It’s official. After last week, the BC Lions are the worst team in the Canadian Football League. The club has lost seven straight games, and find themselves out of a playoff spot, one game shy of the midway point of the season. The same BC Lions that were getting used to hosting Western Finals, have now seen the other end of the spectrum, and it’s downright frustrating for the club and its fans.
But how did they get here? What has led to the team’s radical fall from the top of the CFL west? Fans and media like to concentrate on the now. It’s the coaches, it’s the schemes, it’s the personnel. While that may be true to a point, when you look at the bigger picture over the last three seasons, you can start to see how this all came to be.
The passing of Bob Ackles
It’s no secret that the BC Lions franchise turned around with the arrival of Bob Ackles. It’s also not wrong to suggest their downward spiral started with his passing.
Ackles was the face of the franchise and his football experience and contacts were of extreme value to the organization and in particular to Wally Buono. Ackles network of football people gave the club an endless resource to finding diamonds in the rough. Wally Buono could concentrate on the football team knowing that Ackles was looking after the operations of the club. He was a sounding board and confidante for Buono.
With Ackles gone, Buono has had to take on more of the day to day duties. Before Dennis Skulsky was brought in the Lions were without a President for a good amount if time. Skulsky is an excellent hire on the business side of the equation, but in no way does he replace what Ackles contributed to the football operations.
The departure of Obie
When Bob O’Billovich left the Lions, the loss was massive. O’Billovich has a great eye for talent and found some outstanding players for the Lions during his tenure here. Obie was aided by Richard Wade who also followed him to Hamilton. These two losses put a huge dent in the Lions scouting staff, and the product has reflected in the time they have been away. Roy Shivers was added to the fold, but has yet to produce the success that Obie and Wade did. It’s no coincidence that the Hamilton Tiger-Cats have risen from the bottom of the league to a respectful team since the arrival of these two talented football minds.
The offensive line hasn’t been the same since the departure of Rob Murphy. Big number 56 brought an attitude and an aggressiveness to the unit that has yet to be restored. The departure of Jason Jimenez was a curious one, and the Lions have failed to find a replacement there as well. The tackles are a huge part of any successful line, and the rotating door at the position has been counter-productive to the unit. Justin Sorensen, Dane Randolph, Dumane Duckett, John Hameister-Ries, Daren Heerspink have all had shots, while Sherko Haji Rasouli hasn’t stayed healthy enough to be evaluated. The offence can be critiqued all you want, but instability in the trench has caused huge issues for the quarterbacks who are more often than not running for their lives seconds after the ball is snapped. And while Jacques Chapdelaine is taking a lot of heat for the inept offence this season, some responsibility should also lie at the feet of OL coach Dan Dorazio.
Dave Dickenson wasn’t optioned by the Lions because they couldn’t invest the dollars in him due to his concussion issues. He ended up signing in Calgary, went in for Burris, got another concussion and retired. He stayed on with the Stamps last season as a running back’s coach, and this year was promoted to offensive coordinator after George Cortez departed for the NFL. Change that timeline a little bit and Dickenson may have been added to the Lions coaching staff. He’s a great football mind, and he’s proving in Calgary his transition to the coaching ranks will be a rapid one. It’s rumoured that Buono may have considered offering Dickenson a job in some capacity, but he’s remained in Calgary, and the Stamps offense is thriving.
The big bad league to the south has not been kind to fans of the Lions of late. Cameron Wake was a given to fly south but the recent departures have cost the Lions some nice talent. Jamal Johnson, Ricky Foley, Stefan Logan, Martell Mallett, Ryan Grice-Mullen, Rolly Lumbala have all departed for the lure of the NFL and to date none of returned.
One just has to look at the last three CFL drafts to see that pick retention and development has not been very successful in the last three drafts.
2008: Justin Sorensen, Rolly Lumbala, Justin Shaw, Jason Arakgi, Mike McEachern, Brady Browne, Hubert Buydens
2009: Jamal Lee, James Yurichuk, Matt Carter, Matt Morencie, Tang Bacheyie, Jonathan Pierre-Etienne
2010: Danny Watkins, Shawn Gore, Joash Gesse, Hamid Mahmoudi, Nate Binder, Akeem Foster, Cauchy Muamba, Matthew Chapdelaine
Only the players in bold are in the organization, and only Arakgi, and Yurichuk have made solid contributions. Lee isn’t touching the ball much, Sorensen has yet to step up and assume a starters role, and the others are too raw to contribute. Browne, Carter, Bacheyie and Morencie were lost to rival teams. Others such as Watkins may never see a Lions uniform because of NFL ambitions and potential.
Too many leaders lost
The Lions were once a team of veterans but perhaps too many were discarded too quickly. Jason Clermont, Barrin Simpson, Otis Floyd, Lavar Glover, Jamal Johnson, Jerome Dennis are just a few of the names that were moved in favour of younger, cheaper options. Every team has to do it, but did the Lions cut too much? Angus Reid was on the radio recently questioning whether this team’s leadership is good enough, adding that those veteran’s remaining need to pull the young ones along more. He also stated that this club isn’t the closest he’s been apart of, but added it’s also not the most divided. There is usually a fine mix that makes a cohesive team and right now the mixture on the Leos appears to be a little muddled.
So what next?
Every successful organization has to rebuild at some point. Some like the Montreal Alouettes seem to be able to retool and keep rolling along, and while that is admirable it’s rare. The Lions will try and stop the bleeding and they’ll be working hard to save this season. Regardless it’s likely some major changes are coming at the end of the 2010 campaign. Perhaps Wally Buono moves upstairs to fill the “football” vacancy left by Ackles. Perhaps the coaching staff is reevaluated and revamped and perhaps the club makes some nice free agent signings, drafts better, or has a few existing players develop. Wally Buono hasn’t “lost it”. You don’t devote your life to a game and all of a sudden suck at your job.
Lions fans have been spoiled for a few years. Sure a couple of more Grey Cups would have been nice and one could argue the failure to achieve that was another disappointment. However, Wally has rebuilt this team once and Lions fans should have faith he can do it again, even if it’s in a different capacity. He deserves that chance.
When you look at the big picture, it’s easier to see why this team is rebuilding. As fans, we can only hope the construction goes quickly.