The B.C. Lions made it tougher on themselves than they had to, defeating the Calgary Stampeders 25-22 in their preseason finale on a walk-off Kieran Burnham field goal. However, a victory was simply the chaser after a first half that should have fans drunk with anticipation for the regular season.
Here are my thoughts on the game.
No story will loom over a team this season quite like the enormous pair of empty cleats left by the departure of quarterback Nathan Rourke in Vancouver, and Thursday marked Vernon Adams Jr.’s first opportunity to prove he could fill them.
A preseason performance against an opponent fielding mostly back-ups should be taken with a serious grain of salt, but his initial fit under centre looked pretty damn snug. Adams’ debut as the unquestioned face of the franchise went about as perfectly as you could have scripted — literally.
His opening drive set the tone, a masterclass complete with rhythm passing and a couple of decisive runs. His 31-yard touchdown strike to Justin McInnis on a corner route to open the scoring was a thing of beauty, delivered on a rope and expertly placed where only his receiver could get it.
From there, it only got better. VA’s second drive was highlighted by a spectacular 41-yard throw to Dominique Rhymes, which the quarterback made on the move whilst in the grasp of a would-be tackler. He found the team’s number-one receiver again for a five-yard major minutes later, drawing the entire defence with him as he was flushed to the right before setting his feet and dumping it over their heads to the other side of the field.
Drive number three began with another gorgeous deep shot, this time 33 yards right into the honey hole to Lucky Whitehead down the left sideline. It culminated similarly, with a perfect back-shoulder throw to McInnis for another major.
That would be all that was required of Adams. In less than two quarters, he was a spotless 12-of-12 for 213 yards and three touchdowns, while running four times for 26 more. Partway through the performance, I hyperbolically called it the best I’d ever seen him play. The quarterback seemed to agree, telling reporters post-game that he had never felt more comfortable.
“Probably the first time in my CFL career, for real, for real,” Adams shared. “I felt like I was seeing things clearly. (Offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic) did a great job just dialling things up, guys were making tremendous catches for me, O-line did their thing, and I used my feet a little bit to extend some drives.”
What VA did for the Lions last year was admirable; he came into an unfamiliar system and kept the team afloat on short notice. There were some shining moments, but there were some understandably horrific outings as well. I stand by my criticism of him, but I’ve also made no attempt to hide the fact that he has the potential to exceed all expectations this year.
Inconsistency has been the quarterback’s trademark throughout his career but his peaks have been as high as anyone in the league. The hope is that an offseason in Jordan Maksymic’s system can smooth out the wrinkles and leave just explosive playmaking ability behind. If he continues to play with even a fraction of the efficiency and poise he showed on Thursday, the drop-off from a generational talent in Rourke won’t be nearly as steep as feared.
Smoke But No Fire
While Taquan ‘Smoke’ Mizzell impressed me more a week ago, the Lions’ running back battle swung decisively back in favour of Antonio Williams on Thursday night.
Mizzell looked as explosive as ever on his first carry of the game, breaking 16 yards off-tackle, but he was bottled up for just three yards the rest of the way behind what was less than dominant blocking in front of him. B.C.’s offensive line failed to impose their will on a backup Calgary front and the play-calling never got Smoke in the space he needed.
Williams was far from spectacular, but his downhill style generated positive yardage even when there was little available. He finished with 11 carries for 46 yards and had some critical runs on the game-winning drive, though his highlight of the night was a hellacious hit on special teams.
Head coach Rick Campbell wouldn’t speak to the competition without watching the film but acknowledged that difficult decisions would have to be made. Here’s hoping that the team can keep both backs around in some capacity, if only because I have an endless amount of smoke-related puns that need to be used.
The Lions’ defence was much stingier against Calgary than they were last week in Regina, but deep balls remained a serious issue and there was blame to go around once again. Even veterans T.J. Lee and Garry Peters got caught with a miscommunication early, allowing Floyd Allen in behind for a 40-yard gain on the Stampeders’ first drive.
The pair quickly made up for it with blanket coverage on the next few plays to prevent an almost certain touchdown, but others were not so lucky. Free agent acquisition Mike Jones had a rough night by my estimation and took a couple of major penalties, including a pass interference call on Tyler Roberts that set up a major. Joshua Flowers later found himself victimized by Luther Hakunavanhu on a 28-yard strike in the end zone.
While the issue wasn’t quite as pronounced as it was against the Riders, Calgary wasn’t fielding their A-team and those types of mistakes can cost jobs.
“We need to make sure we take a look at that. Deep balls are a big part of the CFL and we need to make sure we’re coaching the guys that are going to be playing for us,” Campbell said post-game.
It’s difficult to track down-to-down consistency in the secondary without the benefit of game film, but I thought the best newcomer was Najee Reams. The former track star led the team with five tackles and had a critical pass breakup late in the fourth quarter, though he failed to wrap up for the sack on a would-be safety earlier on the same drive.
