Lions lick their wounds, brace for change after roaring start ends with a whimper

"We’re talking about a franchise here that needs clarity from the owner, the coach, the general manager and the starting or backup quarterback."

Team missed the CFL playoffs for the first time since 1996

Lions slotback Courtney Taylor is in his fourth year with the team which is facing questions about its future success. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press/File)

A B.C. Lions season that once roared with promise will tonight go out with a whimper.

The Leos will take to the turf at BC Place in a game with nothing at stake for the home side, having already been eliminated from post-season contention two weeks ago.

It's a surprising finish to a season that started with promise and ended with a disappointing record, the team's first missed playoffs since 1996.

Now come the familiar questions surrounding ownership and the front office. 

Tears run down B.C. Lions' quarterback Travis Lulay's face as he sits on the sideline after leaving the game with an injury during the first half of a CFL football game against the Montreal Alouettes in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday Sept. 8, 2017. (The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck)

"We're talking about a franchise here that needs clarity from the owner, the coach, the general manager and the starting or backup quarterback," said Lowell Ullrich who's covered the team since 1999 and currently writes for 3Down Nation.

"Most people around the league still think this team has a lot of talent on it. Obviously, it was misplaced and miscast."

Hot start, cool finish

The Lions began the year as many oddsmakers second-favourite for the Grey Cup, behind only the current runaway western division leaders, the Calgary Stampeders. 

The season opened with a loss at home to Edmonton, but their best run of the season followed, winning five of their next six games, including a sweep of a three game eastern road trip. 

"Perhaps that was a bit of foreshadowing … they were beating up on teams that weren't very good," said Ullrich.

Spectators are surrounded by empty seats at BC Place during the 2016 CFL West semifinal. The B.C. Lions average attendance in 2017 fell for a fifth straight season. (The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck)

A mid-August loss in Saskatchewan marked the turning point to the season. Starting quarterback Jonathon Jennings returned to the lineup after injury but threw four interceptions in the 41-8 defeat. 

The team switched quarterbacks after a September bye week, turning again to backup Travis Lulay who had gone 3-1 in relief of Jennings earlier in the year

But the veteran's return was cut short by a season-ending knee injury in a home win over Montreal, and the Lions didn't win again until they defeated Winnipeg last week.

Ullrich says inconsistent quarterbacking hampered the team but wasn't the sole cause for a down season.

"There's a lot more to this then that … the Lions just didn't have any consistent play on the line of scrimmage." 

Going into tonight, the Lions have won just twice in their last 10 games and will miss the playoffs for the first time in 21 years. 

"I'm not sure I'm totally surprised with the benefit of hindsight," said Ullrich of the team's season.

Fan frustration

The losses coupled with continued off-field uncertainty have made the team a tough one for fans to cheer for. 

The Lions average announced home attendance fell for a fifth straight season.

Fans are calling for change both on and off the field.

"Love Wally, love what he's done … but I question why he was the head coach this season," said longtime fan Carson Marquardt of head coach Wally Buono. "I'd say it's time for a new head coach."

For just the second time in 23 seasons as a head coach, Wally Buono will miss the CFL playoffs this year. (The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck)

Buono, 67, returned to coach the Lions in 2016 after leading the team between 2003 and 2011. 

"I'd like to see some new blood in there, because it would indicate that the Lions are moving forward and aren't stuck in the past," said Marquardt.

Others point to the shrinking attendance figures as an indication that the game day experience has to change.

"The atmosphere in BC Place is the polar opposite of what it is when the Whitecaps play," said fan Alvin Yau, referencing the soccer team that also calls the stadium home.

"At Whitecaps games, I'm having fun. I'm participating in chants. At a Lions game, I feel like I'm at a movie theatre."

The team remains up for sale despite current owner David Braley's March declaration the team "has to be sold."

The ownership uncertainty, coupled with cloudy futures for Buono and Lulay, leave lots to be done over the off season.

"Until those questions are answered starting from the top, the rebuild can't really take place," said Ullrich.

About the Author

Matthew Black

@TheMatthewBlack

Matthew Black is a B.C.-based writer, producer and reporter. He writes mostly about sports and has worked for CBC in Toronto and Vancouver as well as abroad in London.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.