When the B.C. Lions broke from the CFL blocks this season, general manager and head coach Wally Buono looked like the Lion in winter.
For two middling seasons in 2010 and 2009, the line about Buono was that he had forgotten more about football than anyone could ever know, but opening night in Montreal brought a strategic decision from the Twilight Zone.
The CFL’s leader in coaching victories trailed the Alouettes by seven points with less than two minutes to play when he decided to kick a field goal on third-and-five. The Lions were 38 yards from tying the game, but Buono never gave them a chance.
The call was the football equivalent of a grown-up forgetting how to tie shoes. No longer was the forgotten-more-than-anyone-could-know line applicable, because every Lions fan saw that emperor had no clothes.
Sensing he could lose the players, Buono apologized to the team. The rationale was that he was trying to show faith in his defence to stop the Alouettes and get the ball back, but it didn’t pass the smell test, and after a 1-6 start, neither did the team.
Then, en route to a meek demise not befitting a Hall of Famer, the coach with 251 wins got smart again. Or so it appeared.
Buono wholly rejects that notion. He says the team’s turnaround, now 8-6 after seven successive wins, has more to do with the players maintaining a positive attitude, and the injection of some new personnel.
“I wasn’t that stupid, and I’m not this smart,” Buono said. “Coaches don’t lose it. Either the players give up on you, you’ve got the wrong players, or you weren’t that good a coach to begin with.”
Quite clearly, players didn’t give up.
B.C.’s winning streak matches a seven-game run by the Calgary Stampeders last season, and a victory in Regina on Sunday would make it the CFL’s longest streak since the Lions won eight consecutive contests in 2007. For a man who went 15-3 for three consecutive seasons from 1993-95, and won a Grey Cup with an 8-10 team in 2001, this year might have been his Mona Lisa.
“I’m not sure he’s ever done a better job than he’s done this season,” said Edmonton Eskimos general manager Eric Tillman, who has competed against Buono for 20 years. “They’ve come back from the dead.”
President Dennis Skulsky acknowledges that he heard the fan discussion that Buono had lost it and that it was time for a change. But with his back against the wall for the first time in his coaching career, Buono assembled his key lieutenants and decided that the Lions would begin focusing on what they did well, and eliminate what they didn’t do well.
On offence, that meant a greater commitment to the running game, and changing the blocking scheme. The Lions fiddled with a zone blocking scheme early in the season, but returned to man-blocking designed to push defenders vertically instead of horizontally.
It also meant more misdirection to confuse defences, and offensive co-ordinator Jacques Chapdelaine began calling more plays where quarterback Travis Lulay did not have a run-pass option. Lulay was still growing into his starting position, and the Lions had put too much on his plate too soon in his development.
On defence, B.C. had hoped to play a base defence of three linemen and four linebackers. But when defensive end Khreem Smith showed promise, defensive co-ordinator Mike Benevides reverted to a four-man front. He also got more aggressive, blitzing more frequently from the edge with speed rushers such as Korey Banks and Anthony Reddick, and using more zone coverage because it was tricking opposing quarterbacks.
“Wally managed the coaches in an exceptional way,” Skulsky said. “He knew what it would take to keep them focused.”