Scary Not Scared
While B.C.’s starting receivers ate thanks to VA, it was a quiet night for the rest of the crew as the offence stalled out with Dane Evans and Dominique Davis under centre. The lone exception was returner Terry Williams, who looked far more impressive than his three catches for 23 yards seemed to indicate.
The five-foot-nine, 170-pound speedster put his body on the line for two of those catches, laying out horizontally along the sideline in spectacular fashion. The other showed off his impressive ability to make defenders miss. Though the Lions are not wanting for pass-catching talent, it was a worthy audition for more playing time on offence.
“He needs to be on the field, getting touches,” Campbell said at the podium. “There have been some other guys that have been overlooked because of their height, returners in this league in the past, and I think that’s a mistake. Because he consistently does it in practice and he does it in games, makes really good catches. He’s a tough, tough player.”
The Lions began the game with almost their entire projected starting lineup in action, save for an absent Keon Hatcher. The one position that seemed to rotate each series was left guard, where fifth-year Canadians David Knevel and Andrew Peirson saw the early action.
With the team leaning toward flipping the ratio to three Canadian starters along the interior offensive line, it is a make-or-break year for both players. Knevel was once a highly-touted prospect out of Nebraska who has never quite found his footing as a starter, while Peirson was an undrafted flyer from Gannon who has stuck around against all odds thanks to his intelligence and coachability.
I can’t pretend to be unbiased in this position battle, as Peirson was the first under-the-radar prospect I ever championed on the draft circuit. By contrast, I’ve never been a big believer in Knevel.
My early impressions against Calgary reinforced that opinion, with the former Cornhusker showing some of the heavy feet and poor anchor that made me skeptical of him in the past. Peirson has his own limitations but his cerebral understanding of the game makes up for a lot of flaws. I hope he finally gets an extended chance to start.
Poor Bryson Daughtry can’t seem to catch a break — no pun intended.
The rookie receiver was the guilty party on two contested drops last week but made up for it by hauling in a spectacular deep ball. This week he wasn’t so lucky, hauling in just one of six targets thrown his way for four yards.
Two of those passes were drops once again and while neither was an easy catch, professional receivers have to come up with the football even with a defender on them. It’s awfully hard to make a roster if no one trusts you to make a difficult reception.
Canadian defensive end Jonathan Kongbo made his homecoming against Calgary, putting on a Lions uniform for the first time. The Surrey native didn’t make an impact on the stat sheet but flashed his usual explosiveness and delivered one bone-crushing quarterback hit that forced an incompletion.
The former five-star JUCO recruit has never really lived up to my expectations, becoming just an average player at Tennessee and a solid rotational CFLer in Winnipeg in between cup-of-coffee stints in the NFL. The talent has always been there, but he has yet to put it all together on the field.
This move home might be the decision that finally allows it to happen, as the 27-year-old has tired of his formerly nomadic lifestyle. Kongbo has a chance to be a part of one of the best groups of Canadian defensive linemen in recent CFL history and learn from an elite former player in John Bowman. Without one eye looking elsewhere, he could become the player recruiters thought he was.
The Prodigal Son Returns
The Lions announced the return of a familiar face earlier this week, bringing in former head coach Mike Benevides as a special teams consultant after a family matter forced coordinator Don Yanowsky to step away from the team.
I wish all the best to Yanowsky and his family, and hope everything resolves itself quickly. However, the unfortunate circumstance could benefit the Lions by getting a fresh set of eyes on a special teams unit that has been plagued by issues the past few years.
While inconsistency is inherent with the bevy of personnel changes made in preseason football, Thursday was another poor outing from the kick coverage unit. They posted a net average of 36.5 yards despite good punts from Stefan Flintoft and Floyd Allen busted a punt return touchdown that was called back because of holding. Overall, the tackling was sloppy and Stampeders’ returners were afforded far too much space.
Benevides was once supposed to be the Lions’ next great bench boss, the heir to Wally Buono’s legacy. That didn’t work out, though I still feel he got a raw deal considering his winning record. If his redemption arc consists of fixing the team’s third phase, it will be well worth the journey.
That’s a Rap
Preseason is now done for the Lions and they have a myriad of cuts to make before Saturday’s deadline. The team will open their season next Thursday in Calgary, but the real party is set to start in Week 2.
For the second year in a row, owner Amar Doman has booked an A-list musical act for a kickoff concert ahead of the home opener. After OneRepublic drew over 30,000 in 2022, the team announced this year’s act at halftime: rap icon LL Cool J.
I’m not qualified to speak on any of Mr. Cool J’s music; I know him best from NCIS: Los Angeles. However, I applaud the Lions for branching into the rap sphere with their musical guest, even if it isn’t my scene.
Forward-thinking fans have long called for the CFL to target a younger, more diverse demographic with their gameday programs. I’m not sure a guy who was most famous in the ’80s fully accomplishes that goal, but at least it is a baby step in the right direction.