The Winnipeg Blue Bombers may not have brought their A-team but they fought like the best in the league against the injury-ravaged B.C. Lions on Saturday, eventually falling 40-32 at BC Place.
Here are my thoughts on the Lions knocking off the two-time defending champs.
It’s dangerous to Terry
In a sport as deeply interconnected as football, it is rare that you can credit a victory to any one player — as much as we try to do it on a weekly basis with quarterbacks.
On Saturday, the B.C. Lions were the exception to that rule. The Leos won their eleventh game of the season because of the sensational play of kick returner Terry Williams, who willed an offensively challenged team into prime field position again and again.
Beginning with an explosive 40-yard return on the game’s opening kickoff, Williams had fans on the edge of their seats. Every time he touched the ball, he seemed a threat to score as he broke tackles and spun for extra yardage. His 90-yard missed field goal return in the second quarter was the undeniable highlight, with a special assist from some fantastic down-field blocking by the defence, but every return was electric.
The final numbers are staggering. The new Scary Terry had three punt returns for 34 yards, five kickoff returns for 152 yards, and three missed field goal returns for 155 yards. That’s 341 combined return yards — 75 more than the offence generated in total — though it came without a touchdown to serve as the cherry on top.
“It was good yardage-wise, but I’m gonna hear about it and I’m hard on myself. Anybody would be,” Williams said post-game, visibly nervous to be in the spotlight for the first time.
“I’ll beat myself up tonight about it, but I’ll get over it because we won, first off, and I feel like I helped the team a little bit.”
That’s the understatement of the year. Without Williams routinely flipping the field, the Lions may well have succumbed to a Bombers team laden with backups. Instead, they prevailed by a touchdown.
His greatest play of the night will not even be recorded on the stat sheet. When Terry stepped out of bounds to touch the Bombers’ final kickoff as it dribbled inside the ten-yard line, the ensuing illegal kick out-of-bounds penalty gave the Lions a fighting chance to fend off any final hail mary once their offence failed to run out the clock. It was a move that was apparently pointed out by injured receiver Lucky Whitehead when Winnipeg failed to take advantage of the same loophole earlier in the game and Williams instantly applied it in devastating fashion.
While the Vernon Adams Jr. trade will in many ways define this season, the Lions’ move to acquire Williams from Ottawa was a far greater stroke of genius from Rick Campbell and co-general manager Neil McEvoy. He has revitalized a return game that has been dead for years without much help around him and tonight was his crowning achievement.
The Swedish chef
It has recently become in vogue to demand offences let their streaky, athletic quarterbacks cook. In that case, to paraphrase an old hockey adage, we may want to start calling Adams the Swedish chef, because he certainly had no finish on Saturday.
Despite the tremendous field position afforded to them by Williams, the Lions offence struggled to generate much of anything all night. After a sensational five-play opening drive that resulted in a touchdown, they had just two more series of more than four plays. Those two drives came two full quarters apart.
Adams ended the game 13-of-22 for 138 yards and one touchdown — an end zone jump ball that was hauled down by Dominique Rhymes as part of a simultaneous catch. It was one of the few big plays he was able to connect on, as he was consistently out of rhythm and off-target. As a result, the team was forced to settle for four field goals on a night when they should have had four more majors.
Since arriving in B.C., VA has found success with the deep ball but it just wasn’t there against Winnipeg. The Bombers won their one-on-one matchups and Adams never gave receivers a chance with his ball placement. Often there were other options available and the quarterback was refreshingly frank post-game regarding his failure to hit check downs and help his offensive line.
“You’ve got to be honest with yourself, you’ve got to come to the truth,” he said. “I can sit here and say this and that, but I know when I look back at the film I see guys underneath right there I could just [mimics throw] real quick and give it to them. I’m still working on that part of my game.”
While first-time starter Dru Brown made some catastrophic mistakes for the Bombers, he was undeniably the better signal-caller on this occasion. Adams may not be long for the Lions’ starting job but if he and his restructured contract are to have any future with this club, he will need to change the way he operates.
Breaking the seal
For weeks, the story of the B.C. Lions’ defence has been their failure to get the momentum-changing turnovers for which they were so well known in the early going. That changed in a big way when halfback Marcus Sayles broke on an out route after Dru Brown muffed a snap in the first quarter, racing 45 yards to the endzone for a pick-six.
As any drunk at a bar knows, once you break the seal, there will soon be more flowing. Sure enough, that came in the fourth quarter when Brown threw behind Nic Demski and it landed in the arms of T.J. Lee, who went 102 yards to paydirt.
The veteran defender dedicated his second career touchdown to his wife’s recently deceased grandmother and plans to get the ball painted in her honour. However, he was thinking much less sentimental thoughts on his long trip to the endzone.
“I was hoping somebody said ‘pitch,’ because I wasn’t ready to go that far,” Lee laughed at the podium.
Right from the start, this looked like a much faster and more aggressive Lions defence than the one we’ve gotten used to seeing. Tyneil Cooper’s humongous hit on Rasheed Bailey on Winnipeg’s first offensive play sent that message loud and clear. There were plenty of mistakes as well, too many missed tackles and a few ill-timed chances, but the big plays were more than enough to make up for it — especially on a night where they were on the field nearly ten minutes longer than their offence.
Ryan Phillips got back to his style of game plan and it paid off. With the pair of touchdowns from their halfbacks, the B.C. defence had more interception return yards than Adams Jr. had passing yards. Without the confidence to take those chances, the game would have had a very different result.
