Seven years after rookie deal fell apart, Vernon Adams Jr. finally has his ‘homecoming’ with the B.C. Lions

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

Seven years after contract talks fell apart between Vernon Adams Jr. and the B.C. Lions, the journeyman quarterback is finally coming to Vancouver.

Back in 2016, Adams was supposed to be the next great CFL passer. Viewed as too small and erratic in the opinion of NFL scouts despite an outstanding college career at Eastern Washington and later Oregon, he simply needed to prove himself north of the border.

That was supposed to be with B.C., the team that had long held his negotiation list rights, but the young quarterback demanded too much. The Lions traded his rights away to Montreal for a first-round pick, confident in the knowledge that Jonathon Jennings was the franchise’s unquestioned future.

The deal never quite worked out the way either side expected and now Adams is back, traded from Montreal for identical draft compensation and seemingly the Lions’ only hope to salvage their Grey Cup chances.

“What’s crazy is it’s like we’re coming full circle,” the native of nearby Tacoma, Washington said at his introductory press conference on Wednesday. “When I was coming out of college, I’m like, yeah, I’m going up to B.C., they’re right there, they’re not far from home. And then I get shipped over [to Montreal] and I played most of my career there and now I’m coming back here, coming back home.”

“It’s almost like a homecoming type of feeling, you know what I’m saying, so my goal is just to make the most of it. Give the fans what they want, have fun and win some games.”

Adams did eventually become the starter that many envisioned when the Alouettes first made the trade, it just happened to occur four seasons later after unsuccessful stints with the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

He rose to the forefront in 2019, throwing for 3,942 yards, 24 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 16 appearances and taking a newly exciting Alouettes team to the playoffs. For a brief moment, he appeared to be the franchise guy before it all collapsed amidst organizational turmoil.

After suffering a lost year due to the pandemic, a disappointing 2021 season was cut short by injury and general manager Danny Maciocia’s heart was captured by veteran rental Trevor Harris. After an offseason of controversy, it took less than six quarters for Adams to lose his starting job and by game four of the season, his biggest supporter, head coach Khari Jones, had been fired.

Asked if he felt he’d been given a fair shot to end his tenure in Montreal, Adams took a long pause before dismissing the question.

“That stuff’s for everyone else to talk about. Myself, personally, I guess it’s just business,” he said, maintaining composure. “It’s part of the football business and they wanted to go a different route.”

Adams maintains that his relationship with Maciocia is a strong one and that Harris has done everything to earn his opportunity as the “hot hand,” but that hasn’t made the situation any easier.

“Mentally, it was tough, but what am I going to do? Pout? I just had to stay in it, stay locked in,” Adams recounted. “I kept working out, kept getting in there early, staying late and just being a pro; learning from the other Qs, learning from the new coaching staff. It was tough mentally but I just had to still stay in it and now here we are.”

The Lions, meanwhile, lost their gamble on Jennings in 2016 and have spent the intervening years wandering through the wilderness. That was until a generational quarterbacking talent fell to them in the second round of the 2020 CFL Draft, altering the franchise’s trajectory.

Canadian Nathan Rourke’s first season as a starter was nothing short of sensational, putting him on pace for more than 6,000 yards passing and league records in touchdowns and completion percentage. His effort through nine games gave the Lions the most potent offence in the CFL as they sailed to an 8-1 record on the season until a tragically twisted foot against Saskatchewan resulted in a Lisfranc sprain that is likely season-ending.

With their star signal-caller emerging from surgery last week, the Lions’ backup tandem of Michael O’Connor and Antonio Pipkin did not prove up to the task in a rematch with the Riders. With their Grey Cup hopes hanging in the balance, B.C. pulled the trigger to acquire Montreal’s forgotten step-child as insurance.

While Adams and Rourke share similarities in terms of their less-than-ideal size, the pair play vastly different styles of game. While the Canadian’s quick-fire passing attack has captivated audiences, his new American replacement has been best known for his creativity outside of structure.

Adams, too, has marveled at Rourke’s efficiency but while there is much he wishes to emulate, don’t expect an off-Broadway imitation of the CFL’s best player.

“I just want to be myself,” the quarterback insisted. “Get the playmakers the ball — Lucky [Whitehead], [Bryan] Burnham, [Dominique] Rhymes, all those guys — get them the ball — James [Butler] — and let them do their thing. Put us in a good position, manage the game and like I said, the main thing is winning.”

The team had originally planned to battle through the growing pains with the UBC product O’Connor and it remains to be seen how much that has changed after he exited his first career start with a groin injury. Adams certainly wasn’t acquired just to sit on the bench but — if healthy — O’Connor could be given one more chance to prove his worth coming off the bye.

“That’s up to the coaches,” Adams said when asked when he expects to get his first start.

“I talked to Coach Campbell this morning who said he wants me to get in and learn the offence and we’re going to get this thing going as quick as we can. He wants me to feel comfortable and they want to feel comfortable with me as well out there.”

That would seem to indicate a quick turnaround and the Lions’ next game just so happens to take place in Montreal on Friday, September 9. A chance for revenge against his old club would be difficult to pass up and Adams believes it won’t take him long to acclimatize to offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic’s system.

“Football is football, man,” he quipped. “I’ve been in so many different offences, all it is now is terminology.”

The bigger challenge may be amalgamating himself into the Lions’ locker room — amongst the most tight-knit in recent franchise history in part due to their unshakeable faith in victory when Rourke was under centre. Adams will have a long way to go before he has earned that same implicit trust.

“I’m just going to come in and tell the guys I’m here to work, man. I’m glad to be here and I’m going to do everything I can to just go out there and win games, one at a time,” he said. “We can’t win the Grey Cup all in one day, so one at a time, one practice at a time and show ’em what I got and give ’em all I got.”

Should he achieve that ultimate goal, it will fulfill a dream that the Lions’ once had for him — just seven years later than expected.

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.