It wasn’t quite the chaotic carousel of Week 1, but the B.C. Lions are back in every CFL fans’ crosshairs after more warm-up drama at the quarterback position on Thursday night.
The team couldn’t care less however, coasting to a surprisingly impressive 15-9 victory over the Calgary Stampeders.
Here are my thoughts on the game.
Not a Reilly gambler
For the second straight week, the Lions sent the CFL into abject pandemonium thanks to their decisions at quarterback. After listing Nathan Rourke as the starter in the lead up, Michael Reilly decided 20 minutes prior to kick-off that he was good to take the reigns.
It was the exact opposite situation as last week and people are no less furious.
Let’s get one thing straight, this was always a possibility. While the Lions named Rourke the starter and operated that way all week, they said multiple times that Reilly would be a game-time decision. That got buried beneath the media fervour of a legitimate Canadian quarterback starting and dismissed based on how Reilly looked last week, but it did happen as the quarterback alluded to after the game.
“I don’t think we can be any more clear than what we have been. I’ll be honest with you, I think that Rick [Campbell] is probably the most transparent coach that I’ve ever played for and on top of that, in our organization one of our values that we hold up the highest is our integrity. If anybody thinks that we’re being deceptive, I’m sorry that they think that, but to be quite honest with you, I don’t care,” Reilly said when asked what he thought of the criticism.
“I want to win football games and right now I can’t practice during the week because I’m not healthy enough, so I’m limited and I’m going out there and throwing. Our head coach literally came out and said ‘Nathan Rourke will be our starter, with that being said, Mike Reilly is going to be ready to play if we can get him healthy before the start of the game.’
“I don’t know how we can be any more clear than that. We don’t know if I’m going to be healthy enough, if my arm’s going to feel good enough until we finish warmups. And by the time we finished warmups, I was jogging off the field doing a TSN interview on the sideline and they were just told that I’d be starting. We’d made that decision minutes before that.”
“We’re trying to be as clear as we can and outside of that it’s football, so get over it because injuries happen. If guys are healthy to play, they’re healthy to play and that’s my response to it.”
Even so, the majority of people sadly don’t care about that point of view. They don’t want to have to base their interpretation of a game on a quote buried halfway through Rick Campbell’s second press conference of the week. They want that information hand-fed to them and they are upset when it doesn’t happen.
Normally I don’t have a lot of sympathy for that line of thinking. I shed no tears for bettors who gamble on situations that are inherently variable. But the CFL finds itself in a unique situation, with perhaps the league’s very survival hinging on its ability to become at least a mildly profitable gambling commodity. They have to appeal to those who are new to wagering on the CFL and they have to make them comfortable. Situations like this provide a meaningful deterrent to that objective.
The optics are bad and for those who aren’t passionate enough about the CFL to look for nuance, that’s all that matters. They need to be spoon fed and the league needs to bend over backwards for them. I’m not suggesting teams make football decisions based on the whims of bettors, but the fact that Reilly was a game-time decision should have been the narrative pushed from the start vocally and clearly by all parties, including the league itself.
I don’t like it, hardcore football fans might scoff at it, but that is the tough reality right now.
Bend in the El-Bow
Optics aside, the quarterback’s performance after deciding to start was sublime. Calgary may be the City by the Bow, but it was the bend in Michael Reilly’s elbow by which they lived and died on this day.
If you told me last week that Reilly would be capable of throwing the way he was on Thursday, I would have checked you in at the hospital. Against Saskatchewan, he looked almost incapable of throwing, every ball a hope and a prayer. I held my breath the first time he looked deep against the Stampeders. And then I couldn’t help but gasp.
Reilly was absolutely fearless. A 61-yard bomb to Bryan Burnham looked effortless. A 43-yarder to a wide open Lucky Whitehead looked like child’s play. He was completely unaffected by the injury that crippled him the week before.
Though the second half was slower, Reilly finished the game 26-of-33 for 342 yards. While he lacked any touchdowns through the air, he was nearly without blemishes as well. All things considered, it might have been his most impressive performance since arriving in B.C. and it bodes extremely well for the Lions hopes this year.
No Levi Mitchell
If I was rendered unable to read names or numbers, you couldn’t have convinced me that it was Bo Levi Mitchell under centre for Calgary on Thursday. Four interceptions was a career-high and he was off-target throughout.
— 3DownNation (@3DownNation) August 13, 2021
As much as I’d like it to, this column doesn’t exist to wax poetic on the failures of the Stampeders’ cocky quarterback, so I’ll focus instead on the tremendous Lions defensive performance that caused the collapse. Any passer would have found it difficult to find success the way the Lions’ secondary was playing last night.
T.J. Lee and Garry Peters had quiet evenings, a marker for success at their positions. Safety Marcus Sayles flashed any time he was around the ball, looking dangerously unsatisfied with just one interception falling in his lap. Even weak-side linebacker Bo Lokombo had some brilliant moments in coverage.
— 3DownNation (@3DownNation) August 13, 2021
Only one Calgary receiver emerged from this game having caught more than half of the balls thrown his way. Not even Kamar Jorden, so good one week ago, could threaten the Lions. For every chunk of yardage allowed, they had a game-changing counter.
While I can’t say they were the best players overall, the Lions two biggest defensive plays came via a pair of true CFL rookies from small schools.
Pittsburg State’s KiAnte Hardin and Jalon Edwards-Cooper of Texas A&M Commerce were starting their second and first games respectively and both dazzled. Hardin’s end zone interception over Hergy Mayala looked like the type of bait-and-close interception made by a 10-year veteran and Edwards-Cooper’s acrobatic pick as he clinched the game was even more physically impressive.
