Welcome aboard the Spirit-less of British Columbia & other thoughts on the Lions’ third straight home loss

A bye week is supposed to refresh a team, but the B.C. Lions looked anything but in Week 11, falling 39-10 to the Calgary Stampeders.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Welcome aboard the Spirit-less of British Columbia

Two weeks ago, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ dismantling of the Lions was demoralizing, but somewhat forgivable against the far and away best team in the league. What happened on Saturday night against the Stamps was something else entirely.

This wasn’t a beat down in the traditional sense. Any other week, a Calgary team that had to settle for six field goals would be viewed with serious skepticism. Against a flat, lifeless Lions team, they looked like world beaters.

“We’re frustrated and I think we can play better. I’ve seen it in action. I think we can compete better. We just haven’t had that these last few games,” head coach Rick Campbell admitted freely after the game.

“I don’t know, there just was an energy missing [tonight] and I’m surprised because we had a really good week of practice and the guys were into it and all that stuff. We’re just going to have to find ways to improve and compete better in games.”

After suffering three straight losses to West Division opponents, the last two by wide margins, it is safe to say that alarm bells are starting to go off on the good ship Leo and they are taking on water as the playoff race heats up. That boat certainly isn’t a part of the B.C. Ferries’ fleet either, because there was no spirit to be found on the field against Calgary.

It’s time to talk

“We need to make sure that we are putting our players in the best position we can to make plays.”

That’s what Rick Campbell had to say about the quest to solve the Lions’ new found offensive woes, which were painfully obvious on Saturday. There are hundreds of different discussions to be had on that specific talking point, but there is one awkward conversation that desperately needs to happen, even if few want to have it.

It’s time to talk about Michael Reilly.

The face of the Lions’ franchise was positively putrid against the Stampeders, 13-of-25 passing for 145 yards and two picks and that stat line might have been flattering.

“Tonight was not good enough, the biggest culprit being myself. I thought that was one of the most poor performances that I’ve had,” Reilly acknowledged post-game.

“I can’t really tell you what the challenges were other than to say I just never got myself into a rhythm. Everything just felt a little bit off, just the timing or my progressions and reads or the location of the ball.”

It is safe to say that this game was on the anomalously poor end of what Reilly is capable of, so let us not pretend that it is indicative of what he brings to the table, but it is also the extreme example of a reality that is beginning to get tough to ignore.

Michael Reilly is 36-years old. He can’t play the game in the same way he used to. And yet, neither he nor the Lions seem to be willing to adapt.

Let’s make one thing clear: Reilly has still been the second best quarterback in the CFL this season. Even if that makes you grumpy, you can’t really argue otherwise looking at the production. Now that may be more a reflection of a historically bad year under centre in the CFL than it is a ringing endorsement of B.C.’s quarterback, but it wouldn’t be possible if Reilly didn’t still have some of elite traits that made him a star. When the man uncorks a deep ball, it can still be a thing of beauty.

But his career long tendency to hold onto the football too long, once a big play generator when he was a true dual threat, is now a serious liability, one not given enough attention because of a lot of well-deserved criticism falling on the offensive line the past two years. It was easy to ignore when a deep bomb to Lucky Whitehead could make us all forget a string of two-and-outs. Without that, it is painful to watch.

Older quarterbacks, it doesn’t matter who, always have to change their game eventually. It’s either that or get left by the wayside. Reilly can’t afford to hang in there anymore, he can’t afford the shots and those highlight reel escapes to create something out of nothing are few and far between. He should be embracing getting the ball out quick to have success, letting the deep shots set up gradually rather than forcing them, but that isn’t happening.

When Nathan Rourke finally entered this ball game for good in the dying minutes, the offence looked dramatically better. Some of that is a defence done caring, but some of it is because the play-calling shifts for the rookie. Easy reads, get the ball out quick. Take what the defence gives and march the field.

