July 13, 2018

O’Leary: Jennings needs to roll with the punch of QB shuffle

Walter Tychnowicz/CFL.ca

Davis Sanchez told a great story on The Waggle presented by Sport Clips this week about his old coach, Chris Jones.

The gist of it was that in the back half of his career, his all-star selections and Grey Cup victories had him feeling entitled to a certain status with the Montreal Alouettes. In one heated and public exchange during a practice, Chris Jones backed a big old reality check onto the field for his veteran defensive back.

The message: “I don’t care what you say. Shut up, basically,” Sanchez said. “You’re not that damn good anymore.

“He yelled this across the field in front of everyone else. I think at that point, he was probably right. I probably wasn’t that good anymore and needed to stay in my lane a bit.”

Episode 115: What can BC do at QB + Diontae Spencer exclusive

EPISODE OVERVIEW: James and Davis recap the week that was in the CFL: looking at BC’s struggles at QB, the Roughriders tight win against the Ticats, and the Eskimos slow start to the 2018 season. James also speaks with REDBLACKS receiver Diontae Spencer.

RUNDOWN: BC QB struggles (4:04), Winnipeg’s success (18:46), Chris Jones and the Roughriders (21:17), Eskimos tough game at BMO (32:13), REDBLACKS v Stamps (39:13), Diontae Spencer interview (42:46).

It’s a harsh moment, but more than anything, it’s a football moment. At this level, when everyone’s livelihood depends on how well everyone around you is performing, there sometimes isn’t room for pleasantries, for accommodation, for feelings of entitlement. These kinds of things happen on a field and they shouldn’t cause an eye to bat, or a forehead to wrinkle. The reality of the game has always been blunt and unsparing. That’s football.

In the world of the BC Lions, it almost feels like the opposite is happening. Wally Buono’s final season on the sidelines is off to a slow start, with his team sitting at the bottom of the West standings at 1-2. Coming into the back half of their home-and-home series with Winnipeg, the Lions spent the week trying to will Travis Lulay’s surgically-repaired knee from his self-diagnosed 90 per cent health up to 100. Jonathan Jennings, tabbed as the next great young QB in the league just two seasons ago, spent the week 10 per cent away from being demoted to backup.

The Lions announced on Friday morning that Lulay will get the start at home on Saturday.

With this move, there’s been all kinds of talk outside of the team about what it means for Jennings. Is it right to take the starting gig from him after three games, when he’s supposed to be the team’s future? What would the demotion do to Jennings’ confidence? What does it mean for the team if you hand it off to a 34-year-old QB that’s coming off of the third major injury of his career?

The answer, as Jones loudly explained to Sanchez all those years ago in Montreal, is clear. How a shuffling of the depth chart affects players is not Wally Buono’s problem, nor is it Ed Hervey’s. For as much parity as the CFL has seen in its first month, the odds are that the West will eventually start winning games (Calgary is already racing down that path). The Lions, who are probably in the bottom half of the league in terms of talent this season, can’t afford to fall to 1-3 (or worse) while the rest of the West gets in position to start rattling off wins as the season progresses.

Demoted, Jennings will have to roll with this punch, but it isn’t the end of the road for him. He turns 26 this month and could still have a lot of great football left in him. No doubt it’s a setback, but there are many starting QBs in this league that had a zigzagging journey to get behind centre on a full-time basis.

Jennings will not play in Week 5’s contest between the Lions and Blue Bombers (The Canadian Press)

Jennings need look no further than Matt Nichols this weekend as the perfect example. Nichols lost out on a starting gig to Mike Reilly in 2013 (a season-ending injury in training camp gets an assist on that play). When Reilly was hurt for the first half of the 2015 season, Nichols lost the fill-in starters job to his backup, James Franklin and was traded to Winnipeg. Nichols had been in the league five seasons before he earned the starting job he has today and he had to beat out Drew Willy for that role. It’s never been fair, for any quarterback in the league.

Through a stretch that has to be hard on the ego, if nothing else, Jennings has said and done all of the right things. While his play hasn’t been great (48-72 passing for 487 yards with just two touchdowns and three interceptions), he’s not the only cog misfiring in the Lions’ wheel. The defence bleeds yards, averaging 399.3 per game with the team’s 30.7 points allowed per game the second worst in the league. The Lions’ offence has been good for 21 points per game, the third-worst in the league, but Jennings hasn’t had much time to operate, either. The Lions have allowed 11 sacks. Only Montreal (14) has allowed more, with BC playing one less game.

Will Lulay fare much better under these circumstances? Does the offence have enough firepower to get into a shootout with the Bombers, who have already won a pair of games in blowout fashion this season? Winning teams find a way.

All of these years later, Chris Jones now of course runs the show in Saskatchewan. Last week, he was swapping his quarterbacks out mid-drive at points against Hamilton, drawing the ire of an entire province and probably some of his own players. But they won ugly and sit at 2-2 while they enjoy their bye week.

The game is never fair. Coaches will always go with the players that give them the best chance at winning. It’s on Jennings now to take this time and figure out how to be that best option again.