Lions offer battered province a future to cheer for & other thoughts on B.C.’s season finale dominance

The thing about slides is you only ever exit them at the bottom, but the B.C. Lions launched out of their seven-game losing streak in spectacular fashion on Friday night.

Facing a hapless Edmonton Elks team playing their third game in seven days, the Leos did what they were supposed to and more, exploding for a 43-10 victory.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

The best medicine

It’s no secret what the main storyline of Friday night was and you can rest assured that I’ll have plenty to say on that topic, but given the current situation in the province of British Columbia, it felt wrong to start there.

The crowd at BC Place was thinner than it had been all year and not only because people couldn’t be bothered to make the trek to watch two bad football teams play a meaningless game.

For those somehow unaware, B.C. is currently under a state of emergency due to historic flooding throughout the province. Cities near Vancouver with strong football fandoms, like Chilliwack and Abbottsford, are still in dire straits and washed out roads have the entire Lower Mainland almost entirely cut off from the rest of Canada. The daily economic impact is being measured in billions, the effects on peoples’ lives and livelihoods has been greater, and a trip downtown just wasn’t feasible for many given the newly imposed gas ration.

While the game itself on Friday was meaningless, the fact that the Lions were able to bring people to their feet and give them something to cheer about was incredibly meaningful.

“Our hearts go out to all those people with what they’re having to deal with and we’re hoping for the best for everyone,” head coach Rick Campbell said post-game, indicating that a performance like that in a moment like this was the team’s attempt to give back to the faithful for their support during hard times.

“This year, I’ve been really impressed with our fans, they’re very enthusiastic and make it a great atmosphere. Nathan [Rourke] too, he’s a local guy. He lives here and so I know he gets it. We obviously wish the best to everyone out there.”

Rourke, the Victoria-born quarterback who lived here during the pandemic, did indeed get it. When asked about the whole situation, he mentioned the New Orleans Saints in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as a framework for what the team was trying to accomplish.

“I’m not saying that’s what’s happening here by any means, but that’s the impact that sports can have,” Rourke explained. “We want to be that for the city of Vancouver and the province and I think winning brings people together. If we continue to do that, I think good things can happen for not just us, but the community as well. That’s always on the top of our minds.”

The Lions’ performance against Edmonton will not go down in the history of this province in any comparable way to Steve Gleason’s famous blocked punt, but it did provide a much needed escape for a lot of people. That is all that really matters.

Welcome to the future

“Winning is fun.”

That’s all rookie Canadian quarterback Nathan Rourke had to say about the excitement he brought in his first full game at the helm of the B.C. Lions and he is absolutely right.

While we got a glimpse at Rourke’s potential in the first game of the season, fans have been clambering for a longer look all year and it is fair to say everyone liked what they saw against the Elks. Going 23-of-34 for 359 yards, a touchdown, and two interceptions, while rushing for 34 yards and three more scores, Rourke looked calm and in control, every bit the potential franchise quarterback he’s long been billed as.

“I’m not surprised, but it’s fun to see it in action. He has such a great work ethic and he truly loves the game and that shows you that hard work pays off,” Rick Campbell praised. “He would have been just as prepared in that first Saskatchewan game if he just had time to practice and get experience and do all those things.”

Making grandiose assessments about a player after beating a team so positively putrid as the Edmonton Elks is never in anyone’s best interest and Rourke has lots to work on. His deep arm strength will never compare to a healthy Reilly and there were a few timing and ball placement issues — all to be expected — but what he does well, he does very well.

With just some quick rhythm throws, RPOs and his innate ability to make plays with his feet, Rourke can tear apart a defence. Anyone who watched him dominate the MAC as an Ohio Bobcat knew that. Now it’s simply been proven against actual professionals.

“It’s good going into the off-season knowing that I can play in this league. I’ve shown it. I can win for this team. I can help this team win,” Rourke said. “There’s still a lot that I left there on the field and that’s exciting because there’s so much to go after and I’m motivated and ready to do that.”

Now here’s where things get complicated. For a deprived fan base five years removed from their last winning season, Rourke’s outing feels like the beginning of a new era — terrible Elks opposition be damned. Our quarterback of the future is here and he is something that CFL fans have dreamed of constantly since Russ Jackson’s retirement 60 years ago: a real homegrown star signal caller to stick on the billboards.

I too believe Rourke is the future of this club, but that future may not be beginning quite as immediately as some would like. Michael Reilly showed some serious cracks in his play this season, but so did every other quarterback in the CFL with the exception of Zach Collaros. At this point his dollar figure has exceeded his output, but there is nothing stopping either of those variables from changing next year and I don’t see Reilly being pushed out the door quite yet.

There is a large segment of the fan base that would take issue with that decision and you could already argue that the immense fan support for Rourke as a rookie is proof of what we already suspected: a Canadian starting quarterback would get butts in seats. Still, this is a vital decision and when the transition from former MOP to Canadian youngster does take place, it cannot be rushed before Rourke is fully ready.

This game showed he’s pretty damn close to it, but if I were the Lions I’d want to get another look to make sure.

“There’s been a lot of talk this week and I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m excited for it,” Rourke said of his status as a beacon of hope within the organization. “I want to win here, I want to play here, and I think that the ownership and the organization is in the right hands, and that is something that I want to be part of.”

My bold prediction is that fans will have to wait another season for their desired future to manifest, but by opening day of 2023, this is Nathan Rourke’s football team.

Decisions, decisions, decisions

The choice on whether to maintain or sever the club’s long term commitment to Michael Reilly will be by far the most important one, but it will be far from the only big decision looming over this long off-season.

