June 12, 2020

O’Leary: No lead is safe may be the best part of the Canadian game


You’ll often hear it as the second half of a game plays out on TSN, with one team running up the score on its opponent: No lead is safe.

If you’re somewhat new to this programming, you may have rolled your eyes the first few times you heard it, but it doesn’t take long to recognize that the saying is more than just a ploy to keep you watching. The CFL is a league where the impossible often happens and where seemingly insurmountable deficits can be made up quickly.

Friday night’s offering of CFL Encore celebrates what TSN’s Rod Black has sometimes called the Crazy Football League. In the first half of TSN’s double header, the 2013 Eastern Semi-Final will air at 8 p.m. Played in Guelph while Tim Hortons Field was being built, the Ticats relied on a pair of third-down gambles to pull out a huge overtime win against Anthony Calvillo and the Montreal Alouettes.

In the second game, we’ll jump to the 2016 Western Semi-Final, where Jonathan Jennings powered the BC Lions to a huge comeback win over Matt Nichols and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

» TSN’s full CFL Encore schedule
» Nye: Looking at the best season-opening games in recent memory
» O’Leary: What we would have seen in Week 1


Three downs, 12 players, the wider field and of course the rouge, are all parts of what make the Canadian game so unique. The ability that CFL teams have to make any game — regardless of how much of a blowout it’s shaping up to be — an actual, competitive game may be the league’s most enjoyable trait.

The video above shows five comeback games from just the last five years. Each person reading this could probably think of separate games that they’ve seen that are just as dramatic and exciting. The CFL’s history is laced with these kinds of moments and they’re not all playoff-exclusive comebacks, either. The possibility of a massive comeback exists every weekend that the CFL is playing games.

A few thoughts on the two games that are airing tonight:

Backup QB Dan LeFevour played an integral role in getting the Ticats past Montreal in a run-heavy 2013 playoff encounter (Photo: CFL.ca)

The Ticats’ stay in Guelph was one that came out of necessity — Ivor Wynne Stadium had been torn down and Tim Hortons Field was being built on the same land — but it didn’t lack in its quirks. Bad weather seemed to plague the Ticats through the games they played there. In this game, the bad weather was at least on the quasi home team’s side.

That was no more evident than when Sean Whyte saw his field goal into the wind stop at the doorstep of the uprights, pushed back by a black-and-yellow clad Mother Nature. That field goal would prove costly, as the Als lost by three.

This game wasn’t about a massive lead being built up and lost. It was low-scoring, but Montreal was in front the majority of the way, until Henry Burris found C.J. Gable for a go-ahead touchdown with 1:29 left on the clock. Whyte got some redemption for himself and the Als, connecting on a 32-yard field goal with five seconds left to tie the game up and send it to overtime.

While Burris received much of the attention as the Ticats’ QB, the team may not have gotten past Montreal without the help of backup QB Dan LeFevour. He only threw six passes in the game, but he took 18 handoffs and ran for 61 yards, including the game-winning touchdown. Leading up to that play, LeFevour came up big on a pair of third-down drives that kept the offence on the field and kept Hamilton’s season alive in overtime.

It wasn’t a pass-friendly game. Burris made 23-36 passes for 204 yards and Troy Smith was 14-26 for just 142 yards. Both threw a TD and an interception. One notable name on that 2013 game sheet is Tyrell Sutton. Then the Als’ running back, he matched his QB’s production with 142 yards on the ground. He’d later make the jump to Hamilton, suiting up for the Ticats in their 2019 Grey Cup appearance. Sutton went back to the Als as a free agent this winter.

Though he was on the Als’ nine-game injured list when the game was played, the Eastern Semi-Final loss marked the end of Anthony Calvillo’s career.

A disappointed Justin Medlock watched his 61-yard field goal attempt fall short in a wild Western Semi-Final in 2013 (Jimmy Jeong/CFL.ca)

In an Instagram interview with CFL.ca’s Brodie Lawson this morning, Jonathan Jennings said one of the rallying points for that 2016 Lions team came in the third quarter, when a big Taylor Loffler hit took Manny Arceneaux out of action.

Jennings, who shook off two early turnovers in the game, was magnificent down the stretch. He slipped out of what looked like a sure tackle and powered his way into the end zone to put the Lions up with 1:33 left to play. It was their first lead of the day, after trailing 25-6 in the first half and 31-19 with 9:20 to go. He finished with 329 passing yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for 43 yards and two more TDs on the ground.

The lasting memory for many from that game will be coach Mike O’Shea’s decision to have Justin Medlock go for a 61-yard field goal attempt at the end of the game. The Bombers were third-and-four at midfield with 36 seconds left. Medlock, one of the league’s finest field goal kickers, came up short on the deep attempt. Even with the closed dome at BC Place, it was a tall order for the kicker.

That loss was a painful one for the Bombers but it was an important step in the team’s journey. They’d turned the corner that year with Nichols as their starter and won 11 games, posting their best record since 2003. Over the next three years the team inched closer to success, winning 12, 10 and 11 games and getting progressively deeper into the post-season each year. The organization’s patience paid off when the team won the Grey Cup in Calgary this past year. Nichols was sidelined with an injury, but the core of that program grew together — including O’Shea and his coaching staff — and they were finally able to take that final step.

Despite knowing the outcomes in these games, there’s still something of a rush that comes with watching these teams pull these wins out. If at some point you want to get up and shift your focus to something else tonight, think of the words of Rod Black, as he always urges fans in any close contest: Don’t. Go. Anywhere.