Bigger than a game & eight other thoughts on the Lions’ home loss to the Riders

Photo courtesy: Jeff Vinnick / B.C. Lions

After leading for most of the night, the B.C. Lions three-game win streak came to an end at home Friday night as the team fell 31-24 to the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

First down aversion

The struggle that comes with covering this B.C. Lions team is how to accurately describe an offence that is simultaneously the most explosive in the CFL and far too often completely incapable of moving the football. They continue to be the ultimate paradox, a team that can seemingly only score touchdowns or record a two-and-out.

Once again there was far too much of the latter on Friday, as the Lions trotted off the field on six of their 13 drives without so much as a first down to show for it. On three more series, they managed to move the chains only once and a continuing ineptitude on first down is a big reason why.

Currently, the Lions are either completely unwilling or physically unable to run the ball in any capacity. That is a fact that no one on the team can deny after their two running backs went for five yards on five carries all night.

“It’s hard to continue to run in the game when you hand the ball off and it’s second-and-nine or second-and-eleven. At that point, it’s like what are we doing here?” a clearly frustrated Michael Reilly said with some disgust post-game.

“We’re continually in second-and-long and then we bust one good one and it gets called back for holding and now it’s first and 20. At that point, you got to unfortunately make the decision that it’s just going to be easier to not deal with it.”

First down is the time when you might typically use a functional running game to pick up a few yards, but without one the Lions have to go to the air. There are plenty of researchers who would suggest — with lots of data to back themselves up — that that isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. A high efficiency pass can even be more effective than a carry up the gut, but the Lions haven’t been executing those concepts at a high level either and, more importantly, have run them far too infrequently.

B.C. wants to live and die by the big play and too often on first down Reilly is sitting in the pocket looking for late developing routes down the field. The short pickups aren’t being emphasized and the team consistently finds itself in second-and-long because of it. Even then, I found the play-calling from offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic far too rarely had players running at the sticks. The result is a team that needs huge plays and crumbles when they disappear.

“I don’t think we’re over-prioritizing [big plays]. I just think we’re not good enough in some other areas and we need to improve on it,” Reilly said.

“We have to be better in the run game. That’s pretty obvious. We’ve got to be better on first down, whether it’s the run or the pass, to be honest with you. We’ve spent too much time in second-and-long and against a good defence like the one that we played tonight, that’s gonna make for a long night and it certainly did.”

That sentiment was echoed by his head coach.

“This is football 101. I was even thinking back to the beginning of the game, we had some self-inflicted wounds whether it’s a drop or a penalty, and then we get in second and extra long, which makes it tough on any offence, not just us,” Rick Campbell stressed. “If we can combine some more consistency on offence and defence with the big plays, then we’re going to be something to reckon with.”

Right now the B.C. Lions are like a boxer who can throw haymakers, but can’t jab. Haymakers might land you a knock-out punch every now and again, but it’s the jabs that control the opponent. The Leos were two-and-out again on their final possession with the lead, a situation where better teams could have run out the clock. The couldn’t and so they lost.

Hot water hoggies

On that note, I asked Reilly point blank how much of the run game’s struggles fell on his offensive line and he deflected as normal. What was clear though is it’s becoming more difficult for him to do so each week.

“The run game, much like the pass game or pass protection, is not ever about one guy or five guys, it’s about all 12 guys on the field executing plays. Certainly the guys inside the box have to make the blocks, but we also ask everyone else to do stuff,” he said.

“We ask running backs to make certain keys and reads and the quarterback to be able to read certain things to put us in a good position too. Obviously all of us have fallen quite a bit short when it comes to executing the run game and we got to figure out how to be better.”

I’ve said it before, but the Lions’ line is clearly a problem and the scheme exposes them. This team has maulers who don’t show a willingness to maul and are rarely given the opportunities to, allowing one of the league’s least athletic starting fives to flounder. The more concerning part: B.C. has precious little depth at the position and help from outside is unlikely to come. This is the group they must roll with and it will cost them.

No shank you

American punter Stefan Flintoft has shown off a huge leg in his short time as Lions punter but the first major mistake of his tenure was a real doozy.

