Signs of trouble for the B.C. Lions

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Problems are relative in professional sports.

For example, the troubles the B.C. Lions have encountered this season pale in comparison to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who have had almost as many coaches (two) as wins (three), are 0-6 away from home, and have had to postpone plans to move into their new stadium until next season.

But the Lions still have some issues that need to be addressed over the final month of the Canadian Football League regular season.

A successful defence of their Grey Cup title hangs in the balance, and with it the opportunity to do something no other Lions team has done in the 60-year existence of the organization.

Sure, the Lions are 9-4 on the season and their record is better at this point than it was a year ago (7-6). But this year’s version hardly exhibits the air of invincibility that last year’s team did once it overcame its terrible start. A year ago at this time, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the Lions would roar to the Grey Cup on home turf. And that is, ultimately, what they did.

And they did it by getting on a roll, gaining confidence and momentum, proving their dominance week in and week out, and steamrollering 10 of their final 11 regular-season opponents and both teams they faced in the playoffs. Last year’s Lions morphed into a sleek machine intent on inflicting punishment on its opponents, and it punctuated almost every victory with an exclamation point.

This year, though, something feels different—and far too often, games have ended with question marks. Victories like a slim 20-17 win over the brutal Blue Bombers and an even narrower 19-18 win in Edmonton over the struggling Eskimos have been ugly. And in a 27-21 loss to the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Regina on September 29, the Lions looked out of sorts in the early going—particularly alarming was the confusion on defence—and managed only to make the score look respectable with a late flurry on offence.

Good teams don’t look as ordinary as the Lions have looked in far too many games this season. And that’s the danger in a sport and a league where playoff lives can be snuffed out by one subpar performance. Last year’s Lions were feared when it mattered most. This time around, these Lions don’t throw that same scare into anyone. And performances like they have offered up most of this season may very well not be good enough come playoff time.

Now, top to bottom and position by position, the Lions are still the most talented and complete team in the CFL. And with five games left before the important games begin, the Lions remain the favourites to hoist the Grey Cup in Toronto on November 25. So from that perspective, they are still very much on track to reach the goal they set out for themselves when the 2012 season kicked off in late June.

But with two of their remaining games against second-place Calgary and one more matchup left with Saskatchewan, it’s time for the Lions to get their issues ironed out—particularly on offence, where they have struggled all year to gain traction early in football games.

Come playoff time, there is simply no way this football team can afford to spin its wheels and spot its opponents a sizable lead. Oh, sure, the Lions have shown an ability to come back this year, but they’ve done it against poor opponents. Bad teams don’t make the playoffs. A month from now, the Lions will need to be razor-sharp offensively and ready to go from the opening kickoff.

Much of that responsibility from here on out will be placed on quarterback Travis Lulay. A year ago, he was the CFL’s most outstanding player. This season, he hasn’t even been the Lions’ best player. The team needs more out of its quarterback and leader. Lulay has had his moments and has shown flashes of being that same guy who led the team to the championship last season. But like the offence as a whole, his play has been far too inconsistent and hardly anything for opponents to fear most nights.

Lulay is the guy who can set the tone for the team, and he needs to do more earlier in games to prevent the Lions from falling behind and being forced to play catch-up.

With three of their remaining five games at home, the Lions are in the driver’s seat to win the division and play host to the western final. If the road to the Grey Cup runs through B.C. Place, then the Lions will have put themselves in the best possible position to repeat as champions. They are 5-1 at home this season and are 12-1 in their downtown digs since returning to the refurbished stadium a year ago. So there’s no question the Lions play well on home turf—but the stadium alone won’t win them games.

If they can’t find another gear over the next few weeks, it’s likely that some other team will. That’s the very real danger of a “one and done” playoff system. And if the Lions don’t lock down the division title and are forced out on the road for the playoffs, then look out: suddenly the hill before them gets awfully steep.

Chances to repeat as Grey Cup champions are rare. The Lions have never accomplished the feat, and over the past 30 years, only two teams (Toronto in 1996 and ’97 and Montreal in 2009 and ’10) have managed to win back-to-back CFL championships.

The opportunity is certainly there for this football team, but so are many warning signs that simply can’t be ignored.

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You hit the nail on the head, good article.
Our poor Whitecaps are limping into the finish line too.
Good thing the Mens SFU Soccer Club is having another stellar season.
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