Lions beheaded by radio malfunctions and other thoughts on B.C.’s sixth straight loss

Photo courtesy: Bob Butrym

For the second straight week, the B.C. Lions put themselves in a position to win — or at least tie — a football game with a late surge. They came up short once again against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, falling 26-18 after an unsuccessful final drive.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Beheaded 

In the immediate aftermath of another Lions’ loss, it seemed obvious where a recap should begin.

Getting the ball back in great field position down eight points with 39 seconds left in the game, B.C. had what should have been a prime opportunity for a classic CFL finish. Had it been well-executed, they had enough time to be methodical in their approach. A desperate heave to the endzone shouldn’t have been neccesary.

Instead, Michael Reilly managed to get just two chaotic plays off before seemingly ad-libbing a hail mary call as time expired, which he proceeded to chuck into quintuple coverage.

It was a failure in late game clock management and play-calling that stuck out like a sore thumb and went beyond James Butler simply failing to get out of bounds. Valuable seconds ticked away as Reilly desperately shouted at his receivers. The team was barely getting set in time. On the last play of the game, it seemed only one pass catcher made it to the endzone.

Inexcusable and embarrassing, or so I thought I would be writing before the other side of the story came out post-game.

“We want to run the best play possible,” head coach Rick Campbell explained of the mangled final call. “We had some issues with our headphones that we couldn’t get the play in from the offensive coordinator to the quarterback. We were dealing with that issue all night, but you’ve got to overcome those types of things. We’ll make sure we’re better at it next time.”

It seems the situation was this: With offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic up in the spotter’s booth, the radio communication between him, the sideline and Reilly’s helmet earpiece frequently descended into static throughout the night. That came to a head in the final minute, when the quarterback’s desperate attempt to organize the offence was a direct result of not actually being able to hear the desired play calls.

Coming from a player who has made a habit of shouldering the full responsibility of every loss in his career, Reilly’s sharp rebuke of the league’s “bullsh*t” technological struggles on this night was telling.

“We got a garbled mess 95% of the game. It’s not good enough. It’s unacceptable to pro football, needs to be fixed,” he emphasized.

“Because of the miscommunication throughout the entire game, when you can’t get the play call, it causes you to break the huddle late, which means you can’t check at the line. It caused a time count penalty at the end of the first half, so yeah, not good enough. Somebody needs to figure out what the issue was and get it fixed because it’s really not a good way to play football.”

The headset issue does not absolve the Lions of all of their late game issues, better situational awareness was needed and they could have adjusted better to an issue they had been dealing with all game long. With that said, there is no doubt that the faulty radios put the team at a disadvantage and left them looking like chickens with their heads cut off when it mattered most.

Though I’m not quite sure to whom the blame falls for maintenance of the headsets, the CFL monitors and regulates their fair usage, meaning the league office should face some serious questions about how this was allowed to take place.

That the Lions’ headset’s failed and the Ticats’ apparently did not created a competitive imbalance, something that in the NFL would have resulted in the radios being removed from both teams. I can’t find whether a similar rule applies in Canada or whether the content of radio communication is still monitored by league officials since the 2016 rule change allowed for constant contact between coach and quarterback.

Either way, something appears to have gone badly wrong here and I agree with Reilly; it absolutely must be fixed.

You learn something new every day

I was today years old when I learned that punching the ball out of a would-be-returner’s hands on an onside kick does not count as the last touch.

Jevon Cottoy made one hell of a play to disrupt Jaelon Acklin’s late game recovery and in a just world, it would have given his team the ball back. In such a parallel universe, the Lions may have actually stood a chance without their functional headsets. Instead, it was correctly ruled Ticats football and their unsuccessful drive ate up just under 40 seconds of crucial play clock.

I have no issue with the call here, by all accounts it was the right one. I just now have a new least favourite CFL rule.

Party rocked

It appeared that Michael Reilly’s pre-game sound track must have included some LMFAO ft. Lil Jon, because from the moment he stepped on the field Friday the B.C. Lions quarterback was taking shots, shots, shots.

I’ve often criticized Reilly for his failure to get rid of the football in a timely manner, but while that tendency is never absent from his game, he appeared to do a better job of it against Hamilton. As an offence, consistency continued to be a struggle but I felt they also had their best outing in a while in terms of taking what the defence gave them. Yet Reilly found himself on the ground time and time again.

“Mark [Washington, Hamilton’s defensive coordinator] was bringing a lot of pressure tonight, so the only way to combat that is to hit the quick stuff, but you can’t sit there and do that all game,” Reilly noted post-game. “You’ve got to be able to push the ball a little bit down the field. When you do that, you’ve got to take some hits.”

He seemed to strike a better balance in that regard, particularly late, and as Reilly eluded, plenty of contact Friday was unavoidable. SAM linebacker Kameron Kelly made a menace of himself flying unblocked off the edge and he couldn’t always be accounted for in the protection, but the Ticats still got way too much pressure rushing with four than the one sack box score would indicate.

I have a hard time beating the drum on this offensive line again because there is no changing them. The starting five simply are who they are and while schematic changes have finally played to their strengths in the run game, they aren’t ever going to pitch a perfect game in pass protection. With how much B.C. likes pushing the ball, it will always leave fans frustrated.

Kent Perkins surrendered the lone sack when Julian Howsare got to his shoulder before his quarterback had even reached his drop, but Dylan Wynn taking Hunter Steward to the woodshed on Reilly’s lone interception is probably the defensive line highlight. It wasn’t a ball that should have been thrown, but the contact made sure it was spectacularly short-armed.

