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This is the first of our CFL team previews this year, going from west to east. Stay tuned to 55-Yard Line for more!
The B.C. Lions' biggest move this offseason wasn't about a player, but a coach. They were the only team to change head coaches, firing third-year coach Mike Benevides after their 50-17 playoff loss to Montreal in the East semifinal and eventually replacing him in December with former NCAA and NFL coach Jeff Tedford. The last several seasons have seen a bit of a decline for B.C.; 2011 saw them go 11-7 and win the Grey Cup, but a 13-5 season in 2012 ended with a West Final loss to Calgary, and 2013 and 2014 saw them go 11-7 and 9-9 respectively with divisional semi-final losses each time. Can Tedford help turn the Lions' fortunes around?
Much of Tedford's fame comes from what he's done on the offensive side of the ball. After a playing career as a quarterback with the Fresno State Bulldogs, he then headed to the CFL to play for Hamilton, Calgary, Saskatchewan and Winnipeg. He got into coaching in 1989 as an offensive assistant with Calgary and worked with John Hufnagel (then the Stamps' offensive coordinator, currently their head coach and general manager) to develop the famed six-pack receiver set. Tedford left the CFL in 1992 to take the quarterback coach position at Fresno State, and he then worked as an offensive coordinator for the Bulldogs and the Oregon Ducks before taking a job as Cal's head coach in 2002. He led the Golden Bears for a decade, posting program records for wins and bowl-game victories, then stayed out of coaching for a year after his dismissal following the 2012 season before taking a job as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive coordinator that was thwarted when he needed heart surgery during the preseason.
Tedford is reportedly healthy now and fully recovered, and he has a wide range of experience in different offensive systems. His CFL experience (even if it was almost 15 years ago) should make it easier for him to adapt to the Canadian game than some American head coaches we've seen, and he has experience running passing-focused attacks (his time in Calgary), up-tempo no-huddle offences (some of his time at Fresno State and Oregon) and complicated, quarterback-focused pro-style systems (at Cal). It's going to be interesting to see just which approach he brings to B.C., but the Lions would seem to have personnel that fit with some of the things he likes to run; running back Andrew Harris is a great pass-catcher as well, something that's often been crucial in Tedford's systems, while quarterback Travis Lulay tends to be very good with his reads, and B.C.'s offensive line should be mobile enough to execute some of the ideals of getting players in space downfield. Also, if Tedford elects to use a high-tempo offence at least part of the time, that will be far easier to do under the CFL's offseason rule changes.
Something else that will be worth watching is the impact of new offensive coordinator George Cortez. Cortez worked with Tedford in Calgary and at Cal, then came back to the CFL as an offensive coordinator. He recently was the head coach of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (in 2012) and the Saskatchewan Roughriders' offensive coordinator (for the last two seasons). Cortez showed his ability to run a pass-heavy, high-completion percentage offence in Hamilton and a run-heavy offence in Saskatchewan, so he's good at adapting to his personnel and the coaches he's working with. We'll see what he elects to do with the Lions and how quickly B.C.'s players adapt to his system.
A big question is if this team has enough offensive pieces, though. Harris is a great talent, and Lulay has been terrific at times, but he's still facing health questions after missing most of the 2014 season, and there's a big drop-off in terms of experience after him. Emmanuel Arceneaux is an excellent receiver, but Ernest Jackson, the team's second-leading receiver last year (813 yards to Arceneaux's 905; Harris was third with 529) left for Ottawa in free agency. Shawn Gore, Courtney Taylor and Marco Iannuzzi have had good moments, but none have been consistent stars, and there are questions about B.C.'s offensive line, especially after Canadian tackle Hunter Steward went down in training camp. The Lions' defence was excellent last year, with linebacker Solomon Elimimian deservedly becoming the first full-time defensive player to ever pick up the CFL's Most Outstanding Player award, and they should be good again under returning coordinator Mark Washington. It's how quickly this team adapts to Tedford and Cortez, and how well their offensive players fit into the new schemes, that may determine a lot of B.C.'s fortunes this year.
Prediction: 9-9, third in West via tie-breaker, loss in divisional semi-final.