42,000 fans were literally thunderstruck in Vancouver and left shaking their head, shocked at what they had witnessed. How could something that appeared to be such a sure thing get derailed so quickly?
First, I would like to say congratulations to the Calgary Stampeders because, like the B.C. Lions, I did not see this one coming.
"We have them just where we want them," Stampeders head coach John Huffnagel proclaimed prior to beating the defending Grey Cup champions in the West Division final.
To be honest, it sounded pretty ridiculous at the time, yet prophetic in hindsight.
Understandably, the Lions defenders were a very confident bunch. When questioned on how their preparation would change with backup Kevin Glenn, not starter Drew Tate, at quarterback, Lions defensive back Kory Banks replied: "Not to sound arrogant ... but we don't really care who is behind centre. We are more concerned with what we do. If we execute our assignments, then we feel that our players are simply better."
To wit, a coach once told me: "Always will get you beat."
Unfortunately, it was the Lions' confidence in their defensive system that made them predictable. It had tremendous success this season, so why would they change anything heading into the final?
"We have them just where we want them."
The Lions defence is built around veterans with the ability to read a play before it happens, which allows players to exchange responsibilities on the fly. In order for this type of system to work, each player needs to abide by the same rules of engagement. This defensive system is based on a list of "if" and "then" scenarios to keep everyone on the same page.
Communication is key.
I'm not sure why, then, the Lions chose to pass out thundersticks to the fans at B.C. Place and instruct them to make as much noise as possible when Calgary had the ball. I question which team the noise had more of an effect on? Nothing like home-field advantage.
"We have them just where we want them."
Led by offensive co-ordinator Dave Dickenson, Calgary knew that if B.C. did what it always does, then it might have a chance. Modern defence operates on the premise that the offence is taught to dump the ball off with a short outlet pass when the quarterback reads blitz, to be patient, play the field and take what the defence gives to you. The result is often long drives that chew up the clock and eventually force the opponent to settle for field goals because it's difficult to put together 10-play scoring drives. Hold your opponent to field goals and you win.
Dickenson and Glenn were given the green light by Hufnagel to gamble. Calgary was not going to win this game by playing safe. For the game plan to work, two things had to happen this past Sunday: Calgary's offensive line needed to pick up the Lions pressure in order to give Glenn a little more time in the pocket; and Glenn needed to anticipate where to look to find his open receiver. You know a team is completely tuned in when you see it takes only two penalties for a total of five yards. Wow.
Dickenson designed plays that manipulated the Lions' rules of engagement and leveraged their skill. He and Stampeders offensive line coach Mike Gibson need to be commended for what they were able to accomplish.
Afterward, Lions defensive tackle Khalif Mitchell said: "They came with a good scheme and they came with a good understanding of what we're doing and what we're going to do."
Calgary knew exactly how B.C.'s defence would respond to specific situations and that ability to anticipate the play enabled Glenn to release the ball faster, ie. before the pass rush had time to be effective.
Kind of like running a race and you getting to be the one who says "GO!"
Glenn is a quarterback that plays within the structure of a game plan. However, this admirable trait has often led to unnecessary criticism throughout his career and he has taken the fall for those offensive co-ordinators that he was surrounded by.
Glenn was the perfect student for Dickenson to execute the unexpected Sunday, completing just 15 passes in beating the best, averaging 20 yards per completion and knowing exactly where he needed to place the ball. All told, the Lions were just what the Stampeders expected them to be -- predictable.
"We have then just where we want them."
Immediately following the game, Dickenson and the Stampeders were already thinking about what kind of game plan would be required to win a game against a team they have yet to beat this season -- the Toronto Argonauts in the 100th Grey Cup at Rogers Centre.
Dickenson and Argonauts defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones were on the same staff last season, which makes for an interesting subplot heading into Grey Cup week.
Let the chess match begin.
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