Lions reach rock bottom and other thoughts on B.C.’s first shutout loss in 51 years

Photo courtesy: Winnipeg Blue Bombers

The B.C. Lions entered IG Field on Saturday as a team in crisis and left utterly humiliated, suffering a 45-0 dismantling at the hands of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Under the sea

After last week’s uninspiring loss to Calgary, I described the B.C. Lions as a sinking ship. That analogy is no longer relevant, because the Leos have already sunk. If there is any hope for this franchise in 2021, it will be if this game marked them reaching the sea floor.

“I hope so. I mean, if it gets worse that’s obviously not a good thing,” quarterback Michael Reilly said when asked if his team had reached rock bottom with a fourth straight loss to a West Division rival. “I can’t answer that because time will tell, but hopefully it is.”

His head coach was slightly more direct.

“It feels like it right now,” Rick Campbell admitted. “I’ve been a part of some not very good football teams and this is not one of those teams. There’s too many good people and talents, but we’re obviously playing like a bad football team right now.”

That’s the understatement of the year. The Bombers have proven to be the undisputed class of the CFL, but the Lions’ limp effort at the home of the reigning Grey Cup champions was nothing short of embarrassing. B.C. was dominated in every single phase of the game, offence, defence and special teams, and utterly demoralized. Their playoff hopes are in serious jeopardy and after four straight losses, there is no indication that this team has the juice to turn the corner.

“We’ve got time, but it’s running short, so we’ve got to find a way to fix this stuff,” Campbell admitted.

That has been the refrain in three straight post-game addresses and there has yet to be a meaningful response from the players on the field. If this isn’t rock bottom, you can see it from here.

“Call it what you want,” veteran defensive back TJ Lee said of that assessment. “Next game, next play, next team.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Out of answers

For my money, Michael Reilly is one of the best post-game interviews in the CFL. He’s gruff and honest, not afraid to take issue with a question and always expands on his answer to go beyond what is asked. He’ll never throw his team under the bus and watching him at the podium is a master class in how you want your franchise quarterback to operate.

There was nothing wrong with Reilly’s appearance in front of the media after Saturday’s loss, but the usually talkative quarterback was noticeably short with his responses and it’s hard to blame him. When asked how to solve his team’s offensive woes, he had only one sentence to offer.

“I don’t have the answer to that question, but we’ve got to find it.”

While a 45 point drubbing and some very sore ribs is enough to make anyone terse, this was not an intentionally evasive or combative appearance. This was an utterly exhausted quarterback completely out of answers on a team that has none to offer him.

The Lions’ offensive struggles have taken up more words in this column over the past few weeks than I care to admit, but I too am at a loss. I spent much of last night staring at a blank screen and attacked with fresh eyes this morning, but it is difficult to put into words the depths of offensive incompetence that resulted in the Lions being shut out for the first time in 51 years.

To summarize, the play calling is inadequate, the playmakers are moving at half speed, the offensive line is immobile, and for the second straight week their now man-of-few-words quarterback looks like a shell of himself.

“It’s not only him, but the quarterback’s always going to get more of the credit and more of the blame. It’s just the nature of the position. Mike’s going to tell you he needs to play better and there’s a whole bunch of other guys that need to play better and coach better and all that stuff, with me at the front of the line,” Campbell admitted, taking some of the pressure off Reilly.

“We need to really look at what we’re doing and making sure we’re giving ourselves the best chance and then find ways to make plays. We can’t gain any momentum right now, because we don’t make the plays necessary to stay in the game. We’ve got to figure out how to get back to that.”

Once again, that is an answer we’ve heard before and Lions fans are getting awfully tired of it when very little seems to change week to week.

Hot and bothered

So, where do we go from here? The Lions’ late season collapse appears to have reached it’s pinnacle, but the path forward is murky at best and there is sure to be serious questions even if B.C. manages to right the ship in the last four games.

I make it a principle of mine never to call for anyone’s job and I won’t change that approach here, but it is naïve to pretend that the Lions haven’t put at least three prominent contributors onto the hot seat with their play of late.

The first is of course is Michael Reilly, whose failure to adapt — whether by choice or coaching failure — to his new athletic reality I discussed at length a week ago. He looked lost for the second straight game against Winnipeg, going 15-of-31 for 131 yards and a pick six, and while his toughness was on full display, the dozens of shots he took looked like they hampered him in a way they wouldn’t have when he entered the league.

