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It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
When general manager Ed Hervey went on a spending spree this winter, landing the biggest fish in the free-agent ocean plus several other prize catches, it raised expectations for the BC Lions. With players like quarterback Mike Reilly, wide receiver Duron Carter and offensive lineman Sukhn Chungh in the fold, making the playoffs seemed a certainty. A Grey Cup appearance was a distinct possibility.
But on Monday, two days after losing their final game of the regular season 21-16 to the Calgary Stampeders, Lions’ players were cleaning out their lockers, stuffing belongings in garbage bags and saying their goodbyes. Some for the last time.
“It was a failure of a season,” said slotback Bryan Burnham, whose 107 catches for 1,583 yards and 12 touchdowns was a flicker of light in an otherwise dark season. “The expectations were much larger. When you look at the names on paper, the expectation was we were going to have an opportunity to win the Grey Cup. We came nowhere close.”
So, what went wrong? Why did so much bright promise turn into a bleak 5-13-0 disaster?
“We didn’t really feel like we lived up to our expectations,” said Hervey. “We had a lot of things that could have gone right that didn’t. A lot of things that were there for the taking and never happened.
“It kind of snowballed into one thing after another.”
What looked good on paper quickly turned into a perfect storm of missteps.
Hervey hired DeVone Claybrooks, the former Calgary defensive coordinator, as the Lions’ coach. A rookie head coach himself, Claybrooks hired assistants like Nik Lewis, Drew Tate, and Chris Ellis, who had never coached in the CFL before.
Claybrooks defended the coaches.
“Their relatability and football IQ, just because they’re rookie coaches doesn’t mean they don’t know football, doesn’t mean they can’t relate to players, doesn’t mean they’re not coaching them right,” he said.
BC started the season with 53 new players, 15 of them starters. It was expected the team would take time to gel. But the alarm bells began to ring when the Lions managed just one win in their first four games, and that was by a single point over Toronto. They didn’t win another game until Sept. 13.
“When you look at it, no matter how good those names are, the guys have never played together before,” said Burnham. “It takes time to build that continuity, that trust.”
Early on the Lions’ offensive line struggled to protect Reilly. He was sacked seven times by the Edmonton Eskimos in the second game of the season. He would be sacked seven times in two more games. No surprise, BC ended the season allowing a league-high 58 sacks.
“We didn’t get the continuity upfront as we thought,” said Claybrooks.
Things did improve after Bryan Chiu was fired as offensive line coach on Aug. 31 and replaced by former Lion Kelly Bates.
But there were other problems.
The BC offence and defence hovered in the bottom third of the league most of the season.
Reilly and Carter never seemed to get on the same page. Carter finished the year with 67 catches for 614 yards and three touchdowns. That’s the lowest totals for the two-time CFL All-Star during a full season with a team during his six years in the league.
No lead seemed safe for the Lions.
In Week 2 BC lead Edmonton 17-3 in the second quarter but lost 39-23. In their next game, the Lions had an 11-point lead on Calgary with 92 seconds on the clock and Bo Levi Mitchell injured but lost 36-32.
In August, the Lions led the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 34-19 in the fourth quarter only to lose 35-34.
“Our inability to finish at times was most frustrating, especially early on,” said Hervey. “Then it just kind of grew into a reputation.”
After putting together a four-game win streak, the Lions still had a slim chance to make the playoffs heading into the final three games of the season. That ended when Reilly suffered a broken wrist in an Oct. 12 loss to Edmonton.
“It was a tough way to end it because we had gone on a stretch where we felt like we were playing some pretty good football,” said Reilly.
There were some bright spots.
In 16 games Reilly completed 322 of 463 passes for 3,897 yards, 20 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He had six, 300-yard games and threw a career-high five touchdowns in a game against Toronto.
Burnham had a career season and when over 1,000 yards for the fourth consecutive year.
Canadian receiver Lemar Durant, another of the free-agent signings, also had his best season with 57 catches for 810 yards and five touchdowns. He was on track to go over 1,000 yards before missing the final three games with an injury.
Running back John White had 192 carries for 1,004 yards. It was the first time in his career White broke the 1,000-yard mark.
With the season over questions swirl around the Lions like fallen autumn leaves.
There already is speculation Claybrooks could be one-and-done as head coach.
“I’m not really worried about it,” he said. “I worry about the things I can control and what I can’t.
“I just do my job and until someone tells me I don’t have one, I’ll keep doing it.”
Hervey said he’ll be meeting with team president Rick LeLacheur where all aspects of the team will be evaluated.
“When you go 5-13 there is going to be changes,” said Hervey. “You have to upgrade.”
The Lions situation is complicated by ownership questions.
David Braley, the 78-year-old Hamilton businessman who currently owns the team, has sent mixed signals. He’s talked about selling but hasn’t seemed satisfied with any of the offers made to him.
Both Hervey and Claybrooks say a solid foundation has been laid for the Lions to build on next year. But Reilly expects some of the people cleaning out their lockers won’t be back for training camp.
“When you miss the postseason, it’s not good enough,” said Reilly. “Improvements and changes have to be made and that will take place over the offseason.”