James Butler’s grand performance secures Lions’ home playoff game and nine other thoughts on beating the Elks

Photo courtesy: CFL

It wasn’t quite the dominance we’ve become accustomed to seeing when the B.C. Lions play the Edmonton Elks but it sure as hell wasn’t close either, as the Leos cruised to a 31-14 victory.

Here are my (slightly delayed) thoughts on the game.

Home is where the heart is

For virtually every sports team not named the Edmonton Elks, the confines of their home venue provides safety, security, comfort and motivation.

By making use of the temporary public housing unit that is Commonwealth Stadium on Friday night, the B.C. Lions ensured they’ll have exactly that for the West Semi-Final.

Before diving into the nuts and bolts of this week’s game, it’s worth contextualizing just what clinching home-field advantage means for this Lions team. For one thing, it’s one less week potentially spent outdoors in frigid prairie weather — a fact even the visiting Stampeders might appreciate — but at an organizational level, it means much more.

Vancouver has not played host to a CFL playoff game since 2016, a game in which the Lions beat the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 32-31. The energy in BC Place that day was palpable, but the crowd was officially listed as a humble 19,176. With what new owner Amar Doman has built this year, it’s hard to imagine that number won’t be exceeded two weeks from now.

The Lions have pounded the pavement all year to mixed results but there is little question that interest has built — slowly but surely — with an exciting team to sell. Now, with two weeks to market and the tantalizing promise of Nathan Rourke’s return dangling in front of fans, their clash with the Stampeders has the potential to reach marquee event status in a city that rarely turns out for anything else.

It is difficult to overstate what a huge boon for this franchise that would be. I absolutely can’t wait.

Isn’t it grand?

With the type of narrative synergy cheesy writers like me love, one of the biggest factors in the Lions’ victory was accompanied by an equally impressive statistical milestone.

With his 141-yard, one-touchdown performance against Edmonton, Lions’ running back James Butler crossed the thousand-yard mark for the first time in his career in stunning fashion. In many ways, it was an outing that epitomized his season: high effort and often unglamorous. His longest carry was just 16 yards, but he earned every inch on the night.

As with any outstanding outing from a ball carrier, a lot of credit is due to the big men up front. B.C. stuck to their bread and butter with inside zone and gap concepts in the run game and the entire offensive line executed perfectly, getting a consistent push at the first level and getting hats on linebackers with regularity. Across the board, each of the five starters — Joel Figueroa, Jarrell Broxton, Peter Godber, Sukh Chungh, and Kent Perkins — put some exceptional blocks on film.

However, the beauty of Butler’s play this year has been that he takes exactly what the offensive line gives him by pressing the hole, then he steals a little extra — either by keeping his legs churning or by virtue of his exceptional vision. You need only look at one seven-yard run in the second quarter to see what he brought to the table, as the blocking was a bust and Butler twisted and turned to transform a certain loss into a respectable gain.

I’ve noted before that I believe that there are more physically gifted backs in the league right now than Butler. Ka’Deem Carey has burst he couldn’t dream of and a healthy William Stanback is still a freight train going off the tracks. However, the one-cut ability of B.C.’s bell cow and his dedication to playing exactly to the parameters of the system is superior to any other, even if it may result in fewer big run highlights. That goes beyond just running the ball too, as Butler is one of the league’s most reliable passing game checkdowns and appears to relish his responsibilities in pass protection as well.

None of that changes the cruel reality of a running back’s relatively low positional value when it comes to building a roster, but that data-driven perspective also does not negate outstanding play. An examination of Butler’s tape against Edmonton will find few errors and the Lions’ ability to gain yardage on the ground at will was crucial to the win. In fact, with 95 yards rushing and 19 yards receiving in the first half, Butler had actually outgained the Elks’ entire offence.

As a football team, you don’t want that to be your identity. However, having it as a weapon in the Lions’ arsenal could pay dividends if they earn the right to play a West Final game on the Winnipeg tundra.

Pocketful of poise

It would appear that Vernon Adams Jr.’s time as a starter in B.C. is drawing to a close but, in what could be his last full game at the helm, the veteran quarterback hit another peak in his up-and-down Lions tenure.

VA finished an efficient 18-of-24 passing for 211 yards, one touchdown and one interception — which appeared to be the result of a miscommunication with receiver Jacob Scarfone and can’t be blamed on the quarterback without knowledge of what went wrong. Much of his damage was inflicted in the first half, where he went 9-of-10 for 127 yards and the score.

As has been the trend for Adams’ best performances, the offence waned in the second half and some off-target throws and bad habits crept back into the quarterback’s game. With much of the final 30 minutes serving as filler against the inept Elks, I have little interest in dwelling on that phase of the game. Instead, I came away impressed by the way VA opened the contest, exhibiting a poise in the pocket I wasn’t sure he possessed.

