The BC Lions thought they had a shot. Hell, the way they played this season, a lot of people thought they had a shot.
But in the end they came up against a juggernaut that looks to be poised to win the Grey Cup, posting one of the most impressive seasons in league history along the way. The Lions have come a long way in one year, but there is more work to be done, and that was made clear on Sunday.
Make no mistake, the return of Wally Buono had a huge impact on turning this team around. You only have to listen to the players to realize the difference he made. He surrounded himself with good young coaches, who also made strides this season. Khari Jones made the offence dynamic again, with an effective rotation based running game and a vertical passing attack.
Mark Washington had the Lions defence near the top of the league in several categories, and had to work through some major injuries to his secondary, while the defensive line while special teams were solid under Marcello Simmons and one of the most exciting players in the league, Chris Rainey, who remains under contract through 2017.
The Lions have a lot of key pieces in place, including a young dynamic quarterback in Jonathon Jennings, who makes some mistakes from time to time, but isn’t afraid to push the ball downfield, and is only going to get better. They have a young offensive line that was able to stay healthy and gel for the first time in several seasons, and they have two draft picks in the first round to build on that depth if they choose to.
Buono will face challenges and turnover with 24 free agents on the roster this off-season, none bigger than their leader on defence, Solomon Elimimian. Punter Richie Leone will likely get NFL tryouts, and Paul McCallum isn’t the long term answer they need for a place kicker.
Off the field the Lions will face challenges as well. A playoff crowd of just over 19,000 emphasized the work they have cut out for them in that department. Somehow this team has to tap into an apathetic Vancouver sports scene. Winning helps, but there needs to be a connection made with the ticket buyer, through programs and promotions that excite them.
While their street party is nice, the team should explore the option of sanctioned tailgating. The lots around BC Place won’t be there forever, so work a deal out with the lot owners and the city to use them while you can. Other events use these lots, there should be no reason why the Lions can’t utilize them. Follow the model in Calgary where you sell a tailgate pass to season ticket holders, and promote a true football game day experience. If you have to, control the environment by selling beer as they do in Toronto at BMO Field. Make game day an event.
They made some nice additions to the in game experience this year. A drum line that adds atmosphere and that can hopefully be expanded. Some great fan prompts on defence, the addition of an air raid siren to prompt noise on defence instead of constant prompting over the loud speakers. Fans started to catch on to that, and they should keep it up in 2017.
Bringing Fan Fest back to the lower mainland, or at least doing one for your season ticket holders would be good as well. Kamloops is a great for training camp and the Lions have a good setup there. But you need to do an event for your season ticket holders locally. A season ticket holder forum or dinner would also be a nice addition. Make those that support you feel part of the team.
The Lions digital team of Matt Baker and Cole Jackson produced some excellent content this year and the Lions all-access post game videos are some of the coolest things any team in any league has done. In fact, in my opinion, that initiative should be given some type of league award.
Their work in the community continues to be stellar. I don’t think there is a team in the city that does more on a daily basis in this regard.
Then there is the question of leadership at the top. David Braley continues to own the team, but was largely absent due to health issues. Dennis Skulsky who had planned to step back had to stay full time to assume the duties that Braley couldn’t. It may be time for Braley, as much as he’s done for the Lions and the league in general, to put the franchise in new hands. Preferably to a local owner with ties to business community and someone who truly understands the challenges of the Vancouver market.
Wally Buono restored the roar to the Lions in 2016. The challenge now is to take them to the next level in 2017. He’s done it before, and he can do it again, but there is lots of work to do.