a decade. We know its currently on the table, but Braley continues to drag his feet when it comes to accepting a buyer. His price for the team is simply unreasonable as its value continues to decline as a direct result of his ownership.

A local owner is needed to connect with fans, drive sales and fill up BC Place again. An invested owner is required to make proper staffing decisions and provide the necessary financial resources to put a competitive product on the field, including a new practice facility. Currently, the Lions have neither and it is hurting them.

I remain hopeful that Braley finally pulls the trigger this off-season but if he doesn’t the status quo won’t change. The Lions will continue to be a franchise lost in the wilderness.

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