Monday, 15 December 2014
Lulay's Health, Coaching Hire Key to Lions Restoring their Roar
The BC Lions are in a weird place: they are not bad enough to need a full rebuild, but they are not quite good enough to be considered a true Grey Cup contender. They reside in that murky area known as mediocrity. Changes were inevitable this offseason, and the Lions started making them very soon after their season ended.
Tired of the diminishing returns – 2014 marked the third straight one-and-done playoff run (the Lions last playoff win was their 34-23 victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the 99th Grey Cup in 2011) and the third straight season of fewer wins than the year before (13 in 2012, 11 in 2013, nine in 2014) – the Lions fired head coach Mike Benevides after their embarrassing 50-17 loss to Montreal in the East Division Semi-Final. A lot of names were bandied about as Benevides’ replacement – Jeff Garcia, Orlondo Steinauer, Paul LaPolice, Danny Barrett, Dave Dickenson – but reports surfaced last week that the Lions were focusing on former University of California head coach Jeff Tedford. While nothing is finalized, Tedford does seem to be the front runner, and if he is the guy tapped to replace Benevides, the move looks like a good one. He has CFL experience, having played in the league from 1983-1988 and coached from 1989-1991, and could look to add former Tiger-Cats head coach George Cortez to his staff. The two worked together at Cal from 2002-2005, with Tedford as the head coach and Cortez as his offensive coordinator. Adding Tedford and Cortez would help get the Lions’ offense that struggled mightily in 2014 back in gear.
But no matter who they hire as coach or OC, the biggest issue facing the Lions is Travis Lulay’s health. Lulay has started just 12 games over the past two seasons and getting him back under centre is a must if the Lions are to get back atop the West Division. The former MOP and Grey Cup MVP is entering the final year of a lucrative contract extension he signed prior to the 2013 season and if he is to stay in BC, he will need to show that his injuries are behind him and play close to a full season.
The Lions don’t have much to worry about in regards to signing their own free agents. They entered the offseason with a league-low five players scheduled to hit the open market in February. The only one who merits consideration as a priority re-sign would be receiver Ernest Jackson. Jackson had a breakout 2014, finishing the season with 49 catches for 813 yards and three touchdowns (all career highs). A two-week stretch in the middle of October saw Jackson catch 16 passes for 344 yards and two scores, and helped Jackson be named the offensive player of the month for October. In only his third season in the CFL, Jackson showed that he has the tools to become a bona fide go-to receiver and he is the one player the Lions should not let get away.
The Lions are parting ways with a number of veteran players – the team announced that Kevin Glenn, Dante Marsh, Jamall Johnson and Khalif Mitchell won’t be back next season – and will need to replace them. A player the team could target to replace Marsh, is 2014 CFL All-Star Brandon Smith. Smith finished 2014 third in the league in tackles with 85, while also intercepting two passes. Smith will be sought after should he hit the open market, but BC could be a nice landing spot for him.
The Lions might also use free agency to beef up their offensive line. The cream of the crop is Saskatchewan Roughriders tackle Ben Heenan, but Greg Wojt, Tim O’Neill or Joe Eppele could also help out the Lions by adding a the always valuable veteran, Canadian presence. They might also consider bringing in Calgary running back Matt Walter. Running back isn’t an area of concern for the Leos – the team has Andrew Harris, Stefan Logan and Keola Antolin all under contract for next season – but picking up talented Canadians is never a bad thing. And while it wasn't an issue last year, it would also ease ratio concerns should Andrew Harris get injured once again.
The Lions will be looking to make some changes to improve a team that last season went 9-9 and lost in the East Division Semi-Final, but I don’t expect them to make too much noise in free agency. A handful of role players and a starter or two would be a great haul for the Lions. But no matter what the Lions do in free agency, getting the right head coach – and if it is Tedford, that would be a great hire – and getting Lulay healthy are the two things that will most determine the Lions’ fate in 2015.