We’re bringing back the CFL Camp Countdown series, going team-by-team and relaying some of the most interesting comments made by coaches, executives and players on the CFL’s season-preview conference calls. First up, the B.C. Lions, who had a dominant 13-5 regular season but fell to Calgary in the West Final. President Dennis Skulsky, GM Wally Buono, head coach Mike Benevides and quarterback Travis Lulay spoke to the media on a conference call Wednesday. Here are the highlights from that discussion.
One of the most interesting offseason stories around the Lions revolves around a player who’s no longer with the club. That would be defensive tackle Khalif Mitchell, who was a huge force on the Grey Cup-winning defensive line in 2011, but ran into controversies both on and off the field in 2012 and was eventually traded to Toronto. Even that didn’t go particularly smoothly, as Mitchell initially said he wouldn’t report to the Argonauts before later changing his tune. The challenge Mitchell presents is one of evaluation: is the superb physical skill he showed at times in B.C. enough to make putting up with his controversial behaviour worthwhile? For the Lions, the answer appears to be “not any more.” When I asked Buono about why he made the deal, he said he has plenty of respect for Mitchell, but the team wanted to go in a different direction.
“Khalif is a great player, most of the time he’s a great guy, but sometimes he’s unpredictable,” Buono said. “We wanted a guy that was more predictable and over the long term, more dependable.”
Buono said the decision to move Mitchell wasn't a quick, emotional one, but a rational, considered one made well after the season wrapped up.
"You have to allow the emotions of the season time to subside," Buono said. "When we looked at the situation with Khalif, we just thought that it was time to change the scenery."
Mitchell's initial complaint following the trade was that Toronto was too far from his job with an energy-drink company in Seattle. He would have preferred Edmonton or Calgary. Buono said the Argonauts were the only team that wanted Mitchell, though.
"Toronto was the only team that showed interest when I was shopping him."
Buono made it clear from comments earlier in the call about Rudy Carpenter (the quarterback who B.C. briefly signed, then parted ways with) that he wants players who are fully committed to the Lions.
"You come to a place and you're given that opportunity, you need to run with it," Buono said. "They've got to show us that they deserve to be here."
He said the organization looks for more than just pure talent: they also want leaders and committed professionals.
"We want a certain kind of player," Buono said.
The Lions have undergone substantial transformation this offseason, parting ways with the likes of Geroy Simon and Byron Parker in addition to Mitchell.
"2013 is for us, a time of change," Buono said.
Some might see that turnover as a response to their disappointing playoff loss, which could be criticized as an overreaction to a small sample size given how dominant the team was in the regular season. However, Buono stated that his offseason decisions weren't about how the year ended but were based on how the team looked moving forward, a much more defensible philosophy.
"Whether we won or lost made no difference to me."
—Buono said the primary reason for his offseason decisions was the need to give young, talented players more opportunities. The team still has plenty of veterans, especially in the defensive secondary, but a youth movement is well underway on other fronts, including the receiving corps.
"You can't allow everyone to age all at the same time."
—The Lions took several CIS players in this year's draft, including Laval receiver Seydou Junior Hadara and Windsor defensive back Matt McGarva. Buono said the quality of CIS football has dramatically improved over the years, and that's reflected in the NFL interest in CIS guys.
"You've got to give CIS a lot of credit," Buono said. "It shows you the calibre of player CIS is putting out."
- While the Lions weren't big players in free agency, Buono's excited about some of the new players the team has found, particularly Julius Williams.
"Julius Williams will come in and be kind of a missing piece."
- The team's also acquired several intriguing players through their extensive schedule of free-agent tryout camps. Buono said those guys may not be well-known now, but he's hoping they'll play key roles for the Lions down the road.
"They're not household names now, but they're pieces for the future."
- Buono's seen a lot of CFL ups and downs over his decades in the league, and he said he's very happy with where the league's at right now: a rich new TV deal, most clubs doing well financially, new stadiums and more.
"At the end of the day, the league is a lot stronger, a lot healthier," Buono said. "It's where it should be."
—Last year saw Buono transition from head coach and general manager to just the general manager role, with Benevides taking over as head coach. Buono said Benevides' first season was beyond his expectations, and it bodes well for the future.
"When you consider what Mike accomplished as a rookie coach last year, you have to tip your hat to him," Buono said.
—Benevides said he still feels extremely fortunate to be a Canadian head coach in the CFL.
"I'm one of the lucky ones," he said.
—Benevides said the team responded well to him, and he thinks that should continue this season.
"The players did everything I asked of them."
—Benevides said he's thrilled to be able to work with most of the same coaching staff again, particularly coordinators Jacques Chapdelaine (offence), Rich Stubler (defence) and Chuck McMann (special teams). The coaching staff has a collection of 19 Grey Cup rings, which is quite remarkable.
"These guys are the best at what they do," Benevides said. "I thought it was critical to keep continuity."
- One new addition is former Lions' quarterback Jarious Jackson, who's joined the team as quarterbacks coach. Benevides said he's excited about that addition given Jackson's loyalty and his history with the organization.
"I know I'm getting another warrior in house, a man who bleeds orange."
- Lulay said he's ecstatic about working with Jackson, as the two got along well in a variety of different roles. Lulay once backed up Jackson, but Jackson was backing up Lulay by the end of his B.C. career. Lulay said the two have always been close regardless of their roles.
"I'm really excited about that," Lulay said. "He's a guy I've worked really well with."
—The Lions are trying some new initiatives this year to get more fans into the upper deck of B.C. Place, including the creation of special family-focused and university-age-focused zones with discounted ticket prices ($25 and $30 respectively). Skulsky said the family zone in particular is a crucial initiative to get kids excited about the team.
"This is about generating and creating the fans of the future."
—Buono said there's pressure on the Lions to deliver a strong performance in 2013 and get back to the Grey Cup, but they embrace that pressure as an organization.
"We want expectations to be high."