Lions ride the VA rollercoaster to victory and other thoughts on beating the Redblacks

Photo courtesy: Jeff Vinnick/BC Lions

For Redblacks fans who might be unfamiliar, that’s what we call winning at home.

The B.C. Lions defeated Ottawa 34-19 at BC Place on Friday night, securing their first winning season since 2016.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

One ticket to the rollercoaster

Vernon Adams Jr. has been the starting quarterback of the B.C. Lions for just three games and fans have already been subjected to the full spectrum of his ability.

In his first outing, Adams was perfectly competent, exactly what the doctor ordered and good enough for the team to win. In the follow-up, he was positively putrid, dazed and confused by the very same defence he had played the week before. On Friday, he was something entirely different — at least to start the game — flashing the high-end talent that once made him the face of the franchise in Montreal.

For a guy who has often voiced his displeasure at the prospect of riding an emotional rollercoaster based on the performance of his team or quarterback, head coach Rick Campbell might as well have bought a fast pass to California Screamin’ when he traded for VA.

“I think he made some big plays; the throws and using his feet and doing all those things,” Campbell said post-game. “He was a spark plug and his energy and his attitude were infectious. Good for him for stepping up and helping us get a win.”

Adams was routinely sensational in the first half, setting the tone with two explosive scrambles on the opening drive that set up his first touchdown pass since arriving in Vancouver. That roll-out dagger to Keon Hatcher didn’t come close to being his best throw of the night, as VA was locked in on the deep ball and delivered a couple of truly gorgeous shots down the rail to Dominique Rhymes. For a player whose accuracy and ball placement were scattershot at best last week, it was a breath of fresh air.

The 29-year-old was 11-of-12 for 207 yards and two touchdowns at the break, while leading the team with 32 yards rushing. The second half was a much different story and he completed just six more passes the rest of the way to finish with 305 yards on the evening.

Given that the final 30 minutes were little more than a formality, I will choose to focus on the flashes of early brilliance Adams showed rather than his regression to bad habits later in the game. It was the reason that the Lions pulled the trigger on him as their veteran saviour — when you roll the dice with VA, there is as much of a chance that you hit double sixes as there is to get snake-eyes.

That chaos is simply part of who the quarterback is — though he certainly doesn’t appreciate anyone pointing it out. When the stars align, it can still be very fun to watch.

Elastic deformation

If you want to make a member of the Lions’ staff grumpy, call their defence ‘bend, don’t break.’

It was awfully hard to avoid that terminology on Friday, as B.C. allowed Nick Arbuckle to pass for 363 yards in a losing effort while forcing three field goals inside their 30-yard line.

“That’s certainly not our philosophy to bend,” Rick Campbell said sourly when asked the question. “I’m glad we oftentimes don’t break, that part of it is good. But we don’t talk about that we just want to play soft and that’s certainly not our philosophy.”

Of course, the increasingly conservative nature of B.C.’s talented defence has landed it that reputation and made it difficult to write about the last few games. As I noted last week, the big plays that once defined it have disappeared of late. While David Menard notched two sacks and Garry Peters had an interception that was more gift than takeaway, that largely remained true this week.

“I thought our defence did a lot of good things. I know there were some plays though that I thought we could have gotten off the field,” Campbell acknowledged. “I hope we learn we can. We’re gonna watch this tomorrow and I think it’s good to learn some situational football, what they’re trying to do, what we’re trying to do, and that you’ve got to play this thing all the way to 60 minutes.”

More often than not, the team’s off-coverage, four-man rush looks have gotten them the stops when needed, but the question is can they continue to rely on other team’s mistakes come playoff time? Moreover, if and when the path through the West takes them outdoors in November and their questionable run defence gets exposed, will they be able to flip the switch and get the momentum-changing plays they need against the pass?

“No, that’s why I said we’ve got to get better,” Menard admitted when asked about the sustainability of that approach. “We’ve got to be able to make the stops when they’re deep down in their territory and be able to give our offence the ball in a better position. Overall, we made the stops when we needed to — bend don’t break is fair — but it’s not great. I know all the guys want to be great right now.”

Generally, defensive coordinator Ryan Phillips has stayed true to his system, but I’d like to see more aggressive play-calling and smart chances taken next week against Toronto. The fast and exciting unit has become dull and predictable at a time when they may need to steal games and some increased energy is badly needed.

Pedal to the metal

Speaking of aggressiveness, I was critical of the Lions’ offensive game-plan in their loss to the Stampeders, but I thought offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic knocked it out of the park on Friday.

B.C. was on the attack right from the get-go and Ottawa had no answer for the team’s frequent shots downfield.  Despite that success through the air, I thought the play-calling on the ground was perfectly timed and balanced, helping James Butler rack up 89 yards on 16 carries. Kudos all around.

Campbell also had a hand in this refreshing change of pace, as I loved the team’s decision to press for points with their final possession of the first half. With 13 seconds left and the Lions already up two touchdowns, nobody would have batted an eye had they knelt out the clock. Instead, Maksymic was allowed to dial up another shot for Adams and Sean Whyte hit a walk-off field goal. Pair that with the bomb to Lucky Whitehead to open the third quarter and a message was sent.

