Bush-league bravado mars Vernon Adams Jr.’s successful debut & eight other thoughts on the Lions’ OT victory in Calgary

Photo courtesy: CFL

It appears the B.C. Lions and Calgary Stampeders are incapable of producing anything less than an absolute nailbiter.

While both teams had different quarterbacks at the helm than in their thrilling 41-40 shootout in Week 10, the result was no less exciting as the Lions eked out a 31-29 overtime victory on Saturday.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Dude, where’s my car?

Once again, my loyal readers are due an apology, as any hope of a concise and timely game story flew out the window the second that a group of Lions’ players decided to resort to vigilante justice and meet their opponents in the parking lot post-game.

The details remain vague, but the Lions allege that receiver Lucky Whitehead was sucker-punched by Stampeders’ linebacker Cam Judge shortly before he retreated to his locker room after the final whistle. Calgary players don’t seem to deny that a punch took place but counter that whatever happened between the two players was justified based on defamatory comments made by Whitehead towards Judge’s family throughout the game.

Whichever story you choose to believe, the result was a screaming match behind McMahon Stadium that had to be broken up by police.

Regardless of what happened to Whitehead, there is absolutely no excuse for this type of behaviour by the Lions. What happens on the field — dirty or otherwise — must remain between the white lines, and their bush-league level bravado reflects extremely poorly on the organization and the CFL as a whole.

I would expect significant supplemental discipline to be coming down the pipe this week and I hope that head coach Rick Campbell follows suit with a clear re-assertion of discipline in his own right. Otherwise, things could get ugly when these two teams meet for a rematch at BC Place next Saturday.

Feeling the Vern

If you had any doubt that the B.C. Lions’ offensive playmakers had been frustrated by their quarterback situation since losing Nathan Rourke a few weeks ago, you need only look at Bryan Burnham’s reaction to this game’s first completion.

The veteran receiver ran a great route for a 22-yard gain but his uncharacteristically fired-up reaction to such a routine play spoke volumes. With Vernon Adams Jr. at quarterback, B.C. finally had someone they could win with.

Saturday marked the 29-year-old’s first start for the Lions since they acquired him via trade from Montreal two weeks ago and it was exactly the injection of confidence the team needed. His raw numbers were solid — 25-of-32 passing for 294 yards and 32 more on the ground — and even if his performance was far from perfect, he seemed to get increasingly comfortable with the offence as the night went on.

“Obviously, he gave us a chance to win and did a lot of really good things. I was impressed with his steadiness. It was a calming effect for our football team and the offence,” Campbell said of his quarterback post-game. “As we went through the ebbs and flows of the game and the momentum swings, he was very steady, which is a good trait for quarterbacks to have because it brings a level of confidence and comfort to the team.”

Adams looked his best when he got the ball out quick, much as Rourke had. While the two are miles apart when it comes to the speed of their release and the velocity of their throws, Adams showed himself to be capable of running the Lions’ quick-timing passing offence in a way that neither Michael O’Connor nor Antonio Pipkin could.

It was when he had to hang on to the ball and work his way through progressions that Adams faltered. The offence had absolutely no answer for any second-and-long situation as a result.

At times, he devolved into the happy feet of a panicked quarterback and put himself in harm’s way. Responsibility for several of the team’s sacks rested on his shoulders, with clear escape routes available, and his chaotic scramble in scoring position in the first half, which resulted in a Judge forced fumble, was classic ‘Bad VA’ from his time with the Alouettes.

When he did decisively take off, Adams brought another explosive element to the attack — save for a first-quarter scramble where he inexplicably hurdled a defender while going out of bounds and slammed down hard on his back after doing an under-rotated front flip like a chubby kid at a swimming pool.

Some of the struggles he had are simply ingrained in who Adams is as a player at this point, while others will dissipate with time. With all due respect to the McMahon Stadium crowd, the Lions’ two time-count violations — and the third they narrowly avoided by a timeout — told the story of a quarterback still working out the kinks of a new system, not that of a particularly raucous fan base.

The increasing regularity with which we saw VA comfortable and in control as the game went on was extremely heartening, but ultimately his debut confirmed what myself and other analysts have been saying about the Lions all along. This team doesn’t need elite quarterbacking to win games, it only needs competence.

On Saturday, Adams gave them that.

Shuffling the deck

With T.J. Lee out for a second week in a row and Delvin Breaux joining him on the injured list, the Lions were forced to — in the words of Rick Campbell — “shuffle the deck” in the secondary. While B.C.’s head coach is never one to assign blame to his players, the dealer appeared to lose control of those cards several times against the Stamps.

