The CFL season opener was decided in two drives with 50 minutes of filler, as the B.C. Lions seized an early lead over the Calgary Stampeders and were rarely challenged en route to a 25-15 victory.
Here are my thoughts on the game.
Burning with Vernon
It may not have been the perfect game that he pitched in the preseason finale against this same team, but Vernon Adams Jr.’s performance in his first game as the Lions’ face of the franchise burned hot like a prairie wildfire.
Much like those flames, the level of heat being generated was somewhat inconsistent and occasionally died down to embers. But when the breeze hit just right, B.C.’s quarterback scorched the McMahon turf with impressive efficiency.
The Lions’ opening drive was a mirror image of last week, with Adams going nine-for-nine on a scintillating 95-yard drive that ended in a Dominique Rhymes touchdown catch. His string of 21 straight completions ended on the next series when he placed the ball poorly for a wide-open Rhymes and overthrew Lucky Whitehead down the left sideline.
Adams seemed unfazed by the setback and promptly delivered his two best throws of the night to open the second quarter, finding Alexander Hollins for 23 yards before dropping a dime to Rhymes in the endzone.
VA finished his night 27-of-35 for 270 yards, two touchdowns and an interception while rushing 10 times for 35 yards and a score. There were some bad mistakes — the interception to Cameron Judge should have never been thrown and there were far too many forced passes for my liking. 191 yards of his production came in the first half and the offence went deathly quiet for long stretches. Still, Adams made the key plays when needed to ensure that Calgary was never really within reach.
“We talked about it this morning at our meeting, there’s going to be ebbs and flows to this game,” head coach Rick Campbell said of the performance. “When you play against a good team on the road, there’s going to be momentum swings in the game but I don’t think we ever totally let them get that momentum and we came up with those plays.”
Campbell was quick to point to Adams’ 11-yard run for a first down in the dying seconds of the first half as one such big play, leaving Calgary with no points to show for burning their final timeout early. He could have just as easily pointed to any play on the team’s touchdown drive to begin the fourth quarter, which VA finished with a timely run.
“Stuff like that is big, and making first downs, making plays when we needed it was big,” Campbell continued.
Adams himself couldn’t quite account for the stretches of ineffectiveness, but felt he was just as comfortable to open the regular season as he was a week ago and was confident corrections would be made. His reputation for being hot and cold remains a concern, but his ability to burn brightly continues to excite.
With offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic now placing him in a position to succeed and his explosiveness as a runner providing the ultimate equalizer, it will be hard to douse him entirely.
If you want a concise argument for why Dominique Rhymes is the CFL’s best receiver right now, look no further than his second touchdown of this game.
The six-foot-four, 215-pound target is already a matchup nightmare for his ability to haul in contested catches and he did plenty of that on Thursday. But his 30-yard major demonstrated a route-running finesse that is rarely seen in that big a frame.
Rhymes pushed vertically then stuttered to a near stop, drawing rookie Tae Daley down hard with him. Then the CFL all-star crossed the helpless defender’s face to the corner, getting a good five yards of separation to receive the perfect pass from Adams.
With eight catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns on a whopping 13 targets, it was another fantastic night for the Lions’ top offensive weapon. The scariest part is how much yardage he and VA left on the field.
Lions’ defensive coordinator Ryan Phillips put together a masterful game plan and his players executed it to near perfection, shutting down almost every facet of the Stampeders’ offence.
With consistent pressure in his face and some excellent coverage disguises playing havoc with his mind, Jake Maier looked like a quarterback who deserved the worst-in-the-league ranking that Pro Football Focus bestowed on him this week. In fairness to him, his receivers were routinely blanketed and B.C.’s defensive backs rallied well to the myriad of screens and underneath routes that Calgary was forced to employ.
Cornerback Garry Peters really set the tone on the Stampeders’ second drive, when he matched a streaking Malik Henry stride-for-stride and broke up a dangerous strike down the seam. It was not the only impressive knockdown of the night, as the potent pair of Henry and Reggie Begelton were held to just 64 yards combined. Still, Peters felt unsatisfied with the performance.