Reilly should have a heavier dose of those same things when he’s in, but either offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic isn’t emphasizing that in the play-calling or Reilly’s engrained tendencies are rendering any attempts irrelevant. On a team where the quarterback has sometimes appeared to have more control than the staff, it is hard to tell which.

What both sides need to realize is that if the stylistic evolution doesn’t happen, the quarterback will suffer. Especially at his price tag, it only takes a few performances like what Reilly showed Saturday to force the decision to move on.

I’ll be frank, as a fan of Reilly since my teen years, I don’t want that to happen. Neither does Rick Campbell, because he did not even toy with the idea of starting Rourke next week while speaking to the media.

“Absolutely not. Mike’s a stud and he’s our guy.”

Then they need to force him into positions for him to succeed, no matter what he wants.

Big mercies

The worst part of that outing from Reilly? The quarterback’s answer may surprise you.

“I thought the offensive line played great. That’s probably the most disappointing part is that everybody has been talking a lot about the running game and the offensive line, all that kind of stuff. I thought both of those showed up extremely well today and unfortunately I did not,” he took care to point out.

On that front, Reilly is absolutely correct. While I’m not a fan of this o-line group, they were much improved against the Stamps. Protection issues mainly fell on the QB’s shoulders and James Butler got positive yardage on his blowout restricted six carries, averaging close to five yards per. Perhaps they even listened to my unhinged ramblings, because it seemed the concepts finally emphasized a downhill style attack with more Gap and Inside Zone designs.

After harping on the hoggies the last few weeks, it warms this line coach’s heart to say something positive. Hopefully the trend continues.

Gut punch

There was no doubt that B.C.’s first half was utterly deflating, but nothing could have prepared them for how they would open the second.

Roc Thomas. 101 yards. At least seven Lions helplessly grasping at cloth. Touchdown.

A complete and utter gut punch.

You could almost feel that play coming. The Leos’ special teams, which have been decidedly unspectacular all season, gave Malik Henry a glimmer on almost every punt return and there was a clear sense that the Stamps would bust one there. Instead, it came on the kickoff team and in absolutely embarrassing fashion.

“That’s why you’ve got to come out of that locker room ready to go,” Campbell admitted. “I don’t question our guys’ effort. I know we missed a couple of tackles on the play. I don’t question our effort, but it comes down to making plays and their guy made a play, made a couple of guys miss and we didn’t tackle him. That’s a huge momentum swing in this game.”

Thomas’ romp through the entire B.C. team was as bad a display of football fundamentals as you’ll see and even those who didn’t get caught looking like a B-movies zombie trying to grab hold of the speedster still got physically dominated by their blockers.

The Lions felt listless everywhere in this game, but that long score is what showed it the most. Lazy football played at half speed will suck the life out of a team every time.

Remember me?

There was a lot of angst with the Lucky Whitehead injury about what the Lions could possibly do to survive without a dynamic receiver. This week won’t quiet that chatter, but it is as if people have forgotten Bryan Burnham exists.

Recording a catch for the 91st straight game, Burnham had what I would call a quietly impressive outing. He made seven catches for 93 yards and few of them were gimmes. Burnham made the plays anyway, just as he always does.

Injuries have slowed Burnham at times this year, but if you are interested in my two cents, they need to emphasize getting him the ball even more down the stretch. Burnham rarely loses a jump ball, but surprisingly few have been thrown his way in recent weeks. If you want to get out of a dry spell, get the ball to your best player.

Who are you?

A Lions defence that only allowed one offensive touchdown was perhaps the least of the team’s worries against Calgary, but they had more than their share of trouble getting off the field, particularly early. What makes that really notable is who those troubles came against.

The Stampeders’ receivers in this game were far from a collection of household names, particularly with Josh Huff being a late scratch. The group that ate up yardage against B.C. was chaired by Nick Holley, famous for being the twin brother of 2019 Most Outstanding Rookie Nate Holley, and a trio of Canadians each taken with the Stampeder’s final pick in their respective CFL Drafts, Richie Sindani (2017), Colton Hunchak (2019), and Luther Hakunavanahu (2021).