— 3DownNation (@3DownNation) August 13, 2021
“Honestly, it wasn’t even a surprise,” Sayles said of his young teammates after the game. “They’ve been balling out throughout all camp and whenever they had their opportunity, I knew they were going to snap.”
“KiAnte had his first game last week with Sask so he was a little bit more adjusted to the game and with Coop coming up, I was just excited to see him play cause he makes plays every day in camp, every day of practice that we’ve had. I’m excited that he had his opportunity and he did what he needed to do.”
American defensive backs so often struggle early in their CFL careers, but it’s hard to find many faults with either of them in this one. That should excite Lions fans a whole lot.
Anything you can do, I can do better
Way back in 2020, when the world was just beginning to fall apart and Ed Hervey was still the Lions’ general manager, B.C. was determined to make a splash after a dreadful season. One of the ways they did that was by trading up to first overall in that year’s CFL Draft to select freakishly athletic linebacker Jordan Williams.
Williams has been exactly as advertised, a ratio-breaking prospect and impactful Day 1 starter, but they were able to acquire him because Calgary was willing to pass up a chance at the linebacker. The Stamps did so because the player they coveted they could get at number three, Southeastern Louisiana defensive end Isaac Adeyemi-Berglund. Thursday was the first of many times those two will face each other and it was a nice taste of what is to come.
B.C.’s selection gets the slight edge thanks to his starting role and four tackles, but the kid from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia on the other side had a couple of flash plays in the rotation where he disrupted Reilly in the pocket. Adeyemi-Berglund finished with two defensive tackles and one more on special teams.
Both players will forever be tied together by that fateful Hervey trade and to be frank, the final results may end up being too close to call. Fans in both cities look to be spoiled for years to come.
Sit back and Gwacham work
I wasn’t overly impressed by the B.C. Lions much-discussed rookie defensive line in Week 1, but they made a big jump forward in their second game.
I wrote this snazzy sub-header earlier in the game when Obum Gwacham was catching my eye with some pressure off the edge and I’m sticking with it, but Gwacham was far from alone in getting in the backfield. Tim Bonner got upfield throughout and big Ufomba Kamalu may have ultimately been the best of the bunch, though sadly his name is much harder to create a pun with.
With the way their secondary is, just a little pressure goes an extremely long way for the Lions and they delivered more than that on Thursday. If this unit continues to build going forward, look out.
A hare-y situation
The McMahon hare was back in action on the TV broadcast, but rather than leaping acrobatically across the goal line as he did so famously a few years ago, this rabbit appeared to exude something rather long, soft and probably pungent as he fled terrified.
— 3DownNation (@3DownNation) August 13, 2021
What a perfect metaphor for how the Stampeders played.
Not so Lemarvelous
The Lions know they’ll have to finish more drives going forward if they want to realize their potential and I’m sure second half mistakes will be a focal point for the team this week. Unfortunately, Lemar Durant will not come out looking rosy in that conversation.
CALGARY RECOVERS THE FUMBLE pic.twitter.com/iM5mBlu1w7
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) August 13, 2021
The normally sure-handed Canadian receiver killed back-to-back drives in the second half, first by being stripped by Royce Metchie and then with an egregious drop at the first down marker. These were nothing more than anomalies for a player that the Lions lean on heavily, but I’m sure he’ll have a harder time sleeping after the win than most of his teammates.
Don’t save it for a Rainey day
Every year he’s played with the Lions, the team has talked about how they want to get Chris Rainey more involved with the offence. With the possible exception of 2017, they haven’t been overly consistent delivering on that promise.
Rainey looks refreshed right now and he was fantastic when forced into action at running back Thursday. I was honestly shocked he finished with only 43 yards on the ground given how dangerous he looked, finishing with an average of 7.2 yards per carry.
While you could argue their use of end-arounds with Lucky Whitehead filled a similar void, the offence just looked different with Rainey carrying the ball. I know it’s a tough sell given his kick return value, but let’s not save it just for special occasions.
I remain a big Takeru Yamasaki fan, but it breaks my heart to see him struggle this way and the B.C. Lions need to save him from himself.
The Japanese kicker made three-pointers from 20 and 29 yards out on Thursday, but shanked one from 22 yards out early and missed wide right from 43 at a pivotal moment. He seems to struggle with the wider hashmarks and has a bad case of the yips under pressure. Right now they’re going for it on third and six in plus territory in a six-point game because they can’t trust their kicker and that isn’t a good situation for either party.
The Lions like Yamasaki. I like Yamasaki. But he needs to walk on the practice roster before he’s allowed to run out there with games on the line.
As I said last week, Yamasaki won the Lions job in camp. They already have their Global requirement filled with punter Jake Ford — who can also kick– and the young Japanese player outperformed American Stefan Flintloft, another primary punter they asked to kick, in training camp. This wasn’t the evil hand of Randy Ambrosie’s Global initiative screwing the Lions, just a bad roster decision. Now it is one they have to rectify.
Don’t use up all your indignant rage, this quarterback situation isn’t settled quite yet.
Campbell, who said post-game that he would have placed a bet himself on Rourke starting until Reilly started to warm up, won’t commit to the veteran being the guy next week until they can gauge his recovery.
“I don’t know. We’re going to see, how Mike is tomorrow is going to be one indicator and then we go from there,” he said frankly.
“We’re certainly not choosing to live like this. We wish it was where everybody was healthy and we were crystal clear on what’s going on, but this is pretty unique.”
Unique is just one of many words for it and I’m sure we’ll hear no shortage of different vocabulary used throughout the CFL this week.