“Of course, we locked them down, but they missed a couple throws. It’s the first game of the season, so you’re gonna have a lot of mistakes. Their offence wasn’t as in sync as they probably had been in the past,” he told the media post-game. “A lot of credit goes to our defence, but they also helped us a lot. We’ll be a lot better next week. Our standards are a lot higher than what it was today, even though to you guys it seemed like a good day.”
Personally, I have few things to nitpick about the defensive performance, save for a Quincy Mauger dropped interception and an embarrassing faux-pas we’ll delve into later.
Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell made his debut as the Lions’ starting running back against Calgary and, boy, is he going to be fun to watch.
His first carry of the game broke for 14 yards, the first of four rushes over 10 yards culminating in an 18-yard scamper on the final drive that iced the game. All told, the diminutive ball carrier received 12 carries for 81 yards and caught three passes for 12 more, but seemed a breath away from daylight every time he touched the football.
Mizzell’s impressive burst means that he challenges the defence more than any other recent Lions’ back and he showed flashes of patience that are rarely shown in a player’s first CFL game. Puns aside, I’m excited about what he can bring to the table this year.
No Love Lost
The parking lot was a lot quieter on Thursday night than it was the last time the Lions visited McMahon Stadium and nobody got sucker punched, but it still feels like there is bad blood lingering between these two teams.
Save for a little bit of pushing and shoving following Calgary’s fourth-quarter field goal, it remained mostly cordial between whistles. However, Vernon Adams Jr. took a couple of hellacious shots in this game and two of them came after the play was already dead.
Cornerback Tre Roberson smoked a kneeling VA after he had already been sacked by Mike Rose and Branden Dozier lowered the boom on him again following his touchdown run. Both were clear infractions and seemed to be delivered with a little extra zest.
Adams needs to do a better job protecting himself both before and after the whistle, which the quarterback acknowledged post-game. However, kudos to the Lions for remaining disciplined and keeping their retaliation to acceptable defensive levels.
The Lions debuted two new starters on the left side of the offensive line, with Jarell Broxton taking over for the departed Joel Figueroa at tackle and Canadian veteran Andrew Peirson taking Broxton’s guard spot. The pair held up extremely well in their first outing and the offensive line as a whole kept Adams almost entirely clean, allowing him to decisively navigate the pocket.
I have my doubts about how good the Calgary defensive line actually is this season, so I reserve judgment for a tougher test. Nevertheless, the strong performance is a great sign for a group that suffered on the stat sheet when VA took over last year and lost their stalwart blindside protector in the offseason.
T.J. Lee looked like he might have put the game away for the Lions when he picked off Jake Maier in the third quarter, but the Lions’ longest-serving player instead provided an early candidate for Blooper of the Year.
Running with his prize down the left sideline, the nine-year veteran inexplicably lateralled the ball to Garry Peters, who was mere inches away and had no more space than he did. The exchange bounced off the cornerback’s fingers and was deflected out of bounds by the Stampeders, resulting in them regaining possession and scoring a field goal.
“Maybe if he gets more experience, he won’t do that anymore,” Campbell said post-game, tongue firmly in cheek. “We didn’t panic, which was good. We don’t want to do things like that but at the same time, I’m happy that our guys don’t melt down or panic or pout or point fingers.”
Afterwards, Peters took responsibility for the error, revealing that a minor ankle injury to Lee had prompted a pre-game agreement to pitch any interceptions. He called for the ball, but couldn’t hold up his end of the bargain.
“I pride myself on having the best hands in the secondary, so they was on my head about that. It looked terrible,” he laughed. “That wasn’t T.J.’s fault at all. I told him to pitch it to me.”
While the embarrassing fumble was nearly the turning point in the game, B.C. narrowly avoided another unforced error earlier. Marcus Sayles and Terry Williams failed to communicate on the final punt return of the second quarter and nearly collided, the result of which would have certainly been a Stampeders’ touchdown.