The consensus theory from the Lions after the fact was that the success of those players had less to do with what they did, and more to do with what the Lions didn’t.

“I think we have some talented guys that make big plays. Our defence has been living off turnovers and making big plays, which is great, but you can’t rely on that forever,” Rick Campbell explained. “We need to improve on being able to step up and make a play and get off the field.”

The Lions have played soft in coverage all year to make those plays, but it didn’t work for the second straight week and gave unearned opportunities to a struggling quarterback and inexperienced pass catchers. SAM linebacker Anthony Cioffi, who forced a fumble in the first half, noted how the team fell off in man coverage and didn’t get to their spot in zone, letting the little things slide while focused elsewhere.

“Turnovers, they’re in our blood and we create points off turnovers and it’s a big facet of the game for us, but we just gotta communicate and make sure everybody’s on the same page,” he said. “We don’t want to be out of place and we definitely want to continue to run to the ball and create those opportunities for us.”

The turnover heavy strategy has been more successful than not, but if there was ever a team the Lions should have been able to match up purely one-on-one with it was the Stamps offence Saturday. They didn’t take full advantage.

Command, no control

With seconds left in the first half, the Stampeders were pressing once again but it appeared as if the Lions got a big break. On an eight yard Roc Thomas run, linebacker Jordan Williams appeared to force a fumble and recover it, but the ruling on the field was down by contact. In stadium replay showed the ball was moving just before Thomas’ knee went down and it seemed as if the play was sure to be overturned. It wasn’t and Paredes kicked through the field goal as time expired.

Inside three minutes, a play like that cannot be challenged by Campbell and becomes the command centre’s responsibility. It seems they did review in this case, if only for a second. Unless every fan and media member in attendance Saturday was missing something vital to this plot point, their quick review came to the wrong conclusion and the league’s rules mouthpiece on Twitter offered no explanation.

It will be forgotten because of the blowout, but that turns out to be a huge play if this game could have turned competitive. The Command Centre at least owes us a tweet in those circumstances.

Spooky season

B.C. continues to announce sellouts at their reduced capacity 12,500 fan mark, but few of those were happy campers as people flooded out early Saturday. There were plenty of boos too and that had nothing to do with any October festivities.

Reilly said he doesn’t pay attention to crowd reactions enough to have been affected by that chorus, but he also had a surprisingly uplifting take on fan anger.

“If there is booing then that means your fan base cares, so I’m certainly not upset with them for that. That’s the way it goes. If I was concerned about boos or people on our team were concerned about that, I’d be in the wrong business and flamed out of pro football a long time ago,” he said.

“The reality is that nobody on this planet is going to be a bigger critic of me and my play than I am of myself. If they booed, then it was certainly warranted. I wouldn’t blame them for that.”

One thing that has been very clear this year is how much the dedicated faithful in B.C. Place genuinely care about the club, something contrary to much of the discussion around football in this city. Boos may show they care, but they’d much rather express it by buying a home playoff ticket.

Comedy without errors

If you are looking for positives with the Lions and can’t quite find them on the field right now, feel free to heap praise on whoever was responsible for the team’s Family Night fan engagement.

In general, the Lions have been smashing it with off-the-field content this season, but this one was particularly memorable. Video messages from player families on the jumbotron throughout the night elicited some awww’s from the crowd, but the stroke of genius was to have Grade 2 students from North Otter Elementary School draw portraits of all the players for game day introductions. That was sweet on it’s own, but the video the team produced of the players guessing whose portrait was whose was pure, wholesome comedy.

Video board content is usually a half-hearted distraction, but this genuinely had people riveted and laughing out loud. As one other person in attendance — ok fine, it was my dad — commented, it somehow made the players likable on a night where there wasn’t much to like at all.

Kudos for the Lions for pulling that off. I look forward to seeing what else you have in store for us.

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