B.C. Lions quarterbackTravis Lulay, right, has experience with helping his team turn a season around.
Yogi Berra may not have been thinking of the Canadian Football League when the Yankees legend once mused on how games are never over until they're over.
Or sportswriter Dan Cook, for that matter, who metaphorically suggested a contest is not done until the weight challenged woman in the horns with the spectacular voice has taken the stage.
But they certainly could have been talking about the CFL, for where else can a team that started the season 1-7 find itself in the playoffs 10 weeks later after a hot finish?
Travis Lulay learned that first hand in 2010 when the second year backup quarterback was suddenly handed the Lions' starting reins late season with his team struggling to overcome an awful first two months.
B.C. had opened 1-7, but raced home 7-3 and almost beat Saskatchewan in an exciting West semi overtime.
Now, here they are again.
"I think the guys who were part of losing last year at the beginning and then finishing well down the stretch, we have a very good understanding of how much football is left, how much teams change throughout the course of the season," said Lulay, about 24 hours before winning what at first glance may have seemed a surprisingly important game against Toronto for a team then sitting at 2-6.Wild comebacks a Canadian product
Canadian players are usually pretty used to the comeback scenario because they've been watching the CFL produce it all their lives. But the imports from the U.S. have to be told.
"Guys come out of college, and the NFL, where if you're 2-6 the writing is on the wall for the season," Lulay said. "But here, plenty can happen from now to the end of the year."
The three teams looking to pull off the big comeback in 2010 have varying histories of doing it before.
Saskatchewan, with only one big comeback (1994) in the previous century, has made a bad habit of it lately:
- In 2004, the Riders started 4-8 and finished 5-1 for 9-9. After beating Edmonton in the West semi, they almost pulled the upset over the B.C. Lions in the final.
- A 3-6 opener in 2005 produced a 6-3 finish for 9-9. Riders were pounded in a cross-over playoff by the Montreal Alouettes.
- By 2006 it was a 3-5 start and 6-4 finish for 9-9 (spot the trend). Saskatchewan won the semi and lost the West final big time to the Lions.
- This year they were 1-7, fired coach Greg Marshall and beat Winnipeg to sit at 2-7.
B.C. has a similar kind of run going:
- Roaring out of the box 2-5 in 2002, they sprinted to the line 8-3 before being throttled by the Bombers in the West semi.
- 2008 found Wally Buono's boys 4-5 at the halfway mark and then 7-2 down the stretch. They upset Saskatchewan in the semi before losing in the final to Grey Cup bound Calgary.
- A year later it was a 3-5 opener, a 5-5 partial rebound, then a cross over playoff victory before being taken apart by Montreal in the cross over final.
- And of course there was 2010 and the 1-7 limp out, the 7-3 finish and an overtime loss to the Riders in what could have been a big surprise West semi.
- This year, it's 1-6 to start, with two straight wins in the bag.
Toronto, on the other hand, exhibits great consistency. The Argos are either strong (not as often) or terrible (more often) from start to finish in a campaign.
Only in 2006, when a 2-5 start produced an 8-3 finish (including 8-1 at one point), have the Double Blue tried to pull the big comeback. That team beat Winnipeg in the East semi and lost a close one in Montreal to the Als in the final.
What marks each of those comebacks is that none resulted in a Grey Cup. In fact, over the long history of the CFL only a tiny handful of teams have been able to pull that off.
One was the 1986 Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and they may have had an advantage, remembers all-star slot back Rocky DiPietro, because that was a creaky old group who took a while to get going.
"You don't plan to have a slow start, but as I recall we had some key injuries, we were in a rut, and it just seemed like things started clicking," said DiPietro, who now coaches one of the top high school programs in Ontario at Lakeshore Catholic, in Port Colborne.
"We were an older team, Al Bruno was our coach, and he was an older fellow as well, and we knew in the second half of the season we would click on it."
Did they ever. Starting 1-5 ("It was ugly"), the Cats finished 8-3-1, beat Toronto in a two-game, total point East final and then dismantled the heavily favoured Edmonton Eskimos (13-4-1 in the regular season) to win the Grey Cup in Vancouver.
"Certainly it's a strange league in that there are not that many teams, so one thing you find is you are never out of it until you get to the very end," DiPietro says. "A lot of us knew that.
"We were a veteran team, a lot of people said we were actually too old, but Al Bruno stuck his neck out and stuck with us [after the slow start] and he deflected a lot of pressure from the team. We responded."Taking it game by game
DiPietro agrees that the biggest factor in so few comeback teams winning the big silver mug is that they basically exhaust themselves winning big games down the stretch and have nothing left for the playoffs.
His Cats had a lot of older guys who were hurt early on, missed a number of games, and thus were fresher when the time came to play for the big marbles.
He also agrees with Toronto coach Jim Barker's view that the responsibility for letting the new players know about how the playoff system works falls to the veterans.
"I think our older players convey to the other players that 1-6 in this league can still be a playoff team," said Barker, a few weeks ago.
"We [as coaches] don't talk about the length of the season or playoff scenarios. We talk about 'Can we walk out of that dressing room tonight with our heads held high.'"
The staff expects the players to play every game for its own sake. Then in the end you add up a long line of good performances and you should be fine.
In other words, play every game like it means something and you won't put yourself in the comeback position in the first place.
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