I don’t have the full list in front of me, but the modern reality of the CFL is that most players are on one-year contracts and there will be tough choices to make about a number of veterans. Among the most notable names will be star receiver Bryan Burnham and veteran defensive back TJ Lee, both 31 and both lifelong Lions.

“This is my home, this is my family, but I can’t be a B.C. player without signing a contract,” Lee said frankly after a two interception performance. “It is what it is. I understand the nature of the sport. I’m gonna continue to be myself and bring my energy and hopefully I earned my worth this year.”

The Lions should bend over backwards to bring both productive veterans back, but others will be gone next year, including some who the Lions might prefer to keep.

At the top of that list is the team’s Most Outstanding Player Lucky Whitehead, who had another electrifying 79-yard punt return touchdown against the Elks and may wish to try the NFL waters one last time.

“I haven’t made that decision,” Whitehead grinned characteristically. “This off-season, I’m gonna refresh right now, chill with my family, let my hand heal and see where the wind blows me.”

At 29, an NFL contract may be a long shot for Lucky, but he was a known commodity for three years south of the border before coming north and that could help make his case. If not, he’d likely command a pretty penny on the open CFL market and the Lions will have to be willing to offer him a sizeable raise. That will be an interesting decision, as Brandon Banks proved this year just how steep a decline can await a player of that particular skillset.

On the campaign trail

Speaking of TJ Lee, the Lions’ defensive leader and his teammates seemed to be overflowing with energy on Friday and he had a simple explanation why.

“We call this a campaign game, where it’s like your campaign for next year,” Lee said. “It’s all about the future. It’s all about longevity, just instilling in the guys what it’s about. You play for a lot of things. You play for your last name.”

When politicians are campaigning, they tell a lot of lies. Apparently when defensive backs are campaigning, they make a lot of interceptions. Five to be exact, from four different players, as B.C. profited off a few 50/50 balls and some painfully bad Elks’ QB play.

“That’s what we needed to get back to. We were doing that earlier in the season, creating a lot of turnovers and making some big plays and we were able to do that tonight,” Rick Campbell added. “Obviously it makes such a big difference, not only getting the turnover, but just the emotion and the momentum that brings.”

Ballhawking is what the B.C. secondary is supposed to do best and they just weren’t making the play during the losing streak. This was like a monsoon to end a drought and the excitement was infectious as they tried twice to extend returns with pitch back laterals.

Ryan Phillips needs to refine some of the Lions’ defensive fundamentals next year, but the big play ability that can turn the tide in the modern passing game has always been there. On Friday, it was simply joyous to watch.

Can-Corners

Lost in the shuffle of the great secondary performance was that the Lions played a big chunk of the night with young Canadians at both corner spots, something that rarely occurs for any duration in the CFL.

Hakeem Johnson earned another start at the field-side spot, while a Gary Peters injury forced Jamie Harry to pinch hit the entire second half. Both made some big plays — with Johnson notching an interception and Harry almost adding one of his own — and both gave up some yardage, but the fact that a homegrown fourth round pick and former fifth round pick taken off another team’s scrap heap have grown into players who can contribute at corner is huge for the team.

I don’t particularly want Johnson starting at corner full-time, but I agree with TJ Lee’s post-game assessment that he’s grown into his role. As far as Canadian cover-men go, he is at minimum a top tier backup now, and there still aren’t enough of those bouncing around the league to take that for granted.

Better late than never

Rourke’s performance will be rightly applauded, but he wouldn’t have been able to score on his first drive if not for unlikely riverboat gambler Rick Campbell green-lighting a brilliant fake field goal turned onside punt to keep things alive.

I don’t mean to be hyperbolic, but that was damn near the only risk Campbell rolled the dice on this year and it came after the season was already lost. That’s something that needs to change when he more than likely returns next season, but at least this one play offers some hope.

More power to you

It cannot be overstated how dramatically the Lions’ run game changed over the last few weeks when the decided to go with more physical vertical runs, inside zones and gap concepts. This team went from one that could not even fake the run with any legitimacy to finishing the season with a 109-yard outing from James Butler.

If they want to continue to have some success in that area, that strategy has to continue next season. The best rushing teams in the CFL right now do their damage inside because smaller, quicker defences can be gashed consistently in that way and Butler has shown that he could be the guy to do that the last few weeks.

A place of honour

I’ve expressed my thoughts on David Braley more extensively in the past and I won’t rehash them in great detail here, but the decision to elevate the deceased former owner of the club to the Wall of Honour at halftime was absolutely the correct one.

It is low-hanging fruit to suggest that a lot of vacant seats in BC Place can be attributed to Braley’s failings and you wouldn’t be wrong in plucking it. It is also true that without his involvement there would be no seats, no team to watch, and, quite frankly, no league for them to play in. Ultimately, he bears responsibility for all the peaks and valleys, but it is the survival of Canadian football that is his legacy, not anything else.

The Braley family’s $250,000 donation to amateur football in this province will simply be an expansion on that legacy.

A helping hand

As noted in my first thought, BC Place was sparser than usual for fan appreciation night for a variety of football and non-football related reasons. It never seemed that way, because fans were given plastic clapping noisemakers as part of the gameday experience, a subtle, yet savvy move by the Lions that I feel is emblematic of a larger trend this season.

B.C. was bad on the field, but I was consistently impressed with their behind the scenes work this year. Initiatives, entertainment, engagement and promotion were all as good as they’ve been in years and providing noisemakers on night they knew would be lightly attended is just one example of the detailed forethought I’ve noticed but haven’t really appreciated before.

The Lions team pulled out all the stops for return to play in 2021 and they deserve a round of applause. The off-season may bring changes to the product, but my biggest source of hope is how the organization continues to operate away from the turf.

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