They say that progression is not always linear.
The B.C. Lions are hoping that’s the case after they lost the Western Division Final to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers for a second straight year – this time by a 24-13 margin Saturday at IG Field in Winnipeg.
The Lions did have a solid season in racking up 13 wins but this team wanted to have a great season – which meant getting by Winnipeg and winning the Grey Cup.
That obviously did not happen.
“I’m happy that the bar is being raised around here. We did the same thing this year as we did last year. We won 13 games, hosted a playoff game and won it, then stumbled in Winnipeg both years but it feels like people want more and are expecting more and those are all good things. We will keep working at things to get over the hump and get to the big game,” head coach Rick Campbell told the media during the season-ending media availability session Monday at the Lions practice facility in Surrey.
The Bombers are B.C.’s kryptonite and it’s a fact that is not lost on Lions co-general manager Neil McEvoy.
“Right now, we’re just trying to figure out how to beat the Bombers. Let’s call it what it is. They are the upper-echelon team in the Canadian Football League. We are trying to be them, and as we unfortunately saw on Saturday, we are not there yet. We’re close. We have a lot of good pieces. We have a really good group of players that play well together that like to compete and feel they can compete against them (Winnipeg). I’m not sure we had that mentality last year. I felt this year that we took another step to compete with the big dogs which is right now the double B,” stated McEvoy.
Now comes an off-season where the focus will be on what this team needs to do to get to the next level which means figuring out a way to beat the Blue Bombers when it matters.
The loss in Winnipeg confirmed some of the Lions’ weaknesses.
Quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. was sacked nine times. By no means were all those sacks the offensive line’s fault but the front office will probably look at going with three Americans next year in an effort to improve that facet of the squad.
The club will also probably be in the market for a physical running back – obviously looking for someone who can improve the league’s worst rushing game.
The game in Winnipeg also saw the Bombers exploit the Lions defensive front in the first half as Bombers running back Brady Oliveira had 80 yards rushing in the first quarter alone and gained most of that yardage dragging a couple of Lions with him.
The Lions need to get more physical on the defensive side of the ball and a stout interior tackle should be a priority in free agency.
With 22 players on expiring contracts, there’s the question of who the Lions can afford to bring back.
The entire receiving corps could see some changes as Keon Hatcher, Alexander Hollins, Jevon Cottoy and Lucky Whitehead are all up while on the defensive side of the ball starters such as Mathieu Betts, Tibo Debaillie, Sione Teuhema, Josh Woods, Ben Hladik, Jalon Edwards-Cooper and Marcus Sayles are all potential free agents as well.
The biggest cause for anxiety could be Betts, who would be a prized free agent coming off a record-setting 18 sack season.
Although Betts told the assembled media in Surrey that he likes B.C. and would love to return, it’s believed that the Montreal Alouettes will make a huge push to land the hometown product and the off-field sponsorship opportunities for Betts just might make Montreal’s offer too good to turn down.
Then there are the Achilles injuries that both Hatcher and defensive halfback T.J. Lee suffered in Winnipeg. The pair are being evaluated this week with surgery looming for both which would result in them missing a good chunk of next season.
That situation will definitely have an impact on how the Lions proceed in re-signing their own players and in roster construction during free agency.
“We’re going to try and bring a lot of people back and try to have as much continuity as we can. There’s going to be changes – there always is. It’s going to be a lot of hard work but I know our personnel guys will be all over it,” said Campbell.
No matter what happens on the personnel front, the goal will be to get to the Grey Cup, which Vancouver is hosting next year.
Both Campbell and McEvoy downplayed any extra motivation because of that fact but there is no denying the extra pressure that will be on the Lions to get to that game.
“The thing I like is the vibe I’m getting from the people around here -the coaches and Neil (McEvoy) and (Assistant GM) Ryan Rigmaiden and players - is that there is a hunger for more and let’s find way to get better. Sometimes your season doesn’t end like that,” Campbell explained.
Hopefully next season ends a lot better for the Lions – preferably with a win at BC Place in late November.
Veteran B.C. sports personality Bob “the Moj” Marjanovich writes twice weekly for Black Press Media.