The comment was anonymous, and cutting.
Last week – before the B.C. Lions scrapped their way past the Calgary Stampeders in a defensive tilt – an unidentified CFL executive in a media report scoffed at the notion the Lions are a top-tier squad: “B.C. looks like a 9-9 team to me.”
On paper, and on the field, the Lions indeed, at times and in some ways, appear less-than impressive.
Quarterback Travis Lulay – who in the off-season signed a three-year contract extension, reportedly paying him $450,000 in each of the first two seasons – is the most glaring underperformer, with his league-worst interceptions (seven) and general numbers that mirror the mediocre figures from Edmonton Eskimos starter Mike Reilly, who spent last season as Lulay’s backup.
And yet the Lions are 5-2, undefeated at home and with the same record as the Stamps and the East Division-leading Toronto Argonauts (all are chasing the CFL-best Saskatchewan Roughriders at 6-1).
For the Lions to finish at 9-9 would require a significant implosion. Instead, underpinned by a fearsome defence, even as the offence needs to find its rhythm, it appears the team may be finding its footing after near-constant hiccups this summer.
It is much different than last year. In 2012, the team was on cruise control, coming off its Grey Cup championship and gunning for another. The Lions topped the league in the regular season at 13-5, losing just a single game at B.C. Place Stadium before folding at home in the playoffs against Calgary, a bitter end to the hoped-for back-to-back titles.
The memory of that loss lingers, the failed chance to reach the 100th Grey Cup and begin to establish a post-Montreal Alouettes league superpower. Instead, now, there is chatter of mediocrity.
So as the Lions get set to face the depleted Als (2-5) – who are without veteran pivot Anthony Calvillo.
Calvillo is sidelined with a concussion the night before his 41st birthday – on Thursday, the team knows it has a long way to go to revive consideration as a contender for CFL-best.
“We’d all admit that we’re still improving as the season goes along and we’re not where we want to be yet,” Lions president Dennis Skulsky said in an interview from Montreal on Wednesday. “This is about peaking at the right time.”
B.C. arrives in Montreal after winning an emotional and significant game against ever-more-intense rival Calgary – demonstrating, for the second time this year, the team can rouse itself and deliver in self-declared must-win games.
To start the season, B.C. was beaten up by Calgary, a performance the Lions considered shameful. The next week, with all the talk being about urgency, B.C. ripped past Toronto.
The Lions saw their return date last week against the Stamps in a similar light. Lulay did throw three interceptions – the worst day in his CFL career – but the Lions defence was a monster, containing running back Jon Cornish and again swamping the passing attack in a 26-22 win. While it’s still early, B.C.’s passing defence is at historic levels, ceding just 197 yards a game – the first sub-200 number in more than three decades, according to CFL statisticians.
“The performance that we showed [in Week 1] was not something we wanted to see on film,” linebacker Solomon Elimimian said at practice this week. “It embarrassed us.”
Last Saturday, it was the Lions’ 60th anniversary game – celebrated with ballyhooed new black uniforms and matte black helmets, loved by the players and fans.
While there was talk about black is the new orange – a twist on the popular Netflix show, Orange is the New Black – the Lions remain committed to their brand, having worked to cultivate orange-equals-Lions for years. Some 1,500 black jerseys are on limited-edition sale for fans, with half gone.
So while Skulsky has heard clamour for more black – Elimimian, for one, said the players love them and want the jersey back – the uniforms are back to storage for special occasions only.
Perhaps one such occasion will be the West Division final, the hump that sunk B.C. last year.
For now, Skulsky was clear: “We’re very clearly built around orange.”