Quarterback chaos and eight other thoughts on the Lions’ loss in Regina

Photo courtesy: Electric Umbrella/Liam Richards/Saskatchewan Roughriders

What looked like a blowout — and probably should have been given the circumstances — turned in to a down-to-the-wire thriller Friday night, as the B.C. Lions fell 33-29 to the Saskatchewan Roughriders in front of a sold out-crowd in Regina.

It was a loss that was hard to be truly mad about for Lions’ fans, but moral victories carry the same number of points in Week 1 as they do any other week. Still, the return of football is enough to give this week’s column more of a positive spin.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Quarterback chaos

If you hang around the CFL, chances are you’ve seen quite a few QB controversies. You’ve watched QB competitions, like the ones in Hamilton and Toronto this season. You’ve maybe even viewed something akin to a QB carousel. But the B.C. Lions delivered something completely new to the league on Friday.

Call it QB chaos.

It was no surprise that Michael Reilly was banged up heading into this game. The details of his elbow soreness in training camp had been well-reported, he’d practiced only five times all year and was listed as questionable going into the game. But nobody in their right mind thought he wouldn’t play. He was listed as the starter and all the messaging out of B.C. said he was playing, after all.

Then Nathan Rourke trotted on to the field and the CFL collectively lost its mind.

There were instant allegations of dishonesty and circumvention of the league’s new gambling-driven injury reporting policy levelled at the Lions. I don’t expect those will go away, but it seems B.C. was as genuinely surprised as the rest of us by the flip-flop. By all accounts, Reilly’s pre-game elbow treatment failed to take effect in time and the quarterback was forced to tap in the rookie during the national anthem.

That bizarre turn of events would have been one thing, but it did not in and of itself make chaos. Against all odds, Reilly returned — or should we say debuted — for the second half to try to claw back from a 32-9 deficit, mere minutes after head coach Rick Campbell told television viewers across the country on TSN that they were opting to protect their star passer’s long-term health.

It was gutsy and likely ill-advised. It left Campbell looking powerless and foolish to the national audience, though I’m sure that wasn’t the intent. But as Reilly is oft to do, he dragged the Lions back into the football game with a barely functional throwing arm and pure heart.

When the Lions were back in it, on the verge of an improbable comeback with 2:36 remaining, the QB who had forced himself onto the field to secure a victory tapped out, perhaps wisely. Rourke was back and he was brilliant. He kept hope alive and brought fans to their feet, but it wasn’t enough to do the impossible. Just enough to secure this game’s place as one of the wackiest in CFL history.

There are a hundred different ways you can describe what happened at the Lions’ most important position Friday. Some will claim duplicity, others might call it a show of character from both players. Many will dub the string of decisions completely nonsensical.

No one will say it wasn’t entertaining.

Not so funny bone

While we revel in what a great game this turned out to be, it’s time for Lions fans to be very concerned about Reilly’s health for this season.

The quarterback won’t provide details surrounding the injury, but it is abundantly clear that his throwing elbow is almost non-functional. He couldn’t extend it and almost every ball fluttered in the wind. His toughness is unquestionably why we love Reilly, but admitting his arm was a detriment to the team was the wisest thing he did all night.

The last few weeks suggest this isn’t a quick fix injury and an MRI on July 18 reportedly turned up nothing actionable. It’s going to take time for Reilly to be the MOP-calibre quarterback he is again. The question is just how long the Lions can survive that way.

Nathan’s famous

There is a very real chance that, at least for a while, the hopes and dreams of Lions’ fans rest on the shoulders of rookie Canadian quarterback Nathan Rourke. From the looks of things, they are pretty solid shoulders to rest on.

This was an almost unprecedented situation. The last rookie to start for the B.C. Lions in a season opener was Randy Duncan back in 1959, who happened to be the first overall pick in the NFL Draft that year. A Canadian rookie has never started a season opener at quarterback since the modern CFL was founded in 1958. Rourke changed more than 60 years of history on minutes worth of notice.

His first few series were understandably bad as it was hard to expect anything less. The pick-six to Nick Marshall was a textbook rookie mistake and he looked overwhelmed as the Riders sent the all-out blitz at him time and again. Then a gorgeous deep ball to Lucky Whitehead for a 75-yard touchdown towards the end of the first half seemed to flick the switch.

We’ll never know how good his second half could have been because Reilly had taken over, but Rourke’s play in the fourth quarter was as poised as any veteran and his touchdown to Bryan Burnham might be the prettiest throw of the week. He gave his team every opportunity to win and the future is very bright for the new ‘Air Canada.’

Failure to Maksy-mize

As good as Rourke was, I have a few questions for offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic.

Anyone who watched Rourke play in college knows that he excelled in a zone read offence and has great mobility. At Ohio, he was a more productive college rusher than Michael Vick — proving statistics don’t tell the whole story. But Maksymic kept the rookie pinned in the pocket trying to be an imitation Trevor Harris. It was part of the reason he struggled so much in the first half.

