Lions uncork Rourke in losing effort and eight other thoughts on falling in the finale

Photo courtesy: B.C. Lions

With their eyes firmly locked on a home playoff game next week, the B.C. Lions dropped a meaningless season finale 24-9 to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Rourke uncorked

Week 21 of the CFL season could have been an email for all its negligible importance to the playoff picture, but Nathan Rourke’s return to the Lions’ lineup was just about the only reason for anyone to tune in.

In the end, it didn’t really live up to the hype — just three drives totalling a single field goal in terms of production — but did we really expect anything more exciting? Ultimately, this game was about warming Rourke up to room temperature after injury had him on ice for the last ten weeks. We can worry about getting molten hot next week.

For the purposes of their own comfort and confidence, Lions fans and coaches both saw exactly what they needed from their homegrown saviour. When faced with a side-by-side comparison, it truly is remarkable how fast the ball exits Rourke’s hand. First-year receiver Alexander Hollins found that out the hard way on one hot route, looking stunned as a fastball rocketed past him on second-and-ten.

Three straight completions to open the game proved that Rourke had no mental rust from his time away. In fact, you’d have a difficult time finding an issue with any of his reads throughout the evening. Most importantly, he looked comfortable standing in the pocket and taking shots despite his healing foot, as he first demonstrated on a well-defended deep ball to Keon Hatcher.

As for the throws themselves, they were mostly on point — with a couple of notable exceptions. Rourke has been open about the fact that he is not yet entirely satisfied with his throwing mechanics post-injury and two uncharacteristic errors speak to that. The first was an underthrown shot deep to Lucky Whitehead which allowed Canadian rookie Tyrell Ford to break up the pass and the second was an out route to Dominique Rhymes which hit the turf to force a field goal. Both are the types of throws you expect to have some issues with after a long absence and each will require only minor adjustments from the perfectionist passer.

“You’ve just got to get more comfortable trusting that the foot is strong enough to be able to take the brunt of what I’m asking it to do,” he said post-game. “That was the tough part. The first practice … I wasn’t trusting it enough in terms of rotating on it, in terms of dropping on it and stuff like that. But I can take it, so I’ve just got to get back into those movements.”

In the end, Rourke’s most egregious error was letting the ball slip from his hands the first time he was flushed from the pocket, resulting in the Lions’ lone turnover.  For all his many physical and mental gifts, Rourke has what doctors have termed “tiny, little baby hands” but I’m not concerned about that fumble becoming any sort of trend. Stick it on the blooper reel and move on.

Finishing 7-of-11 for 68 yards, Rourke’s return served its purpose and nothing more. He got comfortable, found out what he needs to work on, and got his timing back. It may not have made for particularly entertaining television, but it will pay dividends next week.

Future considerations

The fate of the Lions’ season no longer hinges on the playmaking whims of Vernon Adams Jr. but one last time before 2022 draws to a close, we must discuss the team’s emergency quarterback acquisition.

VA was his typical self on Friday, perhaps even slightly better than usual. There were some errant throws. As always, he held the ball too long. But there were also a number of plays where he made a solid throw and his receivers couldn’t deliver on their end of the bargain. His best series came at the end of the first half to set up an important field goal — though that success was somewhat undercut by a baffling time-count violation.

A stat line of 11-of-21 for 130 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions is a fitting way to end Adams’ tenure as the Lions’ starter. What remains somewhat undetermined is where his role goes from here. The 29-year-old remains under contract for next season at a highly flexible rate and B.C. will need to make a choice about his future.

As much as I’ve been critical of Adams’ play and have occasionally grown tired of his frosty stare from the post-game podium, I’d love to see him back next year as a veteran backup. You can critique the details of his game until you are red in the face, but you can’t dispute the fact that he kept the Lions afloat and contributed to several tough victories. Looking around the CFL, you’ll have a tough time finding better insurance available.

Where my tolerance for Adams dissipates is if at any point he will be earning the full value of his contract as a full-time starter. Yes, most seem to believe that Rourke will be back for one more season due to his injury. But if even a single NFL franchise has not been dissuaded from offering him a legitimate opportunity, B.C. will be looking for a new number one.

Nothing Adams has shown me thus far gives me any degree of comfort in having him at the helm for a full season. The Lions cannot allow themselves to be content with competence in that scenario and fail to take another big swing at football’s most important position.

As for third-stringer Antonio Pipkin, who went three-of-five for 41 yards in the fourth quarter, I have seen enough to make a final call. The 27-year-old has been sensational in short-yardage, but any number of rookies could do that job at a high level.

The Lions have lacked a developmental quarterback since the surprising release of Kevin Thomson and they can’t afford to waste a roster spot that could be used to find the next Rourke any longer.

Run away training

If the Lions are to have any hope of making the Grey Cup game in three weeks, they are going to need to sort out their problems against the run — and not only in the way that’s obvious.

Not for the first time this season, B.C. found themselves ground to a pulp by a ferocious rushing attack. Five different Bombers’ ball carriers combined for 164 yards in the regular season finale behind an offensive line that looked to be playing angry. Brady Oliveira averaged eight yards per carry to cross the thousand-yard mark for the first time in his career and the Lions hardly seemed interested in getting in his way.

When it comes to weekly success in the regular season, frequent readers know that I put limited stock in run defence as an important metric. More often than not, opponents are running successfully because they are winning and not the other way around. It is an acceptable chink in your defensive armour, particularly if you have a potent offence in your scabbard.

