September 28, 2011

Cauz: Lions ready to roar into final stretch

Matthew Cauz

I think we can all agree; this is the craziest CFL season in recent memory. This is a year of confusion, 18 weeks of parity, the season of I have no idea what is going on?! So naturally this is the year for the B.C. Lions.

I spend Sunday night going over my weekly rankings, looking back at games on my PVR, reading recaps and shuffling through a variety of statistics.

This past week the easiest pick was at no.1, the British Columbia Lions. Yeah, there are teams with better records, but is there any team playing any better than the Leos?

Beyond Edmonton’s 5-0 streak, no team has sustained a longer period of excellence than the Lions, which ironically started with their 36-1 week eight whitewash of said Eskimo’s team.

If there was ever a year to start 0-5 this is the one. Unlike last year when Montreal and Calgary ran away with their respective divisions, this season teams are avoiding the spotlight like Steve Bartman on the Miracle Mile.

Every couple of weeks you think a team is poised to become this year’s Alpha Dog, and then a week later they lose ugly. That is what makes this current run by the Lions so fascinating. In a year where everyone looks 9-9 the Lions are putting the pieces together to be that team that could pull away. Do you realize that with some help B.C. could have a share of first in the West Division after this weekend?

So the question is what happened?

Let’s start with some simple numbers. Let’s call this paragraph statistics for idiots.

The obvious stat to begin with is the won/loss record. As we all know the team started 1-6 through the first seven games and has gone 5-0 since. Through the first seven games the Lions were outscored by a relatively small margin of five points per game, which suggests that a turnaround was possible.

The more damning number was the 397 yards per game allowed by the defence. And of course the grand daddy of all football clichés, the turnover margin! After losing to the Blue Bombers 30-17 the team had a turnover margin of minus-seven. I mean, you can just hear the talking heads:  “Listen, you can’t win in THE CANADIAN FOOTBALL LEAGUE if you’re turning the ball over.”

But then, by magic, all those dirty little numbers turned from lead to gold. The quintuple (sorry I got tired of writing five) win streak saw the Lions produce a robust plus-14 in the turnover battle and the defence was allowing just 291 yards of total offence while outscoring their opponent by an eye popping 24 points per game.

Of course, beyond the numbers are the players who made it all happen. How about Ryan Phillips not only making the switch to wide-side cornerback; but starring at a position that often requires a great deal of time to become comfortable at? That and the addition of Tad Kornegay to replace Stanley Franks stabilized a leaky secondary and helped set the stage for a defence that has given up 47 points in five games.

On offence, the headline was the arrival of Arland Bruce III. Again, let’s start with the simple stats. Before his arrival Travis Lulay had two games with a quarterback rating over 90. Since Bruce was signed Lulay has topped that number five times while tossing 10 touchdowns to just two interceptions.

His presence not only made Geroy Simon’s job easier, but helped ease the pressure off the younger wideouts, Shawn Gore and Akeem Foster, who are both just in their second year.

Off the field Bruce has transformed himself into a role I know only too well, the “Good Times Guy.” Dave Naylor wrote about the impact Bruce brought to the team that has nothing to do with numbers. How after the team’s disappointing Week Seven loss to Winnipeg it was Bruce that kept all the players spirits up during practice and in the locker-room.

You can’t measure just how important that is. Trust me I have often taken that role. Mostly as a result of a combination of my lack of technical skills coupled with my extrovert personality. I was the guy that kept an office loose, kept them laughing when things were tight. While working at ‘Off the Record’ I was given the nickname “Good Times Cauz”, I was the professional buddy. That is what Arland has become, that, in addition to reprising his role as one of the most dangerous receivers in the league.

Seriously when his career is over someone needs to write the definitive Arland Bruce autobiography, just one of the most unique players in CFL history.

Let’s go back to Lulay for a second. His greatest achievement this season is making us forget that this is his first year as the legitimate, undisputed leader of the team

This is his first year as “The Guy”. For the first time in his career the fate of an entire team is firmly on his shoulders while opposing defensive coordinators are losing sleep dissecting his game and finding his weaknesses.

Let’s face it; the majority of quarterbacks fail this test. Not Lulay.

He has improved every week to the point where I now trust him to make the correct plays at the critical points of any game. Anthony Calvillo and Henry Burris may have better numbers but Calvillo is 58 years old and Burris has been wildly inconsistent. Lulay is starting to creep up the upper echelon of quarterbacks

Considering I have written glowing reviews of the Eskimo’s, Alouettes and Tiger-Cats I’m fairly sure B.C. will lose three of their next four. Here’s hoping I’m wrong. The team is about to open up their brand spanking new stadium and quite frankly I’m tired of all this parity.