There’s always more than one way to define a season and both the B.C. Lions and Solomon Elimimian have their own versions of what could yet become the biggest development to occur with the CFL club this year.
The league’s presumptive outstanding defensive player nodded affirmatively Tuesday when asked if the recently-concluded season was the year he bet on himself and his ability to recover from a devastating Achilles injury.
Likewise, coach/GM Wally Buono didn’t disagree when it was suggested the Lions rolled the dice prior to this season, when he asked Elimimian to rework his contract before the club knew he would successfully rehab a potentially career-ending injury.
Both are right.
In the middle, however, are Lions fans who might wonder exactly how the club would allow itself to let Elimimian get in a position where even he admitted he might have played his last game after seven superior seasons, now that he is in a position to become a free agent in February.
“It’s very complicated; from the outside looking in, people wouldn’t understand,” the pit bull middle linebacker suggested.
A little history lesson is in order.
The first and only off-season under Jeff Tedford had barely begun in 2015 when the Lions announced new contracts for Elimimian and fellow linebacker Adam Bighill, with the club suggesting the two effectively represented their foray into free agency that year.
Elimimian’s deal, which would carry him through the 2017 season, reportedly carried a window of opportunity to look at the NFL one last time, but that opening closed quickly when he went down with his Achilles tear.
Buono wanted to restructure the contract to reflect the downturn in productivity and got the deal he wanted from Elimimian and his agent in exchange for a reduction of term, a rearrangement never announced by the Lions, that included a large signing bonus.
It’s how things sometimes roll in the CFL and when the team met for the last time Tuesday it was clear neither Buono nor Elimimian were even slightly bothered by the turn of events.
The linebacker is in a happy place, knowing he has accomplished plenty, with a resume likely to include his fourth major award as top defensive player when it is announced Thursday.
The GM didn’t seem worried either. Buono had already made Elimimian the highest-paid defensive player in the CFL under the terms of his 2015 deal. He’ll need to ensure in 2017 that position is maintained to have him back.
“We know the value of Solomon; that’s not going to be the issue,” said Buono, who paid his linebacker a reported $230,000 under the reworked deal. “The issue is we have a cap; we’re up against it this year and there’s some tough decisions.”
Elimimian said he wasn’t nervous or excited about being in a position where he might have someone like Chris Jones throw silly money at him. Elimimian described his mindset as “relieved”, having fulfilled a promise to the Lions he would recover and backing it up with another standout year.
“Having options is better than having none. If this season went different I wouldn’t have many options. I would have been really worried. I think I’m fortunate to be able to come back from injury and be a dominant player,” he said.
“One thing I do know is that they were fair to me but when you look at everything I’ve accomplished you can’t treat everyone the same. You can’t treat Geroy Simon like the last player. We talked about (the renegotiation) for a long time. I’m sure (Buono) tossed and turned. I felt like he did the right thing morally, where a lot of GMs wouldn’t have done it; paying somebody not knowing if they’re going to be the same player.”
Nonetheless, by restructuring the deal in exchange for a shorter shelf life the Lions head into the winter in a perilous, though now normal under the new shape of free agency, state. It’s not just because of Elimimian either.
No fewer than 24 players are eligible to become free agents, though that was instantly reduced when 10-year lineman Tim O’Neill said Tuesday he would not seek a new deal and will retire.
Also, some players under contract for 2017 want to leave and do the NFL tryout circuit will be prevented from doing so, said Buono, which may not be music to the ears of Chris Rainey, for example.
A quick check of Lions free agents (see below) would reveal the fact seven defensive starters could depart, including the entire defensive line. And if Elimimian leaves, the Lions will be further behind in the West Division than they showed in their last game against the Calgary Stampeders.
“If you look at Sunday, we’re a long way away,” Buono said.
“Last year I felt we needed to show Solomon we had confidence in him. In February, we gave him a fairly substantial signing bonus as an act of faith. He did what he promised us he would do and that’s come back with a vengeance. Solomon has been good to us. We’ve been good to him. The next step is going to be relative. We want to make sure Solomon is part of this football club but at the end of it he has to be able to make it fit. I don’t have a choice. The cap is only so much.”
There may be more than one way to define what happens in a season. But the only thing Lions fans can do for now when thinking about the next one is to cross their fingers.
B.C. FREE AGENTS
Offence – Anthony Allen, Bryan Burnham, Marco Iannuzzi, Jeremiah Johnson, Rolly Lumbala, Nick Moore, Tim O’Neill, Terrell Sinkfield, Hunter Steward.
Defence – Alex Bazzie, Mich’ael Brooks, Solomon Elimimian, T.J. Lee, Bo Lokombo, Keynan Parker, Craig Roh, Bryant Turner, Jabar Westerman, Ronnie Yell
Special teams – Mike Benson, Adrian Clarke, Neheme Kankolongo, Richie Leone, Paul McCallum