With Jalon Edwards-Cooper in at cornerback, Loucheiz Purifoy bumping to halfback, and Quincy Mauger back at safety, Calgary’s Jake Maier took advantage of several coverage busts to throw for 301 yards and three touchdowns on a night where he looked off his game for long stretches.

The first mistake was also the longest play of the contest, as speedy Malik Henry blazed past Edwards-Cooper on a post-route for a 77-yard touchdown. With Mauger blitzing off the edge, it looked like the corner expected help from Purifoy rotating over the top but it never came.

The coverage issues again reared their head in the fourth quarter, as Mauger got beat one-on-one by Reggie Begelton on a third-and-six that would have ended the game had it fallen incomplete. Shortly thereafter, a miscommunication between Purifoy and the safety left Luther Hakunavanhu wide-open in the endzone for a tying touchdown.

When the Lions’ offence faltered on the ensuing possession, it was entirely too easy for Calgary to get into field goal range thanks to an illegal contact penalty on Emmanuel Rugamba. He was saved from embarrassment when Rene Paredes sent the kick wide left to force overtime.

The extra frame was little better, as backup corner Adrian Greene — in for the injured Edwards-Cooper — was nearly made the game’s goat when he was torched by Jalen Philpot for a score. It was only by the grace of a poor throw from Maier on the two-point conversion and some interior pressure from Mathieu Betts that the team escaped from their struggles unscathed.

Under Ryan Phillips, B.C. has been known to be opportunistic on the back end, willing to give up some yards in exchange for making the plays when it matters. That strategy doesn’t work if miscommunications and poor play are leaving gaping holes to exploit for points. Against a quarterback on his game, the Lions would have met a much worse fate.

Carey-ed away

While the Lions made too many errors in the passing game, their run defence continues to be their greatest statistical weakness. Calgary’s star ball carrier Ka’Deem Carey had his way with B.C. whenever he touched the ball, averaging 6.1 yards per rush, but that ultimately mattered very little to the overall outcome.

Despite his consistent success, Carey only carried the rock 10 times all night for 61 yards. While some may deem that a coaching error by Dave Dickenson — and they might be right in this circumstance — the reality is that even the most run-dependent CFL team will lean on their air attack when trailing by even the smallest amount.

The reasoning is simple; there are more yards to be gained on an average passing play and it conserves more clock. Running the ball to victory is extremely difficult; it requires perfection on every play. The passing game gives you more margin for error, even if the potential negative outcomes are worse.

This is why the Lions’ fundamentally poor run defence has never been viewed as a pressing concern by team management. It will bite them occasionally in games they are already losing, as it has the last two weeks, but even a touchdown advantage can prove to be a better run-stuffer than an elite nose tackle.

That was proven true Saturday against the league’s most dominant ball carrier.

Great service, discount rates

At the risk of aligning myself too fully with the ‘running backs don’t matter crowd’ and losing all my offensive lineman street cred, more evidence for new-age perspectives on the run game can be found on the Lions’ offence.

With Adams still adjusting to the system, offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic made a point to put more on the shoulders of James Butler. The back stepped up for his team with 13 carries for 83 yards and two touchdowns, exceeding Carey’s performance with a 6.4-yard average.

Of course, as much as I love the way Butler has played this year, a simple eye test will tell you that those two players are not equivalent. Carey is faster and more explosive, the class of the league, and yet he wasn’t the most impactful runner in this one.

The reality is that while a good ball carrier can elevate your offence to a small extent, most of the run game is dependent on scheme and situation. In this case, both of Butler’s touchdowns were beautifully blocked, allowing him to trot in virtually untouched.

Every yard of production Carey gained for Calgary came at great cost to his team due to their financial investment in his contract. Butler was just as good for half the price; that’s just smart team management.

The CFL has a glut of talented running backs right now and there will come a time when each of those players asks to be paid. Let’s hope the Lions never make the mistake of breaking out the chequebook for one.

One for the good guys

For the first time this season, the B.C. Lions had a different starting group along the offensive line, as an injured Sukh Chungh was replaced at right guard by Andrew Peirson.

Peirson has been a personal favourite of mine since he went unselected in the 2018 CFL Draft and few things warm my heart more than watching him get a chance to see the field. While toiling mostly in the shadows as a player, he has become one of the organization’s most active representatives in the community and, quite frankly, could be considered something of a player-coach assisting Kelly Bates.