Time and scouting are the only things that will ever get B.C.’s trench play out of the bottom third of the league, but if Reilly is to continue with this club — by no means a certainty at this point — he can’t keep being exposed to this much contact. While the long-time toughest man in the CFL insisted at the podium that taking the brunt of that physical pounding is still the thing he “loves the most about the game of football,” I no longer believe him.

The 36-year old no longer pops up with gusto and he looks like he’s hurting every time he gets up off the ground. He’ll never admit it, but the rising hit count appears draining in a way it didn’t when he was the dual threat tough guy in Edmonton. That’s just the nature of the human body and the Lions remain a step behind in adapting to the change.

Wrong time, wrong place

Steven Dunbar down the sideline for 40 yards. Brandon Banks blazing past Marcus Sayles for a 32-yard touchdown. Don Jackson ripping through a gaping hole for 31. While the B.C. defence had moments on Friday, there is no question that big plays killed them in Hamilton.

“That was just [missed assignments]. We’ve got some young guys out here, including myself and the guys are not playing in the right place,” linebacker Jordan Williams explained after the game, before clarifying to avoid an unintentional critique of the coaching staff.

“Guys are put in the right place, but guys are not in position to make the plays because they’re not where they’re supposed to be. We’re a gap sound defence, so if we’re at where we’re supposed to be we will stop those big chunk players. We just got to play and think more on those downs.”

That positional consistency has been a recent issue for the Leos and they know it, but the results may be causing them to press more. This is still a turnover first defence, but you can’t get caught ball watching while Speedy B is running past you for his first touchdown of the year. It is an issue that needs to be addressed, although it isn’t the biggest problem the Lions still face defensively.

Lumps of coal

That status falls to the defensive line, an inexperienced group that before the season was billed as diamonds in the rough. Even with the more recent addition of veteran Alex Bazzie, they have been nothing but lumps of coal. That is to say, you need to create pressure to turn into diamonds.

B.C. got nothing in the face of Jeremiah Masoli all night, their lone sack coming from linebacker Adam Konar on Hamilton’s final drive. In stark contrast to Reilly, it was damn close to the only time Masoli got dirt on himself involuntarily.

Already lacking the horses to generate consistent pressure with their front four, B.C. spent large chunks of the night rushing just three and didn’t send nearly enough extra pressure’ to compensate. Some of that schematic shift was due to the roster being hamstrung from dressing two American kickers, but the fact they were forced to do it didn’t make it any more effective.

Whatever coverage advantage was gained from having extra players dropping was negated by the fact no rusher so much as flustered what was at one time a struggling Hamilton offensive line, providing ample time for Masoli to leisurely go through his progressions. It also made the Lions’ already suspect run defence even worse, as players like Tim Bonner got bullied on the inside.

It’s safe to say that look should be scrapped all together and the teams scouting process when it comes to defensive linemen should probably follow, as they are still failing to find pass rushers in an era you can’t live without them.

Campbell the safety elephant

It will be lost in the excitement at the end of the game, but head coach Rick Campbell’s decision to concede a safety in the second quarter proved to be a pivotal error in this one.

Ask anyone who studies the numbers and they’ll tell you that conceding a safety rarely makes strategic sense. For all the galaxy brain chess playing that goes on in coaches’ heads, teams tend to score touchdowns a lot less than you expect and giving away two points for what is usually a negligible gain in field position — particularly if you have a cover team like the Lions — just doesn’t make sense.

By taking the knee when snapping from his own 13-yard line, Campbell all but handed the Ticats a five point swing. When you lose by eight trying desperately for a touchdown, that matters. While you can’t guarantee whether punting would have netted you a blank slate, bumped that down to three points or allowed a touchdown, every objective number suggests that Campbell made the wrong game management call there, one that can’t be blamed on headsets.

Return of The Flash

His actual return to the lineup was last week, but I vote that we scratch Lucky Whitehead’s Week 13 performance from the record and remember this as his first game back, because in many ways it was. No longer tentative with his injured hand and having benefitted from his first full week of practice, this was the explosive player Lions fans have grown accustomed to.

B.C. made it an emphasis to get him the ball early, with Reilly hitting him four times for 50 yards on the opening drive alone. Whitehead ultimately caught nine of his 13 targets for 98 yards, finishing as the team’s top receiver. The deep shot that has been his trademark wasn’t quite there on this night, but he had a much bigger presence in the short and intermediate game than has been typical, something I would argue the Lions need from him to be successful.

On yet another disappointing night, knowing the league’s best weapon is ready to contribute in the final two do-or-die games is the only glimmer of hope Lions fans have had in a while.

Nothing extra

Jimmy Camacho was out, Nick Vogel was in, but the Lions’ kicking game still came back to bite them.

To his credit, Vogel hit both of his field goal attempts Friday after arriving in town this week. On the flip side, he shanked both of his extra point attempts, something that could have seriously hurt B.C. had they succeeded in finding the endzone at the end of the game.

I’m not writing Vogel off after one game and he did appear to cramp up on the final kick, but it is fair to say that the team’s kicking game has not yet been settled in the slightest.

Crossed out

While Lions’ fans will rightfully focus on this game being the team’s sixth straight loss, the bigger ramification of the result is that the Leos are now out of contention for a crossover playoff spot.

The only path forward remains through the West, where B.C. will have to win out against Calgary and Edmonton, then hope the Stampeders’ lose to what is sure to be a squad of backups playing for the Bombers in the final game of the regular season.

Their destiny is no longer in their own hands, but they aren’t dead yet. That may be cold comfort considering the stretch they’ve just been through and as Reilly puts it, the team won’t spend too much time crunching the playoff scenario numbers.

“We’re not good enough to focus on anything more than just the next game at hand,” he said.

Even that has been a challenge as of late.

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.