June 30, 2011
Our last piece in the Zeroth Down series of team previews takes a look at the B.C. Lions. There's some extra pressure on the Lions to improve on last year's 8-10 mark (although it is worth noting that there's more hope than there usually is coming off a 8-10 record, though, as they started 1-7 and then went 7-3) this season thanks to hosting the Grey Cup and opening a new stadium, but they've pulled this off before. In 1994, the Lions became the last West Division team to hoist the trophy at home with a win over the Baltimore Football Club (later the Baltimore Stallions) in the "Battle of the Border", and the last time they moved into B.C. Place and hosted the Grey Cup, they made the big game and lost by one point. We'll see how the Lions do under that pressure.
Back To The Future: There are many well-remembered figures in Lions' history, including the five different quarterbacks who led them to Grey Cups (and assembled for a reunion earlier this year at the team's Orange Helmet Awards, but one of the most beloved is a kicker and local legend. Lui Passaglia (pictured above left) played quarterback at Vancouver's Notre Dame Regional Secondary School, then joined Burnaby's Simon Fraser University Clan as a kicker/punter/wide receiver. He made the All-NAIA District 1 team twice and was selected fifth overall by the Lions in the 1976 Canadian College Draft, an honour he would more than repay them for over the next two decades.
Passaglia's first game on July 22, 1976 saw him catch a touchdown pass, which would be one of only two touchdowns he'd score in his career (the other came on a one-yard run in his final home game at B.C. Place on November 4, 2000). Between those two markers, he scored 3,976 other points on field goals and conversions. He was there for the Lions' move into B.C. Place in 1983 and their Grey Cup championship two years later, and he became the first kicker to score over 200 points in a season when he racked up 214 in 1987. He set a league record with a 50.2 yard punting average in 1983 (which has since only been topped by Jon Ryan's 2005 season), and he picked up nine West Division all-star nods, four league all-star selections and won the Dick Suderman Trophy twice as the Grey Cup's most valuable Canadian.
Passaglia also hit one of the most famous field goals in CFL history to win that 1994 Grey Cup, and he turned in one of the greatest final seasons anyone will ever produce. In 2000, at the age of 46, he set a league record for best single-season
field goal percentage, hitting 40 of 44 attempts for an unbelievable 90.9 per cent success rate, and capped the year off by helping the 8-10 Lions to a legendary playoff run. They became the only team to ever hoist the Grey Cup with a losing regular-season record, beating the Montreal Alouettes 28-26, with Passaglia scoring 10 of the team's 28 points on two field goals, two converts and two singles. It was an incredible way for one of the CFL's legends to ride off into the sunset.
Passaglia's relevance to this current B.C. team should be pretty obvious, as they also have a veteran kicker who's defying age. 41-year-old Paul McCallum (pictured above right) may not be quite as old as Passaglia was in his final years yet, but he is the oldest active player in the CFL. He's still performing at an incredibly high level, though, and was deservedly nominated as the team's candidate for the CFL's Most Outstanding Player last season after hitting a league-high 88.5 per cent of his 52 field goal attempts and averaging 41.7 yards on punts (with an impressive 36.6 yard net average). The Passaglia comparisons have been made before, and there are plenty of similarities between the two: both players were born in Vancouver, came up through the area's football programs (SFU for Passaglia, the junior Surrey Rams for McCallum), found great success with the Lions, won a Grey Cup with B.C. and a Dick Suderman Trophy in the process and continued to play at a high level late in their careers.
For a while, it looked like the McCallum story wouldn't end as happily, though. Despite his 2010 performance, the team asked him to take a pay cut and serve as a mentor to Sean Whyte instead of as the team's regular kicker, and that didn't go over well. The Lions eventually decided to trade Whyte instead of McCallum, and they got a 2012 first-round pick out of Montreal in the process. If McCallum continues to play at a high level, that may be remembered as a great move by the Lions. In any case, they certainly defied this off-season's trend by sticking with their existing kicker. We'll see if it pays off for them the way keeping Passaglia around did.
Offence: The B.C. offence wasn't great from a statistical point of view last season, as the 466 points they racked up put them fifth in the league (and only two points behind 4-14 Winnipeg). However, things did get notably better near the end of the year when they dumped the (unlamented) Casey Printers (who may have played himself right out of any chance of a further CFL career) in favour of Travis Lulay. With Lulay (pictured, right) at the helm, the Lions' offence started to click; he started to seize the job from Printers in Week 13's win over Calgary, beat the Bombers the next week, and only lost to Winnipeg in Week 15 after Printers threw a game-clinching interception in relief of the injured Lulay. That saw Printers released, and the Lions promptly went 3-1 with Lulay as the unquestioned starter to sneak into the playoffs.