Obviously the Lions didn’t expect Rourke to start, but given the situation it seems absurd that there wasn’t a full package lined up for their backup’s unique skillset. Rourke still delivered through the air, but I would have liked more creativity from the new OC.

I’ll catch you when you fall

A lot was made about the B.C. Lions’ revamped receiving corps during training camp and they backed it up with one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from a pass catching unit.

Putting up the yardage they did was one thing, but when Reilly’s elbow injury resulted in scattershot delivery and balls hanging in the air, they delivered spectacular catch after spectacular catch. The receivers bailed out their quarterback and saved more interceptions than I can count.

“Realistically, I talked to them on the sideline and said, ‘Guys, you’ve got to help me out here because I’m not able to place it where I want to. I know where the ball needs to go, it’s just a matter of me getting it there. I’m going to get it to you, but it’s not going to be pinpoint accurate, so just be ready for that,'” Reilly explained after the game.

“Each one of them to a man looked at me and said, ‘Hey man, we got your back. Just get it as close as you can and we’ll take care of the rest.’ And they certainly did that.”

Lucky Whitehead, Bryan Burnham, Dominique Rhymes and Lemar Durant all made at least one play that could have changed the game had it gone the other way. You can already tell they are going to be special together.

It’s not how you start…

With the offensive happenings currently being filed under the ‘bonkers’ category, the B.C. Lions’ defence will be an afterthought to most. Arguably, their outing was the crazier of the two sides of the ball.

It truly was a tale of two halves for this team and while the 31-9 halftime deficit shone a spotlight on some of Rourke’s early struggles, the defence was to blame. They were simply atrocious early, with the front seven getting bashed in the run game by a makeshift Riders’ o-line and and the all-star studded secondary looking soft and anemic.

The team couldn’t make stops in front of them and they couldn’t tackle. We’d all like to go back to before the pandemic, but this was like a bad case of deja vu.

We may never know what was said at halftime in that locker room, but boy, did it ever work. A team that got punched in the face to start the game started doing the punching. They were aggressive, physically and schematically. They dialled up a few more blitzes and the secondary made some plays. It looked like the defensive revival fans were promised.

Two measly points was all the Riders could muster over the last 30 minutes and punter Jon Ryan had to work for those. It was an outstanding demonstration of character, fight and grit. Here’s hoping that is the type of unit we see more of in the future.

Show me more

With that said, I’m not quite ready to anoint the inexperienced Lions’ defensive line like their football operations staff has been doing the last few weeks.

The Riders’ offensive line, to their credit, had no business being as presentable as they were in this one. While the Lions’ pressure grew as the game went on, there still should have been more delivered from the front four.

If this is all they are capable of, it’s going to be a problem against better, more consistent opponents. I’ll need to see a lot more from this group going forward.

Crisp on the Outside, Chewy on the Inside

The fact that the Lions kept not one, but two quarterbacks mostly upright is a massive improvement from the B.C. offensive line based off of 2019, but it wasn’t a perfect outing.

The offensive tackle duo of Joel Figueroa and Ryker Mathews looked strong as the bookends, but the interior had some big lapses. Centre Peter Godber had a couple of mental mistakes and bad snaps, Garrett Marino man-handled the right side on one sack and a belly-out Mak Henry was let through almost unblocked on a couple of occasions.

I won’t be making any hot takes without the benefit of watching the film, but there will be some things that Kelly Bates will want to clean up for next week.

Saki Bombs

There is two ways that sub-header can be interpreted and honestly, both are applicable.

Japanese Global kicker Takeru Yamasaki earned his first CFL start Friday and made history with a 43-yard field goal, the first ever from a player from the land of the rising sun. He hit another from 40 yards out and added one extra point, but that’s where the heartwarming story stops.

Yamasaki missed from 31 and 37 yards out badly and failed to connect on his final extra point as well. The resulting loss of points proved the difference in this hard-fought game.

I’ve watched Yamasaki in both the Japanese X League — which is easily the third-best professional football in the world — and The Spring League in the U.S. He is a lot better than this. His range is routinely outside 50 yards and he’s been incredibly efficient. This moment, in front of 35,000 Rider fans baying for blood, was just too much for him.

After the game, Campbell stood behind his kicker with admirable passion, citing the brand new situation and a little bit of prairie wind as contributing factors.

“I’m not making an excuse for the guy, but I’m just telling you, he was playing under a tough situation for the first go around. He would fit into the category of a guy that would hugely benefit from playing a few preseason games,” Campbell said.

“Just playing under this whole circumstance, it didn’t go exactly the way you wanted it to but I tell you what, he sure sticks with it. The guy has some mental toughness to him because I don’t know if I could do that being in that situation, under these literally foreign circumstances.”

The team has no immediate plans to bring in a challenger for the spot and they are willing to give Yamasaki some time to grow. He wasn’t the first young kicker to falter and he won’t be the last, but he earned the job in training camp in the eyes of the coaching staff.

The Lions don’t have to play Yamasaki, Australian punter Jake Ford — who was sensational in this one — fills their required Global spot, but they are choosing to stick with a guy they believe in. Whether that decision will be rewarded or cost them down the line remains to be seen.

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.