After the Lions’ final two-and-out, the UCLA product needed to flip the field with two minutes remaining. Given the play of the defence as of late, had he successfully done so, B.C. may well have escaped with the victory. Instead, Flintoft drilled it 26 yards out of bounds at his own 54. It was a crucial error that set up the Riders’ touchdown with exceptional field position.

B.C.’s special teams has improved as the season has gone on, but Friday wasn’t a banner day. That’s now twice this season that a game with the Riders has been determined by shanks from a specialist.

Left one-dering

Though the Riders’ fumble recovery touchdown on the game’s final kickoff somewhat obscured its importance, Rick Campbell’s decision to kick the extra point rather than go for two on the Lions’ last touchdown proved a determining factor in what was ostensibly a one-point game.

“In the CFL, I just think there’s too many possessions going back and forth [to make the call to go for two],” Campbell said when asked about the decision. “I’m thinking of the field goal. If we make the field goal, we’re up nine and then it’s a two possession game. I think that highlights everything. There’s a series of several things that if we do better than we win.”

There was plenty of time left in the fourth quarter when Shaq Cooper punched it in from a yard away and Campbell correctly suspected there would be more scoring opportunities to come, but you rarely win games by thinking about field goals rather than touchdowns — whether you are an offence or a defence. The difference between a five-point lead and a six-point lead is negligible but the difference between six and seven is huge.

It would have all been irrelevant had Jimmy Camacho not missed his first field goal of the season, but the conservative approach came back to bite Rick Campbell in the rear end. Perhaps he should take a run at Erin O’Toole’s job? They both got similar results this week.

Short and wide

The Lions seem to believe they stopped Cody Fajardo on the game-winning QB sneak and frankly that was my first impression from the replay as well. Defensive back TJ Lee is a clear proponent of that theory, but the veteran had enough wisdom to not dwell on that aspect and instead look hard in the mirror post-game

“Bad angles to make those tackles [on the last drive]. We did a good job on that first down by getting them backed up and then they got to the one-yard line and honestly I think we stopped them. That could be a little bit of biasness from my standpoint, but regardless we lost,” Lee explained.

“It looked like that, but I’m able to look into the mirror and understand that I gave up a touchdown. I could’ve made a better adjustment and got inside of my guy and made a play on that ball. In my head, I’m the reason why we lost.”

Lee is referring to the touchdown he allowed to Ricardo Louis, a rare coverage bust from the all-star halfback caused by aligning outside shade of the receiver in soft man coverage with no safety help. It was a big play, but Lee can rest assured he wasn’t the reason the Lions’ lost. No one on the defence was.

Better to be Lucky than good

I’ll be honest, I’m starting to resent Lucky Whitehead.

The man has the most easily punned name in existence and I’m still going to run out of pithy sub-headers for my articles because of how frequently he demands to be talked about. Slow down Lucky, think of the sportswriters!

The electric speedster had about as bizarre a night as you’ll ever see against the Riders, finishing as the team’s top receiver once again with six catches for 111 yards and two touchdowns. As always, there were incredible highlights.

Whitehead’s 47-yard opening score on a simply swing screen was worth the price of admission on its own, as he split a pair of Rider defenders like he’d been greased and burst down the sideline for the score. It was everything Lucky has come to represent for this club. Excitement, energy and pure brilliance.

But there were incredible lows as well. Lucky opened the game with a bad drop, muffed a punt badly in the third quarter by deciding to sprint underneath it, and was stripped for a touchdown on the final kickoff return of the game.

Those sort of plays have always been the knock-on Whitehead. They are a big part of the reason why his time in the NFL came to an end and why Winnipeg opted not to use him after he burst onto the CFL scene early in 2019. The cost of big plays for you can be big plays the other way when he is on the field.

I doubt anyone will be happy with Whitehead’s mistakes, but right now the Lions are firmly ahead in the accounting this season. Even against the Riders, the great far outweighed the bad.

Isn’t that nifty?

I’ve done plenty of harping on the Lions’ run game, but there was one play that I absolutely loved: Shaq Cooper’s one-yard touchdown run.

