Victory just out of reach for zombified Lions & other thoughts on B.C.’s fifth straight loss

Photo courtesy: B.C. Lions

After four straight losses — three of them blowouts — the B.C. Lions forced overtime against the Toronto Argonauts with a pitiful single, but couldn’t change their losing ways, as the Argos came out on top 31-29.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Out of reach

The past couple weeks have provided some truly awful performances from the Lions that have almost rendered me speechless, but what happened on Saturday afternoon in Toronto is difficult to wrap my head around in an entirely different way.

If there was to be a perfect encapsulation of the Lions season, this was perhaps it. A game of inconsistency, with explosive highs and mind-numbing lows. A contest they had multiple chances to win and yet never seemed to deserve. A failure to finish — in more ways than one — that left victory just out of reach.

“That’s what it is,” head coach Rick Campbell said post-game. “We had opportunities to win the game and we didn’t get it done, didn’t make that extra one more play we needed to win it.”

There are lots of reason why the Lions came up short in overtime, and even ended up in an extra frame to begin with. I’ll touch on many of them over the course of the next few paragraphs, but almost inexplicably, the Argos margin of victory came down to just a single play.

After a seemingly miraculous touchdown in overtime, the Lions could have stayed alive with a two-point convert. What appeared to be a bad miscommunication between quarterback Michael Reilly and receiver Shaq Johnson ended that hope.

“I’m not going to comment on it until I see it,” Reilly said after the game. “I just know from the angle where I was at what happened on the play, but there’s so much stuff going on. I’m not gonna talk about it until I look at it and know exactly what went wrong. It’s just obviously a play we didn’t make when we needed one.”

On the laundry list of reasons why the Lions suffered a fifth straight loss, that will be very low. Dozens of misses and mistakes put them in that position, but it was the final fatal error.

An incomplete pass and a ball sent wide right of its target, two things we saw too much of Saturday.

Macho, no mojo

Generally, I reserve kicker talk for the end of these columns because, well, they’re kickers. However, the massive impact that Jimmy Camacho’s performance — or lack thereof — had on this game merits addressing right off the bat.

Two field goal misses and another blocked at the line. Two chances to take a late lead squandered. After seemingly escaping kicker purgatory, the B.C. Lions are right back in it.

I praised Jimmy Camacho here just a few short weeks ago and it’s worth noting that the exuberant specialist began his unlikely Lions’ career by going a perfect 14-of-14. Since then, he’s hit on just 1-of-6 attempts and while no one player carries the burden of a loss, he bears significant responsibility here.

While bemoaning the delayed start to his own game, respected Montreal beat writer Herb Zurkowsky suggested on Twitter that Camacho is the worst kicker in the CFL. The numbers this season, which has been a terrible one for specialists, don’t support that hypothesis, but you can’t rely on a kicker who shanks 37-yard game-winners when you need to win every game.

It is unlikely that the team will be able to salvage a replacement for Camacho in time for it to matter and the salt in the wound is that they traded the rights to former all-star Sergio Castillo to Winnipeg for a fourth rounder just a few weeks ago. Saturday, they would have loved a redo.

Zombie horse

I’ve beaten the topic of B.C.’s offensive struggles like a dead horse recently, but just in time for Halloween the once rotting corpse came back from the dead. Just like a zombie, the Lions gave their opponents intermittent frights, but spent way too much time dumbly stumbling around to be truly scary.

I would argue this game was as close to a perfect representation of that group, strengths and weakness, as we have seen all year.

With Lucky Whitehead back from injury, the Lions’ boom or bust deep shot mentality became even more pronounced than it has been over the last few weeks. Initially, it worked — though never to Whitehead, who Reilly had trouble connecting with all night.

After going down 10-0 and throwing a long ball interception, the Lions proved resilient and for a shining moment, Reilly looked 28 again. Shaq Johnson hauled in a juggling 53 yarder and Bryan Burnham made the spectacular look routine with a toe-tapping 32-yard touchdown. Later, Dominique Rhymes got involved and the throw from Reilly on his touchdown catch was sublime.

After that, the wheels came off. The weather shifted and the deep ball stopped working. The Lions never stopped trying it however and it proved to be an ineffective and rigid offensive game plan throughout the second half. For that, Campbell was unapologetic.

“I know Mike is a competitor and he’s going to be aggressive and I like that style of play,” he said. “We had to take a few shots to get it going in the game and we want to be smart about it, but at the same time I want to be aggressive and come out swinging.”

You absolutely need those splash plays to be successful, but you also need a consistent strategy to attack the intermediate areas of the field and the Lions haven’t had one. Even when they tried in the second half, the rainy conditions seemed to significantly hamper Reilly. He finished with a very solid 290 yards passing, three touchdown and a pick, but his dreadful 52.6 completion percentage tells a much more accurate story of the game — no pun intended.

“I had a tough time controlling the ball for sure in the second half. Things were going pretty good in the first, but just wasn’t able to zip the ball as precisely as I wanted to,” Reilly admitted at the podium. “Our guys still made some plays and again, I just gotta figure out how to be better.”

Rain will be blamed for the inaccuracies, but water shouldn’t effect a pro quarterback as much as it did in Toronto. In reality, the wetness amplified accuracy and ball placement issues that Reilly has had all season on normally pedestrian throws.