Quarterback wins can be a misleading stat, of course, but Lulay's superior performance was backed by more telling numbers. He completed 64.5 per cent of his passes against Printers' 54.4, so his quarterback rating was a better 84.9 to Printers' 81.4, despite his touchdown-to-interception ratio (nine to 11) being worse than Printers' (10 to six). Throwing more interceptions than touchdowns isn't going to keep you as a CFL starter for long, but Lulay seemed to sort out the kinks down the stretch, and he put on an incredible show in the Lions' double-overtime playoff loss to Saskatchewan, throwing for 357 yards and two touchdowns (including a Hail Mary reminiscent of another former Lions' quarterback to send the game to overtime) with just one interception. There's some reason for Lions' fans to be a little skeptical, as Printers delivered a great performance down the stretch in 2009 but utterly failed as the starter in 2010, but there's plenty of evidence suggesting Lulay may be the real thing and one of the CFL's rising stars.
However, Lulay won't have quite as many proven weapons as he did in 2010. Star receiver Emmanuel Arceneaux left for the NFL's Minnesota Vikings. Geroy "Superman" Simon is still around, as is Paris Jackson (coming off a serious injury), and there are some promising newcomers (including Canadian Marco Iannuzzi) and guys looking for bigger roles (including Canadian Shawn Gore), so the passing offence may still click, but Arceneaux is a notable loss. So is running back Jerome Messam, traded to Edmonton following off-season disciplinary issues, and running back/kick returner Yonus Davis, released after reportedly getting caught attempting to receive 67 pounds of ecstasy. They still have some running weapons, including starter Jamal Robertson and Canadians Jamall Lee and Andrew Harris, but the backfield doesn't look like as much of a strength as it did at the end of the last campaign. The line should be substantially better, though, with the CFL's 2010 most outstanding lineman (Ben Archibald) joining the Lions at left tackle and the rest of the line finding more consistency. Overall, this is a promising if unproven offence with substantial upside.
Rating: Four historical moments.
Defence: This is another area with some notables and some question marks. The CFL's 2010 rookie of the year, linebacker Solomon Elimimian (pictured, right), should have another bone-crushing campaign, and hopefully take a step forward in his development, but he'll have to learn to keep the aggression under control. There are plenty of solid veterans for him to look up to on the Lions, though, including defensive lineman Brent Johnson and defensive back Korey Banks. The secondary is very strong and experienced in general with Banks, Ryan Phillips, Davis Sanchez, Dante Marsh, J.R. LaRose and David Hyland, but the front line and linebackers have a few more issues. B.C. will hope defensive tackle Eric Taylor (signed from Toronto) can make an impact up front. In the linebacking corps, Anton McKenzie and Adam Leonard have shown potential, and there are other hot prospects like Canadian James Yurichuk, but Elimimian is the main guy who can be counted upon, which may be interesting if they use more 3-4 looks this year. It's a pretty solid defence, but it's not a sure thing.
Rating: Four new stadiums.
Special teams: If McCallum can maintain his typical excellence, the Lions should have one of the best kicking games in the league and a solid punting game to boot. CIS product Hugh O'Neill is on the injured list as backup if necessary, but don't expect to see much from him if everything goes well for McCallum. The return game is a bit more questionable, but general manager/coach Wally Buono (pictured, right) has a tremendous track record of digging up return specialists with finds like Stefan Logan, Martell Mallett and Davis, and there's a fair bit to suggest that Tim Brown may be able to be the latest in that line.
Rating: Four top-player nominations.
Totals: 12 points (out of 15).
Greatest strength: The kicking game. McCallum should provide more field-goal consistency than any other team can boast.
Potential weakness: The running game. The improved line should help, but if Robertson starts showing his age and the promising backups can't live up to their potential, the Lions might not have much of a ground attack.
Season prediction: There's a lot to like about this Lions' team, especially their veteran core and their balance throughout the lineup. Their success will likely depend on Travis Lulay continuing to grow as a starter and not flaming out, but that seems like a reasonable bet. It's going to take a little time for them to gel, so I think they'll go 10-8 this year and finish second in the West (beating the Riders on a tiebreak), but advance to the Grey Cup with wins over Saskatchewan (at home) and Calgary (on the road). There, though, even with the crowd on their side, I think it's going to be tough for them to knock off Montreal.
Stop by 55-Yard Line at noon Eastern today for a special CFL season preview chat!