December 02, 2010
The B.C. Lions have made a trilogy of significant moves over the past few days, and they stack up very differently. Perhaps the best way to break them down is to borrow from my favourite Western movie, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (original poster pictured, below right). Here's the spaghetti Western version of your 2011 B.C. Lions.
The Good: The return of Wally Buono
There was plenty of speculation this year that Buono might hire a new head coach and focus on his responsibilities as general manager. Through the start of this season, that might have seemed like a wise move. The Lions' 2-7 start certainly wasn't promising, even if they had more room for hope than the other similarly-stricken cities.
Down the stretch, though, Buono (pictured in a July 10 game against Saskatchewan, below right) proved he still has what it takes to get it done as both a coach and general manager in this league. As a general manager, he made the tough decision to release Casey Printers midseason, essentially admitting he'd made a mistake (never the easiest thing for football coaches or executives). As a coach, he united the team behind Travis Lulay, and they reaped the benefits with a tremendous stretch run that saw them sneak into the playoffs on the season's final weekend thanks to a road win in Hamilton and an Edmonton loss to Saskatchewan. They then took the Riders to double overtime on the road before finally falling.
Yes, with a different bounce or two, B.C. might have missed the playoffs entirely, but with another bounce or two, they could be the ones holding Grey Cup parades this week. Despite their awful start to the season, they were one of the league's hottest teams down the stretch, and they proved that they have what it takes to compete with the CFL's best. In a parity-filled league, that's about all fans can ask for. The Lions also have a lot of young, developing talent and players still adjusting to the CFL, including Lulay, rookie of the year Solomon Elimimian and star returner Yonus Davis.
There's always plenty of roster turnover in the CFL, so it isn't certain that all the Lions' talent will return. The last couple of seasons are certainly evidence of that, as they lost defensive player of the year Cameron Wake, most outstanding Canadian Ricky Foley, star running back Stefan Logan, receiver Ryan Grice-Mullen, fullback Rolly Lumbala and last year's rookie of the year Martell Mallett to the NFL (Foley is now back in the CFL with Toronto, Grice-Mullen is with Saskatchewan and Lumbala is back in B.C.). Those honours are also proof that Buono still has a tremendous eye for talent evaluation, though, and the Lions' success despite those personnel losses is evidence that he can still coach. His return in a dual role is a good thing for the Leos from this perspective.
The Bad: Asking Paul McCallum to take a pay cut
Buono's tremendous success as a personnel man doesn't necessarily mean that every one of his decisions is a good one, though. In fact, perhaps the greatest weakness he's displayed over the years is a side effect of the terrific ability he has to find and develop young, obscure talent for the CFL game. Perhaps that gives Buono too much confidence that everyone is replaceable, and that isn't the case; for all the great finds, there have also been plenty of busts, and even the best finds take time to adjust to the CFL. The grass isn't always greener on the other side of the fence, and players you find aren't automatically better than who you already have. Buono hasn't always recognized that, and the list of ex-Lions who are currently starring around the league shows that. Consider defensive player of the year Markeith Knowlton in Hamilton, who B.C. traded with kicker Ara Tchobanian for the ninth-overall pick in 2008. They used that to select Rolly Lumbala, who's certainly been good, but it's generally easier to find a solid fullback than a defensive player of the year.
Knowlton's far from the only example, and he isn't even the only one on his team. Hamilton has arguably the best linebacking corps in the league, and three of its key components are ex-Lions (Knowlton, Otis Floyd and Jamall Johnson). Another stellar ex-B.C. linebacker, Barrin Simpson, played a critical role for Saskatchewan this year, turning in the performance of the game against his old Winnipeg team on Labour Day Weekend, leading the league in tackles and playing like an all-star even if he wasn't chosen as one. Former B.C. linemen Rob Murphy and Jason Jimenez are tearing it up in Toronto and Hamilton, respectively; Jimenez was more known for controversy this year, but he can still play, and Murphy, a two-time winner of the league's Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman award, was his team's nominee for that honour again and was named a league all-star. Those are just a few of the examples one could cite. Obviously, you could go through any general manager's record and find mistakes, but Buono does appear to have a pattern of letting talented veterans go before their usefulness is up.
From this corner, it looks like he's done that again with his recent move to ask kicker/punter Paul McCallum (pictured, right, being congratulated by defensive tackle Jonathan Brown after making a game-winning field goal against Hamilton in B.C.'s final regular-season clash) to take a pay cut and turn mentor to Sean Whyte. McCallum was by far the league's best kicker this year and performed well in the punting game as well, so much so that he was a deserving selection as B.C.'s nominee for the league's most outstanding player award. Instead of giving McCallum a bonus in recognition of his tremendous efforts this year, Buono's decided to ask him to take a pay cut, which seems ridiculous from here. SB Nation's Jon Bois had an excellent piece the other day on the unique role kickers play and how their successes are rarely recognized, while a few of their high-profile failures live on forever. McCallum hasn't failed much at all this season (and Buono brilliantly snapped him up a few years back after a high-profile miss caused Saskatchewan to forget just how good he was), so this case is even worse than normal; McCallum's terrific work is being overlooked in favour of nothing.