Whether that be a failure of process, the lingering issues with his elbow, or simply age, I cannot say, but it has certainly informed the Lions choice to go with the big play only offence I so often criticize. The result, even when well executed, is often exactly what happened against the Argos. Enough points to be in some tight ball games, never enough to pull away against decent teams.

Sayles’ slip and slide

I don’t have too many deep thoughts about the defence in this one, I thought they played a solid bounce back game for the most part. Anytime you hold an opposing team to field goals five times and score a major yourself, you’ve given your offence a chance to win. It is unfortunate then that they will be remembered for an overtime touchdown that came because of something mostly outside their control.

The Argos punched in an Antonio Pipkin QB sneak in the extra frame and a coverage bust left rookie fullback Dion Pellerin wide open on the conversion for what would prove to be the winning points. Those plays were only made possible by a Marcus Sayles pass interference penalty in the endzone that preceded them.

It was undoubtedly egregious PI from Sayles, but it was the only play available to him. Transitioning from the grass field into the turf endzone — the notorious quirk of BMO Field — the defensive back slipped and had to make a desperate recovery.

“That’s part of the deal. When you come to Toronto, I’ve played multiple games here and that’s part of the deal,”  Rick Campbell said afterwards, not wanting to pass any blame to the playing surface.

I’m not as mild-mannered as Campbell. While unavoidable right now, the playing surface at BMO where field meets endzone is embarrassing to the CFL. Not only does it effect games, it is actively dangerous, and while fans were up in arms before, everyone seems to have moved on. The Sayles penalty in overtime was a stark reminder of the quirk’s massive impact.

Last minute edits

There was going to be a section here where I questioned the Lions’ decision to start Canadian receiver Jacob Scarfone and play him so much against Toronto, rather than providing more chances to the occasionally explosive Jevon Cottoy. When he had no catches on three targets, it looked like a pretty mellow take.

Then Scarfone became the almost-hero in overtime, taking in a 32-yard score to keep his team alive. 25 yards of that came after the catch on a fantastic run.

While I still don’t agree with the decision, I’ll go against my better judgement and let it slide this week. I’m not sure how many more plays Scarfone has in him like that, but there wasn’t much to critique on that one.

Five by five

Bryan Burnham catches everything thrown at him.

We know this as fact. It has been true for the last five seasons. He caught all five balls thrown his way Saturday too, for a team leading 96 yards. It is automatic.

That makes it all the more baffling why he isn’t targeted more in this Lions offence.

Saturday, Dominique Rhymes had 11 targets and caught six. Shaq Johnson had seven targets and caught three. Lucky Whitehead had six thrown his way and caught only two. Burnham got as many targets as James Butler was given checkdowns.

That has to change. I don’t necessarily expect Bryan Burnham to be the busiest receiver every week, but he certainly can’t be fourth. Especially when he delivers a key play on every ball thrown his way.

Simple joys

Another Lions’ loss is bound to be demoralizing for fans, but we can at least all look back and smile at one of life’s simplest joys: a big man touchdown.

When a Bo Lokombo’s knockdown fell into the lap of Obum Gwacham in the third quarter and he took off for the endzone, you couldn’t help but grin. Though he was originally recruited to college as a receiver, Gwacham had never scored a defensive touchdown.

Not in the NCAA. Not in the NFL. Not in the AAF or XFL. At 30 years old, it finally happened.

“God put me in the right place at the right time,” he said beaming despite the loss. “I was fortunate that Bo was able to bat it up and I really just put my hands out and it was like a present landed right on there. At the time, I was just thinking ‘let’s score, let’s score, let’s score. Let’s try to get the momentum back.’ That’s where my head really was at with that one.”

Unsurprisingly, Gwacham was somewhat more upbeat than the other Lions made available to the media post-game and you can’t knock him for it. He’s had a solid season and this was a long-awaited cherry on top.

Bo-na fide standout

While we are on the topic, Bo Lokombo has not gotten nearly enough credit for his quality of play this year and he had another fantastic outing against Toronto, with 10 total tackles, two sacks and that key batted ball.

Fellow Canadian linebacker Jordan Williams has gotten most of the acclaim for racking up tackles in the middle, but it is the local kid who has been arguably better. In a career year, Lokombo has 58 defensive tackles, nine special teams tackles, four sacks, three picks, a touchdown and a forced fumble. That’s among the best numbers in the league for a Will linebacker, but no hype has surrounded Lokombo’s breakout. That really should change.

Date with destiny

Five straight losses and a 4-7 record has B.C. out of the playoffs right now, but not all is lost. The team can remain alive if they win out and get some help, but even Rick Campbell seems shocked that remains a possibility.

“We control our own destiny, which is amazing to say, but we do. But we’re coming down to our last chance at it,” he said about what the next few weeks hold.

“I want these guys to retain their spirit and their competitiveness, and that was more of the team I’ve known most of the season. They had a good spirit about them and came out here competitive and all that stuff. The name of the game is to win, but if we play that style of game, we’re capable of winning our fair share games.”

It’s undeniable that the Lions were better this week, but it is still hard to call them good. If it is a date with destiny they are looking forward to, I doubt they’ll be buying breakfast in the playoffs.

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.