With the highest price tag in the CFL, Reilly can’t afford to be average because the Lions can’t afford to pay him to be. He’s been less than that over this stretch and for the first time in a long time, was pulled in the third quarter of this game. Had Nathan Rourke not promptly suffered a shoulder injury, there is little doubt in my mind that the quiet undercurrent of QB dissatisfaction felt by those supporters in orange would have sprung into outright calls for change. While this may not be the end of Reilly’s career, suddenly that path looks open, something that once seemed unthinkable.

Not all of this falls on the quarterback however. To me, the likeliest victim of this implosion has to be offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic, who has failed to create consistent production in his first season in the role. The scheme has been predictable and rigid, far too easy to defend, and lacking the one aspect every successful CFL team needs: an intermediate passing attack. That is bread and butter stuff that has been ignored by the playcaller.

I don’t see an effort to adapt this offence week to week and forget about in game adjustments. If your name isn’t Lucky Whitehead, there seems to be little attention payed to how the team might scheme for your specific skillset. The results speak for themselves, but Maksymic isn’t the only coach facing a referendum.

It’s less than a year into his tenure, but this losing streak means that Rick Campbell’s future with the Lions is not guaranteed. One-and-done coaches are a pet peeve of mine and B.C. certainly doesn’t want to go down that road financially, but the results mean it is starting to look like a serious possibility.

Here is the stark reality: B.C. is 1-6 in 2021 against West Division opponents. If it weren’t for two beatdowns of Ottawa, they’d be in the same category as the Redblacks and Elks. The embarrassment of that is that the Lions are far more talented than Ottawa and aren’t an imploding organization like Edmonton. They should be better and they aren’t. Campbell has to wear that.

I don’t want to see anyone fired, I find that reality distasteful. Yet it is a relative certainty that at least one of these three men will be searching for new employment after the season, perhaps all of them. For a franchise trying desperately to revive itself, the product on the field during this losing streak has been unacceptable and who pays the price for it will be a major storyline to watch down the stretch.

Failure to integrate

As a side note to Saturday’s offensive struggles, it marked DeVier Posey’s first game back in the Den and the Lions failed to integrate him in the offence effectively. The free agent signing has just one catch on five targets, producing only four yards receiving.

Some of that was lack of rapport with Reilly but you would have thought that B.C. would have had something special designed for their new acquisition in order to stun the best team in the league with something they hadn’t seen before. Apparently not.

Help wanted

Offence scores the points — or rather fails to score them — so it will always be the headline, but the collapse of the B.C. Lions defence over the last few weeks has been a major factor in the team’s struggles.

Winnipeg gashed the visitors for 434 yards of offence while rolling at half speed and the Lions once again surrendered some huge plays in the secondary without stealing back the ball with any turnovers.

“Only way to grow is to look in the mirror and take responsibility for the plays that should be made,” TJ Lee said post-game. “I take full responsibility for the plays that I couldn’t make, that I didn’t make, to generate energy and momentum for my team.”

B.C.’s defensive backs got plain beat in this one, getting blown past by Kenny Lawler, Rasheed Bailey and Darvin Adams, but I personally wish to turn my attention elsewhere. Coverage cannot thrive without pass rush and the Lions had none to offer.

Way back at the start of the year, the Lions were insistent that their group of first time CFLers up front was the final solution to their recent woes getting after the quarterback. They have not been, generating little pressure while also getting consistently manhandled in the run game. The result puts even more pressure on a defensive backfield that appears to be cracking under it as of late.

Obum Gwacham and Tim Bonner have been decent finds, but the scouting department’s failure to get themselves a truly premier prospect up front has hurt this team for a while. It’s too late to change it this year, but they have to attack the position differently going forward.

Insult to injury

I don’t have a tremendous amount to say about Janarion Grant’s 63-yard punt return touchdown late in the fourth quarter, except that it was a fitting ending to a horrific evening.

With the offence stuck in mud and the defence sliced apart, it was nice of the Bombers to remind the team they have also been outplayed on special teams over this stretch. At least everyone in the locker room can be embarrassed together now.

Sliver of hope

If you need a positive takeaway from the beatdown, it at least appears that the Lions have solved their run game woes. James Butler carried six times for a season’s best 41 yards before he was rendered irrelevant in the blowout and the fact those yards are coming on Gap concepts is proof that the Lions offence can evolve when they want to. It may not be much, but it is a sliver of hope  for a team without many right now.

In need of pets

I post the Lions post-game tweet from last night here without comment. I think we can all relate.


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.