CFL season preview: The BC Lions

So who needs the NFL? Football begins north of the US border in just over three weeks, with the CFL kicking off its 2016 season on June 23. Before then, Os Davis presents previews for each of the Canadian Football League’s nine teams right here on TheGruelingTruth.Net. This time out, a look at the BC Lions.

The History: Founded in 1954, the BC market might be considered the baby of the CFL; however, the Lions are also modern-day CFL giants, with a string of 19 consecutive appearances. (Though this streak barely stayed alive in 2015; see below for more on this.) Ten years after their inaugural kickoff, the Lions bagged their first of six Grey Cup titles in ‘64.

The 1980s and 90s saw BC win one Cup each decade, the latter the sole time in which an American-based CFL franchise – those immortal Baltimore Stallions – was defeated in the championship game.

In 2000, led by all-time CFL greats QB Damon Allen and RB Robert Drummond, BC won its fourth title, again in bizarre fashion. After starting the season 3-4, head coach Greg Mohns quit to take a job with the San Francisco Demons of the XFL – surely the only time that phrase may be written – and the Lions finished 8-10. Or perhaps it would be more precise to call that 11-10: After three playoff wins, BC became the first CFL team to win a Grey Cup with a losing record in the regular season, an achievement no other franchise has reached to date.

Last Season: Seven months out from the Lions’ season-ending playoff loss to the Calgary Stampeders, the CFL follower might still be at loss to briefly explain what went down in British Columbia last season.

At first, fans were told that 2015 would be something of a rebuilding year but nevertheless with an eye to the future. Introduced as head coach shortly after the 2014 Grey Cup game was Jeff Tedford in a move that seemingly reaffirmed the originally stated plan. Tedford not only brought experience as a CFL player and assistant coach, his résumé more recently included a nice 10-year run with the Cal Golden Bears which morphed a woeful college program into a perpetual top-20 team and later a gig as Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator.

Just the guy then-general manager Wally Buono sought to jumpstart a winning tradition in BC, right? (Again, that word “seemed” is appropriate here.)

After week 7, Tedford’s Lions stood at 3-3: Not exactly a world-beater of a record, particularly considering that two of those wins came against the Saskatchewan Roughriders; on the other hand, BC had stunned the eventual champion Edmonton Eskimos to get to .500 in their best performance of the season; combined with the troubles experienced by the bottom three sides (Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Saskatchewan, Montreal), Lions fans were at least looking at a playoff spot early.

And things weren’t a total loss halfway through the season’s first third: The offensive line was the CFL’s best statistically while 2015’s 1-2 in tackles, Solomon Elimimian (formerly of U. Hawaii) and Adam Bighill (Central Washington U.), looked set to repeat the feat. Should the defense stay strong, the optimist’s line of thinking went, this team just might have enough to win a couple playoff games.

It didn’t. Elimimian went down with an Achilles tendon injury in week 8 amid a blowout 52-22 loss to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and the tailspin from an already lowish height began. The loss to Hamilton triggered a 2-7 run which culminated in a heartbreaking double overtime loss to the Eskimos as the injuries piled up.

And yet, in the words of that near-cadaver in Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail, the Lions collectively insisted “not dead yet.” In any another season, a 5-10 start would have signaled BC’s demise, but that above-mentioned hapless trio of teams kept losing. In perhaps the most shocking result of the season, set against a backdrop of early “Fire Tedford” mutterings, the Lions got revenge against the Tiger-Cats to win in week 18 by an incredible score of 40-13.

In week 19, another win clinched the final playoff spot for BC, though the Lions were easily brushed aside by Calgary in the West semifinal.

Post-Grey Cup, Tedford was one of the first casualties in CFL coaching as he resigned from the team; some rumors claimed that Tedford’s work(aholic) ethic was too much for many players, but Tedford above all came off as more a victim of hopeless circumstances.

The Offseason: The first key acquisition for the Lions this offseason? That would be general manager Wally Buono’s hiring of himself to serve as head coach in 2016 (at least). As a coach alone, Buono is a legend in two CFL cities: After 13 seasons and three Grey Cups with the Stampeders, Buono moved to BC; there, he added another two Grey Cups (in 2006 and ’11) to his mantel. Post-2011, Buono announced he’d give up coaching the Lions, “to focus on his duties as general manager.” Guess that after 2015, Buono wants more hands-on control of this team…

So how did Buono the GM do in setting the table for Buono the Head Coach? We’ll say fair to middling.

We can confidently state that Buono deserves to take credit for the best re-signing of the offseason, getting Elimimian to stick around on a multi-year extension. Re-signing top-five CFL wide receiver Emmanuel Arceneaux (Alcorn State, Minnesota Vikings) is also notable, as is the reupping of DB Eric Fraser (Central Michigan U). Fraser’s re-signing was particularly necessary, with the departure of Josh Johnson (Purdue) and his 58 tackles in 2015 to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Unfortunately, Buono couldn’t keep around LB Alex Hoffman-Ellis (Washington State, Sacramento Mountain Lions), who landed with Hamilton (yeah, like *that* defense needs more help) and Canadian RB Andrew Harris (Vancouver Island Raiders), the team’s leading rusher – and sole RB with over *32* yards rushing (!!!) in ’15.

As for incoming talent from the free-agent market, probably the best acquisition in a pretty inactive offseason was WR Nick Moore, who last year topped his fellow Winnipeg receivers in receptions (76) and yardage (879) within a weak passing game.Buono did well in addressing his roster’s biggest problem spots in going with OL Charles Vaillancourt (Laval U), DB Anthony Thompson (Southern Illinois U.) and WR Brett Blaszko (U. Calgary) in the first three rounds – though it’s likely none will by starters this season.

Expectations for 2016: Should we reset the clocks in BC to 2015? Though Buono would certainly never admit to such, this season may in fact resemble another “rebuilding” year. BC certainly won’t be able to zombie-walk their way to third place in the West, with the improvements and optimism shown in the Saskatchewan and Winnipeg camps. Would any CFL fan be shocked if BC’s playoff streak stopped at 19?

The only question thereafter would be, “So what does Buonodo now?”

Next: The Winnipeg Blue Bombers