Lions lick their wounds, brace for change after roaring start ends with a whimper
Team missed the CFL playoffs for the first time since 1996
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.
"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.
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.
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."
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."
📽 "A sale could occur this year, next year or the year after."<br><br>ICYMI: Owner David Braley admits the team must be sold in near future 🏈 🦁 <a href="https://t.co/76djE0UGfe">pic.twitter.com/76djE0UGfe</a>—@BCLions
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.