As they have opted to do at times this season, the Elks brought three-man pressure often and chose to drop nine players into coverage. The strategy was a simple one: take away the easy reads from a quarterback already guilty of holding the ball too long and watch the paralysis by analysis turn fatal as he panics in the pocket. Rinse and repeat.

It was a defensive scheme that devastated Cody Fajardo when Edmonton upset Saskatchewan a few weeks ago, leading to respectable passing numbers but eight critical sacks being surrendered. Earlier this week on the 3DownNation Podcast, my colleague John Hodge compared Fajardo and Adams — athletic, but often inconsistent starters who burst on the scene in 2019 — and given that the Riders are the only team to surrender more sacks than the Lions since VA was acquired via trade, it sure felt like the result would be similar.

Instead, the Lions’ blockers handled the rush and Adams commanded the pocket as calmly as I’ve ever seen him, keeping his eyes downfield and stepping up and around trouble without a thought to a panicked escape. The bullet he threw to Keon Hatcher in the endzone was a prime example and, boy, was it beautiful.

That type of defence can only be beaten by patience and poise, two traits that Adams — who often thrives most when the game gets chaotic — is rarely known for. He passed the test that Fajardo failed with flying colours and, in my humble opinion, that first half was his best as a Lion. It certainly changed my perspective of what VA can be capable of.

Snodgrass stunner

Despite the victory, B.C.’s inauspicious opening to the game forced me to go in search of a baseball analogy — don’t worry, I’m as disappointed as you are.

A quick google search of the worst dropped fly balls in history directed me to the Wikipedia page of Fred Snodgrass, whose missed catch in the 1912 World Series was so infamous it was included in the headline of his New York Times obituary. Poor bastard.

While Bruce Anderson’s muffed opening kickoff won’t live on in the minds of Lions fans like Snodgrass’ faux pas, it certainly will go down as one of the worst beginnings to a game I’ve ever witnessed.

When Sergio Castillo sent his pooch kick skyward, things looked like they were going in the Lions’ favour. Positioned in the second line, Anderson possesses experience as an actual returner and the ball arcing toward him shouldn’t have been terrifying like it might have been for an unfortunate linebacker. Whether by happy accident or careful tape study, B.C. had the right guy in the right spot to make a play.

Then Anderson let the ball ricochet off his chest plate and into the waiting arms of Mike Dubuisson, handing the Elks a free possession.

Two plays later, rookie Canadian quarterback Tre Ford rattled off a 28-yard run and got a horsecollar tacked on thanks to Lions’ corner Garry Peters, who was promptly beaten by Dillon Mitchell on a fade route for the touchdown. As an aside, Peters was partly responsible for both Edmonton touchdowns after being called for pass interference on a nearly identical route in the third quarter, a rough outing for the likely all-star.

After getting punched in the face with that much vigour to begin the game, things could have gone off the rails quickly for B.C. How quickly that series was purged from their minds is a testament to this club’s resiliency. Bruce Anderson catching the next kickoff in an almost identical fashion was a big part of that.

Sometimes you just need a reset. The Lions got one there.

MORal of the story

I was critical of the play of 2020 first-overall CFL Draft pick and reigning Most Outstanding Rookie Jordan Williams earlier in the season but since mid-way through the year, the Canadian linebacker has looked like a different player.

As part of a three-man rotation with Bo Lokombo and Ben Hladik, sometimes playing on the weak-side and sometimes playing in the middle, Williams looks to be attacking the game with more effort, aggression and energy than he was before. That has made him far and away the team’s tackle leader on defence but has also begun to show on special teams. By the end of Week 11 of this year, he had no special teams tackles. In the eight games since, he’s notched seven.

In many ways, Friday was a quiet night by Williams’ standards, as he was credited with just a single tackle on defence and another on specials. However, his two forced fumbles in the second half were a critical part of keeping any Edmonton comeback at bay. While the second one felt a little flukey, his first was a textbook hit with his hat on the ball that should make the Lions’ defensive film room squeal with glee.

I am often critical of players in this column — that’s the job, — but I try to be as glowing in my praise when they are doing the right things as I am harsh when they are making consistent errors. Williams has himself playing at a high level when his team needs him most and that says more about him than anything I’ve written.

All gifts are accepted

In addition to Williams’ two forced fumbles, the Lions picked off Tre Ford twice at Commonwealth Stadium — both coming courtesy of halfback Marcus Sayles.

I thought Ford showed some flashes in his third career start but both of those picks came on egregiously bad throws from last year’s Hec Crighton Trophy winner. The first was a lobbed overthrow that floated like a balloon past his target and the second had nowhere near enough juice on it to get to the endzone. I especially wasn’t a big fan of some of Ford’s body language after those mistakes, as he often looked dejected when a throw didn’t go his way.