His first start of 2022 was a solid one and the line did not miss a beat with him in that spot. No, Peirson is not the most physically-gifted professional athlete you’ll meet, but he has always been able to punch above his weight class.

For a moment, I feared his impact on this game would be remembered for a rare mistake, as he and Peter Godber seemed to get their wires crossed mid-block and allowed Mike Rose through for a pivotal sack on the Lions’ penultimate drive of regulation, leading to Paredes’ field goal attempt. Fortunately, he redeemed himself in overtime by climbing to the second level with perfect technique, walling off Jameer Thurman and allowing Butler to cut off his butt for the game-winning touchdown.

The running back grinned ear-to-ear when asked about the unheralded lineman who made that play possible.

“It just shows his preparation. He’s the smartest guy I know. He’s always in the right position, he’s gonna do the right thing and he probably knows my reads better than I know my reads,” Butler said. “I’m just excited for him and I love that it was him that let me do that.”

I can confidently guess that Peirson will end up being better remembered for what he does after he hangs up his pads than what he does with them on, but it is great to see one of the good guys get a brief moment in the spotlight.

A flag of a different colour

I despise discussions of officiating, so I will leave the moaning about Saturday’s cavalcade of questionable calls to columnists in other cities. What I do feel the need to discuss is Rick Campbell’s mystifying decision not to throw a challenge when one of those flags came out of an official’s pocket late in the first half.

With time ticking down in the second quarter, Adams threw a deep pass to Dominique Rhymes down the left sideline, only for it to be ruled offensive pass interference. The Lions punted the ball and Calgary had enough clock to kick a go-ahead field goal as time expired.

While TSN decided to be skimpy with the replays, at first and second glance the play looked to be an officiating mess. For one thing, it looked like Rhymes pretty clearly caught the ball past the mid-field stripe, though the nearest referee waived it off as an incompletion. For another, whatever slight push-off the receiver was guilty of should have been entirely negated by the fact that Brad Muhammad was hauling on his belt loop like Rhymes was a dog trying to get at the Amazon delivery driver.

Still, Campbell did not throw down his challenge flag, which was a critical error in a tight ball game. The coach said at the podium that none of the team got a good enough look at the play to make a decision, but that was a moment to go fishing. The chance to score at the end of the half was too good to waste and doing so gave Calgary free points.

Campbell did eventually throw his challenge in the fourth quarter in search of illegal contact against Bryan Burnham. He lost, but that was at least a gamble worth making.

The Notorious B.D.S

I mostly focus my attention on the team in orange when the Lions are in action but on Saturday, I must admit that I had a keen interest in a player on the other sideline.

When I’m not writing self-important nonsense for 3Down, I have been doing some work with an international football scouting start-up called All22 – The Global Scouting Network. It has allowed me to hone my eye for the game and meet some great people around the world while helping teams and athletes connect.

Last year, we partnered with the Tropical Bowl, a college football all-star game, to give roster spots to two international athletes and I put forth the name of an Australian safety from tiny Division III Western New England who had caught my interest while scrolling through some NCAA rosters. He intrigued my colleagues and I ran point on getting him to the game, which eventually got him connected to the CFL Global program.

After being drafted in the third round by Calgary, that player, Bailey Devine-Scott, dressed for his third career CFL game this week against B.C. He ended up seeing some action on defence and made a pair of tackles, including one on Jevon Cottoy that forced the Lions’ last punt and almost made a game-winning field goal possible.

Devine-Scott’s success is all of his own making but I must admit that it gives me quite the thrill to see him in action, knowing I got to play a small role in his journey. I hope Lions fans can forgive me for that lapse in loyalty.

One-legged wonder

While winning makes it slightly easier for fans to seek closure, it was nice to see an injured Nathan Rourke back on the sidelines with his team in Calgary and chatting it up on the TSN broadcast.

I remain highly skeptical that he’ll be back at any point this season — if only to protect my own fragile psyche from disappointment — but the Canadian sensation remains vocally optimistic that he’s on track for a playoff return. Despite being limited to standing on one leg, he hasn’t stopped throwing and appears to be attacking rehab exactly as ferociously as one might expect.

With Vernon Adams Jr. now providing the minimum requirements for success and the season series against Calgary now firmly in hand, the Lions’ future is suddenly bright again. If Rourke does the impossible, it will be blinding come November.

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.