The Lions aren’t going to win anything this year by playing it safe but with their plethora of play-makers, they can knock out just about any opponent if they land their haymakers.

Out of Luck

Unfortunately for the team, that list of playmakers might not include Lucky Whitehead for the next few weeks, as the dynamic speedster looked to suffer an ankle injury after being rolled up on by James Butler down near the goal line.

When the play happened, I would have bet my life savings that Lucky was done for the season — it was a nasty and unavoidable blow. Fortunately, those fears were unfounded and Whitehead returned to the game briefly, before tweaking the injury a second time on an endzone jump ball and hanging up his pads.

Whitehead has already pushed through an ankle injury and played this season, but his effectiveness was severely impacted. With the team already missing Bryan Burnham due to a fractured wrist, a missing or hampered Lucky would be devastating.

The team made the decision to roll with backup Jacob Scarfone in the starting lineup in place of Burnham and put fellow Canadian Daniel Petermann on for Whitehead, rather than give returner Terry Williams an offensive shot. I’m not sure either player is viable as a long-term part of the offence and the team will need to determine which practice roster rookie is ready to audition in primetime.

Don’t play Cottoy with me

Sticking with the receiving corps, the injuries to star Americans means local product Jevon Cottoy needs to get more involved in the offence going forward.

The former Langley Ram had just one catch for 13 yards against Ottawa and hasn’t had a multi-catch outing since Week 12. That’s four catches for 34 yards in four games. He is simply too dynamic a target to get the ball that infrequently.

Part of the issue is that Cottoy is often a checkdown option and Adams has sometimes ignored players open underneath at his own peril. Still, the ball should have been schemed to the big man in space more once Whitehead was hurt in order to let his hard-running, after-the-catch ability aid the team in moving the chains.

We’re all in this together

Much has been made about the Lions’ uptick in sacks the last few weeks and there is plenty of blame to go around.

The offensive line had a couple of big busts against the Redblacks, allowing Adams to go down five times and having a sixth called back for a horse collar. I thought right tackle Kent Perkins had a particularly rough outing, though all had their moments.

However, nothing has changed up front for B.C. and the biggest shift influencing their fall from grace has been the one at quarterback. Adams hasn’t gotten the ball out of his hands fast enough and he’s getting sacked as a result.

I’ve talked about this phenomenon before but TSN’s Marshall Ferguson put it in perfect statistical clarity this week: VA had been sacked on 12.5 percent of his dropbacks this year, while Nathan Rourke was sacked on 3.4 percent. The league-wide average for a season usually settles around five percent.

Not all these sacks have been on Adams — he held on too long against a two-man rush in this game for what was an understandable coverage sack — but the tendency to get himself into trouble exists and he acknowledges it.

“I’m gonna put it on me,” Adams said post-game. “I know a few of them, at least three or four of them, I’m like, yeah, that’s all me coach. I’ve got the checkdowns right there, I see it on the film right after.”

In essence, B.C.’s offensive line was nowhere near as good as they looked blocking for Rourke and they haven’t been as bad as many assume the last few weeks. They are simply a case study for what happens when you are forced to block for opposite ends of the quarterback spectrum.

Tough sell

As was pointed out on social media, the crowd at BC Place looked particularly sparse this week. I agree with that assessment — it looked more typical of the past few years and less like the quietly solid attendance we’ve come to expect this season.

Owner Amar Doman has been rebuilding interest in this franchise but the frank reality is this: the last two Lions home games since Rourke got hurt haven’t been entertaining. With a bad Ottawa team as the draw and on a day off for many in the province, it was understandable that we saw attendance dip.

If the Lions keep winning with Adams, expect the crowds to build again. And if the Lions earn the chance to host a playoff game, there is no doubt in my mind that the organization will be pulling out all the stops.

Leading from the front

Though too many people across the country treated it as simply another long weekend, Friday was the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, a sombre day meant for reflection on the historical atrocities committed against Indigenous communities through the residential school system and their continuing impacts today.

Just as they did last year, the Lions marked the occasion with a special pre-game address from members of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) nations and a half-time video that shared the stories of some residential survivors and their families. The first 10,000 fans in attendance also received an orange ‘Every Child Matters’ shirt featuring the team’s indigenized logo, which the team also wore on their helmets for the occasion.

Several CFL teams have done excellent work the past few seasons in their efforts to move reconciliation forward but to me, the Lions have led the pack. Their partnerships with Indigenous leaders for these orange shirt games have been commendable but the effort has gone beyond self-promotional lip service, including an offseason flag football program that the team ran for Indigenous youth.

Those efforts should be applauded and I sincerely hope they continue. As the team pointed out in their halftime video, sport can be a medicine and was often an important escape for those in residential schools. At the same time, colonial governments have wielded it as a tool to enforce order and drive home Euro-centric ideals. The delicate balance between those two undeniable truths is one that everyone involved in sport must navigate with careful consideration and forethought, and right now, the Lions are putting in that effort.

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.