That equation does change slightly when it comes to playoff time. Currently, the Calgary Stampeders and their three-headed backfield monster are the only team that could actually attempt to rush for victory in a shootout, and a West Final in Winnipeg has the potential to bring with it the type of inclement weather that changes the run game’s value in the eyes of even the most analytically driven. The Lions need to be more gap-sound the next two weeks than they were on Friday.

However, more concerning to me is the team’s weakness when it comes to a different type of running: quarterback mobility.

Whenever he’s been on the field against the Lions this season, Zach Collaros has been able to break contain with relative ease and make magic happen. Backup Dakota Prukop looked almost as effective in that regard and added a legitimate rushing threat that B.C. simply had no answer for.

Don’t let the league’s current obsession with pitiful pocket passers distract you, success in the CFL has always been found with mobile playmakers under centre. Their ability to extend plays and change angles can cripple even the best defence; B.C. just seems particularly susceptible.

Again, discipline is the key here if the Lions are to produce a different result in any potential future playoff matchup with Winnipeg. It needs to be the number one focus for defensive coordinator Ryan Phillips and defensive line coach John Bowman over the next two weeks.

The problem with light switches

Fans won’t lose any sleep over the Lions dropping what was essentially the equivalent of playoff preseason, but the stark difference between the two teams did raise some red flags. Namely, it looked like one team was much more invested in their performance than the other; a dangerous proposition come the postseason.

Despite having nothing on the line for several weeks at this stage, the Bombers looked like a team playing to send a message. Starters and backups alike were lowering the boom on defence, blockers were finishing with a little extra oomph, and ball carriers battled for every inch. Heck, lovable defensive tackle Jake Thomas even gave Nathan Rourke the cold shoulder after he asked to be helped up after one teeth-rattling blow — this was clearly not a friendly tune-up for the two-time defending champs.

The Lions, by contrast, looked like a team going through the motions. Save for an early Rourke-related bump on offence, the energy was low. Receivers not named Keon Hatcher seemed to have little interest in coming back toward the ball to help out their quarterbacks. The defence was worse, producing nothing more than missed tackles, sloppy zone coverage, and bad penalties.

Far be it for me to take the moral high ground on effort level while writing this article wrapped in a fuzzy blanket on my couch, but it looked like B.C. fell into the trap that comes with meaningless games. They throttled down and looked to preserve their bodies, but that strategy rarely pays off.

The problem with switching things off at the end of a football season is that sometimes it’s difficult to flip them back on again. Head coach Rick Campbell will need to send a clear message to his team this week to ensure they don’t fall victim to that fate.

Close, but no cigar

A pair of Lions entered Friday’s game with a chance to claim a place atop the CFL’s statistical leaderboard, but neither was able to accomplish the feat.

Running back James Butler needed 34 yards to pass Calgary’s Ka’Deem Carey and claim the league’s rushing crown, with his competition listed as a healthy scratch tomorrow. He generated just six yards on three carries, giving way to backup Bruce Anderson for the rest of the game.

Meanwhile, receiver Dominique Rhymes needed to outpace the Bombers’ rookie sensation Dalton Schoen by just 11 yards to seize the CFL’s receiving lead. He finished with three catches for 55 yards but got no help from his defence, who allowed Schoen free for 84 yards and a touchdown.

Ultimately, those types of individual milestones mean very little in a team sport, but it was interesting to see the Lions make no concerted attempt to hunt for the record books while Winnipeg clearly game-planned around helping Brady Oliveira cross the thousand-yard plateau.

The greatest tragedy of the third millennia

Two Lions who did reach individual milestones were receivers Keon Hatcher and Lucky Whitehead, who both crossed the thousand-yard mark in Winnipeg. That gives B.C. three thousand-yard receivers on the season, but it came at a cost.

In his first game back from a busted ankle, Whitehead appeared to reaggravate the injury late in the game and had to be carried to the bench. He was later seen heading to the dressing room and did not return.

The Lions’ logic for playing their electric deep threat was much the same as it was for dressing Rourke. However, I was surprised by the general wariness of his comments pre-game about returning to action. Whitehead seemed like a player with serious reservations about the benefits of dressing, in stark contrast to his quarterback.

Hopefully, the setback does not prove to be serious but if Lucky is missing for the playoffs,  difficult questions need to be asked.

LOSing my mind

Like many Lions fans, I remain entirely unconvinced that Zach Collaros’ second touchdown pass to Rasheed Bailey should have counted.

The quarterback had escaped right and was looking to take off when he threw the ball, appearing to the naked eye to be past the line of scrimmage. However, it was upheld on review, leaving many irate.

The rule is that a quarterback must have a foot at or behind the line to complete a legal forward pass. Collaros barely met that criteria when he cocked his arm back to deliver the throw but had drifted well past by the time the ball was released.

It seems the disagreement here comes down to when in Collaros’ motion it constituted a pass. To me, had that ball been stripped at the very moment he hit the line of scrimmage, there would not have been enough forward motion in his arm to rule it an incompletion. It is therefore confusing as to why that would be deemed part of a throw under different circumstances.

MOP up duty

Sadly, this result likely ends any debate there was surrounding whether Collaros or Rourke should win the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player award. My 3DownNation colleague John Hodge spent much of the second half beating his chest about it in the company group chat.

There is no doubt that Collaros’ body of work has been impressive and, as a result of Rourke’s injury, his raw numbers are better. However, let me put things in perspective.

After tonight, Collaros will have been responsible for 37 total touchdowns — all through the air. In 9 1/4 games, Rourke generated 32 combined passing and rushing touchdowns. Frankly, that’s absurd.

The award is called the Most OUTSTANDING Player, not the “I played a full season on the best team in the league” award. It should go to the athlete with the most remarkable accomplishments. I just don’t think Collaros qualifies.

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.