On the flip side, the Lions’ defence was more than happy to accept those generous gifts. Not much can be said about that unit when facing an offence that would have occasionally gone two-and-out against air, but the takeaways that were so clearly absent for the middle part of the season are now coming in bunches.

When it comes to defences building their swagger back, the players in the room don’t much care if the ball is handed to them on a silver platter. Turnovers beget energy which begets more turnovers. It doesn’t matter how they happen.

Unrecorded brilliance

Not much has gone unwritten about the B.C. Lions’ 2022 receiving corps — they are the best in the league, bar none.

Dominique Rhyme has developed into the league’s best pass catcher, and Bryan Burnham and Lucky Whitehead aren’t far behind when healthy. Keon Hatcher has taken the next step in his development, Jevon Cottoy can rumble through a defence when his quarterback finally decides to get him the ball, and Alexander Hollins looks like another gem. Even lunch pail Canadian Jacob Scarfone has his moments.

But while the teams’ receiving accolades will see them well-represented on all-star ballots, I’ve consistently come away impressed with their performance in less heralded aspects of the game. In particular, the blocking prowess of their receivers has been a big reason why the team has been able to successfully run QB sneaks out wide this season — first with Rourke and now with Antonio Pipkin.

This week, it was Hatcher dominating his man on the left side early in the game and Hollins pulling across the formation to get just enough of a seal to spring Pipkin for his touchdown in the second quarter. On other occasions, it has been other players going unrecognized for their contributions.

Good receiving corps hold each other to account in the passing game and challenge each other to gain more yardage and more points. Great receiving corps make a competition out of who can win the most blocks and perfect every detail of their game.

B.C. apparently has the latter.

Penny for your thoughts

There is still more than a week to go until Halloween but Lions’ defensive back Loucheiz Purifoy got into the spirit a little early when he wore a full Pennywise costume — the demonic clown from the movie IT — for the team flight this week. The dedication to the bit was impressive, as he later did a sit-down with team play-by-play man Bob “The Moj” Marjanovich while in the complete outfit and wore the mask out onto the field.

This attachment to Pennywise has been a recurring theme for Purifoy, as he brings a tiny doll of the character onto the sidelines most weeks and sometimes gives it the ball after takeaways as a tribute. I’m not a horror movie guy, so I find the act a little bit bizarre, but sometimes players have to go to strange places for motivation.

My bigger question is why the full costume this week? Surely, next week’s trip to Winnipeg would have more of a Halloween atmosphere given the meaningless nature of the game and its increased proximity to the holiday. Can we now expect to see a full Pennywise outfit for every game?

Somebody else will have to ask Purifoy, because I am not going anywhere near him in that creepy mask.

Crying with Ryan

Based on the commentary of the TSN crew and his emotional reaction after the game, it appears that Friday night will mark the final career appearance for 40-year-old Canadian punter Jon Ryan.

While most beloved in his hometown of Regina, Ryan holds a special place in the hearts of many Vancouver-based football fans due to his 10-year stint with the nearby Seattle Seahawks of the NFL. During the Hawks’ best seasons, including their Super Bowl win in 2013, Ryan and fellow Canadian Luke Willson provided fans of the team north of the border with a tangible connection and a player they could rally behind. Given how large the Canadian contingent of the 12th man was at that time, you’ll find few punters or backup tight ends with more dedicated followings.

If this is indeed the end for Ryan, he deserves nothing but adulation from football fans across the country. His 18 seasons of excellence on both sides of the border, defined by professionalism, class, and humour, are some of the best we’ve ever produced.

It’s just a shame it had to come to a close on this Elks team.

Well-deserved beverage

Because of other commitments which also delayed this column, I was not at the Lions’ press conference following Friday’s game. However, the only quote I need for this piece came via head coach Rick Campbell’s post-game address to the locker room.

“I’m f***ing tired too, but I’m having a goddamn beer.”

I would suggest that all the Lions coaches and football operations department deserve to share in that well-earned beverage.

For the past several seasons, the Lions have been a team without hope. They entered this year with people around the league betting on their demise and questioning whether they had nearly enough talent to make a run.

Look through the roster now. Yes, the lingering effects of bare cupboards have made special teams an issue at times, but I challenge you to find a glaring hole in this team’s starting lineup or a positional group that lags behind the rest of the league.

Campbell, co-general manager Neil McEvoy, and the rest of their staff have accomplished that feat by taking bold swings, by scouting at a higher level than the organization has in years, and by picking a few impact contributors off of other teams’ scrap heaps.

Yes, they’ll make the playoffs because of Nathan Rourke. But they stayed alive without him.

That deserves a beer or three.

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.