While the Lions’ passing game never clicked, the home team did see considerable success running the ball early. James Butler made some absolutely gorgeous cuts behind some well-executed blocking and had 74 yards on five first-half carries, plus the game’s first touchdown.
Butler continues to be a fantastic system running back with a nose for more yards, but B.C. did him no favours in the second half. He finished with 104 yards on 14 carries as the running game became predictable in both its timing and play-calling. Unafraid of the Lions’ passing game, Winnipeg was able to load the box and the one impactful facet of the offence disappeared.
I’m frequently a fan of the way that offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic opens games, but I’m not sure the young coach has yet mastered the chess match that is half-time adjustments. Bombers’ defensive coordinator Richie Hall took away what B.C. was doing best, but the Lions offered no real counter.
Taken for Grant-ed
While the return game was sublime on Saturday, B.C.’s kick coverage was as porous as ever and electric Winnipeg returner Janarion Grant took advantage to great effect.
Once Grant took off for his first long return, you could see a touchdown was coming. Sure enough, he sprinted past a flailing Mathieu Betts and right through the middle of 11 other Lions’ special teamers for a 94-yard score the next time he touched the ball.
“It was like everybody was trying to set the edge,” head coach Rick Campbell explained. “What you talk about with guys like Grant is you don’t want to let him outside because he’s so fast. I think we were all trained to do that and I think we out-thought ourselves on that.”
Perhaps even more egregiously, the Lions ensuing fear of Grant resulted in one of the most poorly executed and baffling squib attempts I’ve ever seen by Stefan Flintoft on the last kickoff of the first half. With just seven seconds left on the clock, it failed to get past the second line and was easily returned past mid-field, allowing Winnipeg a free 52-yard field goal attempt as time expired. Marc Liegghio mercifully missed, but that it took place at all was inexcusable.
With star pass-catchers Bryan Burnham and Lucky Whitehead already out of the lineup, the Lions were forced to finish this game without leading receiver Dominique Rhymes as well.
After gaining a first down and his forward progress was stopped, safety Brandon Alexander slammed the likely CFL all-star to the turf after the whistle. Rhymes was down for a not insignificant length of time with what looked to be a head injury and was not happy with Alexander after the play, jawing with him as he was ushered to the sideline.
While sitting in something of a grey area, it seemed as though the play met the requirements for unnecessary roughness. In fact, a similar hit was penalized in the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ victory on Friday.
“I sit on the rules committee and we talk all the time about player safety. I just hope that is paramount,” Campbell said of the play post-game. “I need to see the play; I don’t have much of a comment other than I really hope we put our money where our mouth is and say that player safety is paramount and we’ll err on the side of protecting players.”
Quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. felt similarly.
“It’s a tough spot. I thought the ref blew the whistle and you want to take care of the players, you don’t want to get anyone hurt off of some extra stuff,” he said. “The ref thought it was clean so we just kind of live with that, but it’s just as tough seeing that happen to one of your guys.”
Alexander is the type of defender who routinely plays on the edge and sometimes crosses the line, which I believe was the case here. Unfortunately, the press box conversation after the game was that Rhymes felt well enough to cross the hallway to the Bombers’ locker room and attempt a confrontation with the safety — the second time the Lions have been accused of that type of behaviour this year.
I have made my thoughts on that issue abundantly clear and will not change them. Post-game altercations of any kind are embarrassing at an organizational level and hopefully the Lions crack down hard in this instance, unlike last time.
12 gun salute
Saturday’s game may not have been the most confidence-gaining win of the season, but it was much adored by the fan base for an entirely different reason.
To mark Fan Appreciation Night, the club rolled out their gun-metal third jerseys for the first time in eight years. Make no mistake, orange is great but these uniforms are the best the league has produced in my lifetime. They are beloved in Vancouver and the outcry when they went away after the 2014 season was considerable.
Paired with the Bombers’ classic road whites, you’d be hard-pressed to find a game with two more visually pleasing looks this season. It remains baffling that the Lions refuse to keep gun-metal in the regular rotation, given how absurdly popular the look has become.
Unfortunately, fans will only be able to get their own gun-metal jerseys when these game-worn ones go up for auction in December. Fortunately, the proceeds from those sales — which I have no doubt will be considerable — are going to local food banks in Surrey and Vancouver.
As I tweeted out earlier in the week, it’s a damn shame that Nathan Rourke still isn’t quite healthy enough to play in this game. His one-of-a-kind jersey may well have netted four figures for a worthy charity.
Out of the blue
It was a strong turnout to BC Place for a game that was meant to honour the fan base — though nowhere near the sellout crowd that was inexplicably announced. However, there was a significant portion of blue in the stands to spoil the Lions’ best-laid plans of lighting the stadium orange.
While Saskatchewan is still holding on to the CFL fan base crown, Winnipeg has shrunk the margin considerably while building their modern dynasty. The Blue Bombers’ faithful have been a noticeable presence during both of the team’s west coast trips this year and seemed to out-number Lions fans in the northwest corner of the stadium — so much so that team president Wade Miller was seen walking through that section pre-game, chatting with throngs of supporters.
The Bombers have already surpassed the lowly Riders in terms of home attendance. It may not be long before they boast the best travelling diaspora as well.
After he missed a potential game-tying field goal last week, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Sean Whyte was a perfect four-for-four against Winnipeg.
A fellow White Rock native, Whyte is the best in the business and is actively coaching the special teams for his former community team during the season. It’s never fun to see the good guys falter, but it’s fantastic to see them bounce back.