WINNIPEG — It was just one snapshot. It was just one loss. It seemed, however, to illustrate some of what has gone wrong with the BC Lions this year. It surely appeared to illustrate a factor in another demoralizing body blow that was their 26-20 loss to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers Saturday.
On one side of the dressing room after the game, Mark Washington had gathered his group and is still trying to offer words of encouragement, just as the defensive coordinator did on numerous occasions during the spirited contest.
That the Lions playoff run is all but officially over seemed like an injustice if judged solely on a defensive group which neutralized Andrew Harris to the point the Bombers starry tailback felt compelled to take swing at Lions tackle Michael Brooks out of frustration.
In another corner, kicker Ty Long is only beginning to rediscover some feeling in his right shoulder after he was injured trying to prevent another special teams blunder in the form of an early 88-yard punt returned by Kevin Fogg of the Bombers for a touchdown.
On the other side of the Lions room, however, members of the Lions offence again stayed stapled to their locker stalls, alone with their thoughts. As always, quarterback Jon Jennings was again asked to perform an immediate autopsy.
One group is together. Another, it would seem, is looking for a lifeline and only can find an anchor.
It’s an incredible reversal from just 12 months ago when Jennings looked like a star on the rise and much of what offensive coordinator Khari Jones called for his unit worked, but that seems like a long time ago now.
Anger. Disbelief. Resignation. It was all evident with the Lions after they needed nearly 55 minutes to even get to the red zone. Down 26-6, B.C scored a pair of touchdowns in the final five minutes on determined efforts by Bryan Burnham, who had only seen the ball thrown in his direction twice to that point. It wasn’t nearly enough.
“It’s not real. We’re way too good to be going two and out and throwing our defence out there,” said Burnham, who buried his head in a towel on the sidelines as the final seconds of the latest loss wound down.
“I don’t know what else to say. It’s disappointing and we don’t have an answer. We put up (20) points. That’s terrible. We got too many weapons not to be putting up points.”
Jennings helped the offence produced 905 yards in its previous two games combined but against Winnipeg couldn’t generate a drive which contained more than two first downs until the final quarter. On the sidelines, he looked to be out of answers. Help appeared to be elusive too. Another snapshot.
Without an upturn in the final three games, how much longer the Lions can go with Jones will be one of the questions that will require an answer in the off-season, right after who will be the owner, president, coach and general manager.
“Obviously it was frustrating after the last two weeks,” Jennings said. “Guys are upset but no one is turning on each other. There’s nothing we can do right now but come back to work.”
Outside the locker room, the head coach is citing another problem after Wally Buono all but officially hoisted the white flag.
“Honestly, this is kind of like you’re building for the future,” said Buono, trying to sound like the future could start against Edmonton Saturday but also confirming his team’s death row status, before addressing another problem evident with this team for a very long time.
“How about if there’s a great sense of urgency from our whole team? When we played with a sense of urgency, it was a totally different game. When there was a sense of do or die it was different .The urgency has to be in where we’re at. Obviously it’s easy to get down on yourself. It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself but we’re all men who play an emotional game.”
A lack of urgency on a team about to have a 20-year playoff streak snapped? What exactly does it take for a team to generate urgency with that kind of history is on the line?
“That’s not possible unless you feel it yourself,” said Buono, who admits he didn’t become the winningest coach in league history on the strength of his pre-game speeches. “Some guys are, well, maybe, afraid in the sense that they’re letting the whole thing engulf them and weigh them down,”
Burnham had an idea.
“Maybe if we started the game down 21 we might play the game better,” he said.
Maybe if the Lions put together a consistent effort in all three phases they wouldn’t have but a single win over the equally-inept Montreal Alouettes to show for their last eight outings. A defensive secondary that couldn’t stop a beach ball in crunch time against Ottawa doesn’t allow a touchdown or pass completion longer than 20 yards against Winnipeg. Jennings was methodical against Ottawa and Hamilton, and outmatched against the Bombers. At least the field position generated by special teams was consistent. B.C scrimmaged outside its 45-yard-line only once, perhaps why the offence could only produce 79 yards and seven punts on their first seven drives.
Other points seen and noted:
Take that: Brooks appeared as if he was getting into the headspace of Harris in the second half and was surprised referee Tom Vallesi didn’t eject the Winnipeg player for tossing a punch.
“You could see the referee’s play-calling was a little iffy. It wasn’t consistent. Andrew was getting frustrated. I really don’t understand why he was in the game.” Brooks said. Harris had a pretty effective response on one occasion when he was near the Lions bench. He pointed to the scoreboard.
Looking back: Since the last-play loss by Saskatchewan to Ottawa Friday meant the Lions remain in contention for the post-season for at least another week, or until the Riders play Montreal, there’s no sense of pouring too much dirt on the grave. No, let’s rethink that. According the sportsclubstats.com, the Lions chances of making the playoffs is now 0.5 per-cent.
You already know Buono has thought about what lies ahead for the organization and his potential involvement. But it’s also clear he’s looked back. Without prompting, the man in charge last week was able to pinpoint the exact moment the Lions began their slide, which is informative for no other reason than serving as a reminder to players about the proper collective mindset that has gone missing on this team.
Buono’s mind recently wandered back to a game at B.C. Place Stadium against Saskatchewan Aug. 5 when his team led 30-0 and ultimately won by a 30-15 count.
“Since the Saskatchewan game when we gave the two touchdowns its been nothing but uphill,” Buono said. And of course, he’s absolutely right, because the team that played in the rematch nine days later with Jennings behind centre instead of Lulay was completely comatose, and hasn’t been the same since.
B.C.’s win, and the minutes prior to the final gun were played after Buono did the honorable thing and pulled Lulay and replaced him with Alex Ross. The Lions secondary, as has now become custom, gave up two huge passing gains for touchdowns.
Emmanuel Arceneaux spoke last week about whether the Lions have enough players who are aware of playing with a killer instinct, and the obvious answer is that they do not. It is impossible to think a team which lost Ryan Phillips, Adam Bighill, Jovan Olafioye and Jason Arakgi out of the locker room during the off-season is going to be in a better position to withstand adversity than the group currently assembled.
Arakgi retired during the off-season, so you cant hang that one on the man in charge. Bighill’s exit is on Buono, because he asked the linebacker for a pay cut after the 2015 season in exchange for an NFL option-year window, so his move to the New Orleans Saints was preventable. Theorize all you want in the weeks ahead about player execution and coaching strategy; any analysis of the Lions season has to contain a discussion on locker-room intangibles.
Looking ahead: if there’s any upside associated with being on the outside of the playoffs is that the Lions will eventually came in to the notion that there’s no harm in actually letting those marooned on the practice roster in playing.
As it is an unrelatable development in the Buono era, it bears noting that he does plan on unloading the bench in the event the Lions no not qualify for the playoffs. In a discussion last week, Buono mentioned players that will get into games like LB Dyshawn Davis, who has been in limbo for the better part of two seasons with only spot duty, and DL Luther Maddy. Others who have shown themselves during practice sessions: RB/WR Tyler Davis, WR Dontre Wilson, DB Kendall James and DL Joe Mathis. Recreating a pre-season scenario may be small comfort in a season which has gone off the rails, but it’s about the only hope the Lions can offer at the moment.