Of course, some (including Buono) will argue that McCallum's age (he's going to turn 41 in January) means he can't have much left, and the Lions need to focus on developing Sean Whyte to take the starting role. I can't buy that logic, though. For one thing, McCallum sure didn't show many signs of aging this season; he made 46 field goals (more than anyone else) on 52 attempts, with a long of 50 yards (sixth-best) and a percentage of 88.5 (not only best in the league, but the third-best single season by percentage of all time, behind only the legendary Lui Passaglia and Dave Ridgway). McCallum is also behind only those two legends on the all-time kicking percentage list. He was a capable punter as well this season, not putting up the spectacular averages of others, but delivering a respectable 41.7 yards per punt, doing excellent directional punting and providing consistency. When you factor in that he handles punts, kickoffs and field goals and is Canadian, helping with your import ratio, that's the sign of a man who deserves a raise, not a pay cut.
Moreover, Whyte has found some limited success, sure, but he has yet to prove that he can handle the job full-time anywhere near as well as McCallum, and the CFL's history shows that old punters and kickers can still find plenty of success (Passaglia kicked until he was 46, Bob Cameron punted until he was 48). It also would be quite possible to either trade Whyte for depth at other positions or draft picks, or to keep both without a pay cut and have Whyte handle punts and kickoffs while relying on McCallum for field goals (split duties seem to work just fine in Saskatchewan). From here, this looks like another case of Buono running a veteran star out of town in favour of an unproven young talent; we'll see if it comes back to hurt him.
The Ugly: Turning down Dickenson in favour of Chapdelaine:
This isn't meant as a comment on anyone's appearance, and it also isn't quite as negative as the title might imply. In the movie, "The Ugly" (Tuco, played by Eli Wallach), isn't really good or bad, but more of a wild card. He does some things to help Clint Eastwood's "good" character and some things to thwart him. That seems a pretty apt analogy for Buono's decision to bring back Jacques Chapdelaine (pictured, right, with star slotback Geroy Simon in 2006) as offensive coordinator instead of trying to nab Dave Dickenson from Calgary.
It's an ugly move from the perspective of what many Lions fans would have liked to see. Chapdelaine's offence was the focus of much of the criticism B.C. faced early this season, and at least some of that flak was deserved. The Lions hung 25 points on a lousy Edmonton team in their season-opening win, but went on to score 18, 12, and 20 points in their next three games (all losses). They put up 25 again in a narrow loss to Edmonton, but then notched 22 against Calgary and just 13 against Saskatchewan. They didn't crack the 30-point barrier until Week 9, and that was in a 48-35 shootout loss to the Stampeders.
Meanwhile, despite not carrying an official "offensive coordinator" tag, Dickenson largely presided over a Calgary offence that demolished the league this season, putting up 626 points (no other club even cracked 600, and Montreal, with 521, was the only team to even top 500). Dickenson's offence led the way to Calgary's league-best 13-5 record and Henry Burris' most outstanding player award, and his skillful mix of running and passing plays befuddled defences around the league. Sure, they came up short in the West Final, but I'd put that more on the cold and on their defence's complete inability to cover Chris Getzlaf than anything Dickenson did wrong. He would have been a brilliant hire, and there was a good chance B.C. could have nabbed him; Dickenson still has substantial connections in B.C., and the Lions' job promises more opportunities for advancement, as Buono seems likely to leave the head coaching role before John Hufnagel. A Dickenson hire would have promised exciting things for both the immediate and long-term futures in B.C.
Still, that doesn't mean that this move is all bad, however. For all its early struggles, Chapdelaine's offence started to click once the Lions made the decision to dump Printers and move on with Lulay as their go-to guy. The offence was key to B.C.'s stretch run to the playoffs; from Week 16 on (the first week after dumping Printers), they scored 28 in a narrow loss to Edmonton, 36 in a crucial road win over Calgary, 23 at home in a win over Saskatchewan, 23 on the road in a victory over Hamilton and 38 on the road in their playoff loss to the Riders. That's a considerable improvement, and that shows that their current offensive system does have potential. For another thing, Chapdelaine does have a considerable record of CFL success. Moreover, there's some value to continuity, especially with a young quarterback like Lulay who showed promise in adapting to Chapdelaine's system; you'd think that now he can pick up where he left off. The Lions also could still potentially grab Dickenson down the road as a head coach if no one else snaps him up first; this just makes it harder. Chapdelaine did appear to have his neck in a noose, but Buono just shot the rope. We'll have to wait to find out if that will lead to treasure for the Lions or not, though.