Even in an excellent team performance, Week 1 comes with some kinks to iron out.
The Lions were uncharacteristically at the centre of controversy this week when they suddenly traded homegrown defensive lineman Jonathan Kongbo to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats less than two weeks after signing the former NFLer.
Almost immediately, the barbs started flying. After TSN’s Farhan Lalji reported that the Surrey native was “not a fit” for the Lions and was moved to protect locker room chemistry, Kongbo fired back on Twitter accusing unnamed Lions’ stars of being late to practice and skipping workouts. His suggestion that he was sent packing for being a vocal leader and challenging a poor culture was then rebuffed by injured receiver Keon Hatcher, who asserted that the defensive end had actually quit on the team because he wasn’t going to be a starter.
As with most things, there may well be a grain of truth on both sides but neither came away from the interaction looking particularly good. Kongbo, in particular, may come to regret his place in the spat, as he doesn’t carry nearly enough clout to be telling anyone how to manage their locker room when his teammates still need a nametag to identify him.
As I discussed in my column last week, Kongbo may have played in the best culture in the CFL in Winnipeg but his career performance has been consistently underwhelming. Opportunities have come regardless of that fact due to his massive athletic potential, but it’s tough to point to his production as earning anything. Meanwhile, Hatcher is a thousand-yard receiver and respected leader on a team that went 12-6 last year.
I know who I’m giving the benefit of the doubt.
The latest changes to the CFL’s already complex roster rules were unveiled this week and the reviews are in: it’s an abject failure.
You can check out my colleague John Hodge’s analysis for the in-depth statistics lesson, but the short story is that teams will now be allowed to nationalize one tenured American veteran on each side of the ball, allowing them to take the place of specific Canadians for 23 snaps in the game. That player can also play in place of another American for an unlimited amount of snaps, creating a glaring loophole that defeats the stated purpose of the rule.
This was on full display during the first play of the game, when B.C. trotted out starting defensive tackle Tibo Debaillie to match up with Calgary’s starting running back Peyton Logan. Of course, both players were immediately pulled off the field after the first whistle in favour of the actual starters, Woody Baron and Ka’Deem Carey. That little bait and switch effectively meant that it was Logan and Debaillie, not the tenured veterans, who could replace a Canadian for 23 snaps so long as their replacement remained on the field.
In the end, neither player had a substantial impact on this game and the rule was not overly abused. However, from a purely optical perspective, the league now has serious egg on its face. The rule that was sold as a way to reward players who have invested years of service into Canadian communities has instead advantaged lesser-known youngsters and has made the sport less digestible for new fans and — perhaps more importantly — bettors.
Nobody should be happy with the way this has turned out and the league needs to step in and kill this rule quickly.
Beating a Dead Horse
Another matchup between B.C.’s questionable run defence and Calgary’s ferocious rushing attack has come and gone, and neither Ka’Deem Carey nor Peyton Logan had any meaningful impact on the game.
The Lions couldn’t effectively stop either one — Carey averaged six yards per carry and Logan managed 11.3 — but the Stamps were held to 93 total rushing yards because B.C. played with the lead the entire game. It is yet another data point in the growing mountain of evidence that a strong running game doesn’t help you win games, at least not against competent offensive opponents.
First Time in the Saddle
A family wedding took me to Calgary this weekend and allowed me to cover the Lions’ season opener in person. It was my first experience covering a road game and my first time visiting McMahon Stadium.
I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the size of the crowd after having previously voiced my concerns about their dwindling attendance. Just under 18,000 were reported to be in the seats and the atmosphere was pretty good.
The stadium, on the other hand, can only be described as archaic — not the Fenway of the CFL as my colleague Ryan Ballantine has insisted — and the game day production left lots to be desired, with musical acts that verged on tone-deaf. The bones are still good in Calgary, but the franchise desperately needs a revitalized product and venue. Until then, I will remain concerned.