The B.C. Lions allowed a league-worst 58 sacks in 2019 with Michael Reilly spending large portions of the season running for his life. The hits added up with the star quarterback eventually suffering a broken wrist in October, bringing his first year back in B.C. to an unceremonious end.
The team’s offensive line was criticized heavily but there were many factors that went into the poor performance of the offence. Reilly acknowledged that the entire unit needs to be better in 2021 as protecting the quarterback isn’t the sole responsibility of the offensive line.
“Protection’s never a five-man thing, it’s twelve guys,” said Reilly in a videoconference. “It’s actually more than that, it’s the entire program. It’s the entire offence working together, but it’s also schemes, the plays that you’re calling, and me executing the offence well as the quarterback.”
The team added an all-star along the offensive line in Ryker Mathews, who was signed away from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in free agency. He’s pencilled-in to start at right tackle, which was a problem spot for B.C. in 2019.
An extra boost along the line of scrimmage could also come in the form of Peter Godber, who missed all but one game in 2019 due to injury. The former first-round pick has been hampered by injuries throughout his young career but finally appears ready to take over as the team’s starting centre.
“We have high expectations of him,” said Reilly. “I think he’s a great young player and he’s going to be a beast to anchor the middle of our offensive line.”
Maybe the biggest change to the Lions’ attack came in January 2020 when Jordan Maksymic was hired as the team’s new offensive coordinator.
Maksymic was on staff with the Elks when Reilly arrived to Edmonton in 2013. He left for Ottawa to serve as an assistant coach under Rick Campbell for two years before returning to Edmonton in 2016 as the quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator. He worked closely with Reilly for three seasons, helping him win Most Outstanding Player in 2017.
“He’s an amazing guy,” said Reilly. “He’s tireless at his work. The guy has a mind unlike anybody I’ve ever played or worked with before. He just sees things very clearly and has a great understanding.”
Maksymic was promoted to the role of offensive coordinator in Edmonton in 2019 and his unit had a sensational year. Trevor Harris reached the midway point of the season on pace for over 6,000 passing yards, while the offensive line allowed a league-low 25 sacks.
“I think he’s going to be a great influence for our offence, but he’s also a guy that comes from the Jason Maas school of thought where it’s like, ‘Hey, it doesn’t matter how good we are if we can’t protect our quarterback,'” said Reilly.
“I don’t mean that as a five-person job, I mean that as the emphasis being on the entire offence. There’s going to be a big onus on all twelve guys that are on the field, Jordan’s going to make sure of that. He’s also going to make sure that his play call and designs put our offensive line and our entire offence in a position to be successful.”
Improved run-pass balance could be another factor in helping the Lions protect their star quarterback. Running back John White IV averaged just 12 carries per start in 2019, while Reilly attempted 31 passes per game over his first fifteen games.
“If we can give our offensive line the opportunity to come off the blocks and go and hit people instead of sitting back in pass pro all day long, that’s helpful for them,” said Reilly. “That gives them an aggressive mindset and gets them physically involved in the game and allows them not to just sit back and be teed-off on.”
As much as he’s determined to avoid the mistakes of the past, Reilly is ready to put the 2019 season behind him.
“We’ve all been out of this thing for it’s going to be close to two years by the time we get back on the field, so I don’t care if you’re Winnipeg or us or Toronto — teams that were on both ends of the spectrum in win-loss — that doesn’t mean a damn thing,” said Reilly. “Everybody has to come out and prove themselves in 2021 and we’re looking forward to that opportunity.”