The goal line concept was absolute genius, with Cooper lined up as a wing back tight end and grabbing the reverse from Nathan Rourke as he and Lucky Whitehead faked outside like they were running an option. It was the perfect design to put the defence in a bind and circumvent their expectations, play-calling brilliance I hope to see more of.

Sayling past

SAM linebacker Marcus Sayles had a wild first quarter, racking up five tackles and a sack in the opening frame, but I bet he’d trade all that early success for just one tackle late.

Sayles had Kyran Moore dead to rights on the second to last play of the Rider’s game-winning drive, but badly over-pursued and ran past him, allowing a seven-yard gain to set up the pivotal QB sneak. He was hurt on the play as well, but I’m sure the pain that comes with the ‘what if’ of that one rare missed tackle was far greater.

Bigger than football

While it mattered a great deal to football fans, the action on the field Friday truly was secondary to the events off of it.

In a historic partnership with the B.C. government, the Orange Shirt Society, the Ending Violence Association of BC and Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nations, the B.C. Lions became the first team to host an Orange Shirt Day in honour of the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation on September 30.

Local Kwakwaka’wakw/Tlingit artist Corinne Hunt designed a new logo for the club which was featured on more than 10,000 “Every Child Matters” shirts given to fans and players on Friday and 350 Residential School survivors were in attendance. When they were announced on the jumbotron, the standing ovation lasted for two minutes.

This was more than a hollow gesture, it was meaningful and real from the B.C. Lions and the response from fans was heartening. The team and the league used their platform to educate and elevate Indigenous voices and it appears that for the first time in this nation’s history, Canadians might just be ready to listen. The stark reality of several thousand dead children on our collective conscience — including the 215 found just minutes from the Lions’ training camp facility in Kamloops — may have finally moved the needle and there is no escaping from the reckoning.

It wasn’t perfect execution from the Lions or the CFL. I wasn’t watching the broadcast, but some suggested that an interview with a residential school survivor deserved more nuanced attention than an in-game sit-down with Glen Suitor. Personally, I might add that following up a powerful rendition of the Coast Salish anthem by making the whole stadium sing O Canada was more than a little ironic on a day when you are marking the horrors that come with attempts to assimilate people into the collective identity of the colonial state. But this was a start, a real and meaningful effort at advancing reconciliation that should be commended by all.

There will always be a few ignorant voices all too smugly content to ask what Indigenous reconciliation has to do with football behind the safety of a computer screen. I would argue that acknowledging and correcting a history of genocide is everyone’s responsibility — especially that of organizations with large public platforms — but I believe the Lions should have an even more personal attachment that few recognize.

The CFL went through one reckoning with reconciliation during the Edmonton Elks’ recent name change, a reluctant admission that their former moniker was not acceptable given the history of colonial oppression against the Inuit. While B.C.’s name is not a direct reference to Indigenous peoples, nor has it been viewed as derogatory, it is also a very real product of our country’s history of Indigenous assimilation and erasure.

Not only is the name of the province of British Columbia something of a double middle finger to Indigenous peoples — referencing both our colonizing power and accidental “discoverer” of the Americas/instigator of genocide Christopher Columbus — but their nickname has colonial roots as well.

The Lions are, of course, a reference to the ever-present twin mountain peaks which have spawned the name of so much in this city, but that famed landmark is only ‘the Lions of B.C.’ to settlers in this province. To Indigenous peoples in this area they were Ch’ich’iyúy Elxwíkn or ‘The Sisters,’ a name passed down from generation to generation through oral story-telling and legend. The fact so few people know that story is a direct result of an 1890 decision to rename the peaks in the British heraldic tradition.

I’m not suggesting that the Lions become the B.C. Sisters or change their name at all, that would be an extreme reaction. What I am pointing out is that something as small as a football team name can be a part of a much larger system of colonial oppression that has silenced Indigenous history and voices. As a club that benefits in some small way from that and occupies unceded Indigenous land, there should be an obligation to acknowledge it and work towards a better future. The Lions did that in a big way Friday and I couldn’t be prouder.

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.