Stop invoking the 2011 B.C. Lions when a CFL team starts the season badly

Photo courtesy: Travis Lulay

Being a fan of the Canadian Football League means knowing that you can set your calendar to certain times of the year when old talking points are inevitably brought up.

At some point during the offseason, usually around late February to early March after the hype of free agency has quieted down, someone will state publicly that it might be time for the CFL to revise or eliminate the Canadian player ratio. They will bring up letting the best players play regardless of passport and it will be rebuked with sound logic and go away until another year.

After that, at some point in the spring, someone will decide it is an ideal time to wonder aloud if the CFL should consider moving the season up to avoid inclement late fall weather out west. Then Calgary will get hit with a snowstorm in late May and people will counter that argument with pictures of their front yard.

Then we hit another off-season lull and the idea of a team signing Tim Tebow or Colin Kaepernick will spring up for no reason whatsoever. Someone will say they would dominate if they came north despite the fact that Tebow has not played a regular season game of football since 2012 and Kaepernick has been blackballed from the NFL since he started protesting police brutality during the 2016 NFL season. We will all laugh and pack that one away for a rainy day in the future.

But coming up with off-season talking points can be tough so people rely on old, tired tropes to do anything to spark discussion. During the season, with so much going on, you usually don’t find these annoying debates but the CFL has a rare, oft-repeated, in-season talking point that seemingly will not die: if your team starts poorly, do not fret, maybe they can be this year’s version of the 2011 B.C. Lions.

What that Lions team accomplished was nothing short of spectacular, starting the season 0-5 before running off 11 victories over their final 13 regular season games to finish first in the West Division. They easily dispatched the Edmonton Football Team in the West Final before ultimately topping the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to take home the franchise’s sixth and most recent Grey Cup.

This is usually the point of the season when we start hearing about the 2011 B.C. Lions because there’s always at least one club close to matching their horrible start.

After the first seven weeks of the 2022 season, we have four teams that would qualify as candidates to be this year’s version of the 2011 B.C. Lions: the Edmonton Elks (2-5), Montreal Alouettes (2-4), Hamilton Tiger-Cats (1-5) and Ottawa Redblacks (0-6).

Sometime over the next week or so you will read or hear someone say the above teams should not be in a panic and use the famed 2011 B.C. Lions team as the reason why.

There are reasons why that is foolish.

The 2011 Lions were not as bad as their 0-5 record to start the year would indicate. They were in most of the games they lost early-on with just one loss coming by double digits and their other four losses coming by an average of fewer than five points.

They traded for a game-breaking receiver in Arland Bruce III after the mercurial pass catcher wore out his welcome with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in early August. Bruce proved to be a perfect partner to future Hall of Fame receiver Geroy Simon and the pair gave first-year starter Travis Lulay a dynamic duo on which he could rely. Bruce was excellent after landing in Vancouver and proved to be the missing piece to a championship puzzle.

Oh, and the Leos also happened to have the winningest coach and one of the greatest bench bosses in league history on the sideline in Wally Buono.

A lot of things had to fall into place for the Lions to go from bottom feeder to champion during the course of their season and casually using them as a basis for believing another bad team could go from worst to first does a disservice to what B.C. did.

And what they did has not been matched since — not even close.

There have been 33 instances over the last 10 seasons (2011-2021) of teams being below .500 after their sixth game of the season. Of those 33 teams, 13 managed to reach the playoffs, seven won one playoff game, two won multiple playoff games, and three managed to make it to the Grey Cup. Only one — the 2011 B.C. Lions — ended the season as champions.

For those curious, the other two teams to make it to the Grey Cup game were the 2013 and 2014 Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The 2013 team started 2-4 and were dealing with a new coaching staff and the tumult of constantly commuting to Guelph, while the 2014 team was even worse, starting 1-6, before getting franchise quarterback Zach Collaros back from injury on Labour Day.

However, and this should be obvious, the more losses you have after six games, the further your chances fall of turning things around. Of the 13 teams that made the playoffs after being below .500 after six games, nine of them started with 2-4 records. Of the 17 teams to start 1-5 or worse during that span, just three of them reached the post-season.

No fan wants to feel like their favourite team’s season is over before the calendar hits August but history shows that making a playoff run after falling behind early in the season is an extremely difficult task to accomplish.

There is a tiny sliver of hope for at least one fan base this year, however. Three of the four teams that are currently below .500 reside in the East Division, which means at least one of them will be playing playoff football in 2022.

So if you are a fan of the Redblacks, Ticats or Alouettes, all hope is not lost. Sorry, Elks fans.

Even with that tiny piece of hope to cling to, do not expect them to do what that special group in B.C. did in 2011. Your team may make the playoffs and they may even win a playoff game, but if history is any indicator they are unlikely to see their names etched on this country’s most hallowed football prize.

Josh Smith has been writing about the Ticats and the CFL since 2010 and was sporting his beard way before it was cool. Will be long after, too.