Morris: Lions try to look ahead after missing playoffs

Bryan Burnham was succinct and brutally honest when evaluating the BC Lions season.

“It was a failure,” said the big, sure-handed receiver. “I came up short on my goals. As a team we came up short and that’s a pretty bad feeling.”

The Lions finished the year 5-9 and fourth in the West Division. At one point BC looked to be on track for the playoffs with a 4-2 record but those hopes were derailed by a seven-game losing streak.  It was the second-consecutive season the Lions missed the playoffs.

“I think there were some games where we just didn’t have the intensity, we didn’t have the fire,” said Burnham, who finished among the league’s leading receivers with 67 catches for 965 yards. “It kind of felt like we were trying to match other team’s intensity instead of setting the tone from the get-go.”

Rick Campbell, BC’s co-general manager and head coach, said inexperience and bad luck cost his team. The Lions began the year with 22 first-year players and eight with one CFL season under their belt.

Four of BC’s losses were by a touchdown or less. The team was hurt by missed field goals at crucial teams, blown defensive assessments and costly penalties.

“The experienced teams have some continuity and some confidence,” said Campbell. “You’re going to win those close games and then all of a sudden your record flip flops.”

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While the Lions fell short of their goals, there are a number of bright spots for the team’s future. QB Nathan Rourke had a strong rookie season playing behind Michael Reilly (Photo: The Canadian Press)

The Lions did do a lot of things right during the year.

Quarterback Michael Reilly completed 276 of 400 passes for a league-leading 3,283 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions, despite dealing with a sore elbow all year.

Canadian quarterback Nathan Rourke showed he’s the heir apparent to Reilly. He played mostly as a backup but in starting the final game of the season last week, Rourke completed 23 of 34 passes for 359 yards and a touchdown, plus rushed for three touchdowns in a 43-10 victory over the Edmonton Elks.

Nathan Rourke can be a starter for any team in the CFL,” said Burnham. “Just watching Nathan all season has been really impressive.”

Receiver Lucky Whitehead added some excitement to the lineup with 60 catches for 932 yards and four touchdowns. He also returned both a punt and a missed field goal for a touchdown.

Linebacker Jordan Williams had 97 tackles, breaking the Canadian rookie record of 75 set by current Winnipeg Blue Bomber head coach Mike O’Shea in 1993.

“He runs fast, he plays hard,” said veteran defensive back T.J. Lee, who had 71 tackles and led the Lions with four interceptions. “He has a huge learning curve as a professional. It’s exciting to see what he’s going to bring as one of the young pivotal players for the Lions next year.”

Canadian receiver Jevon Cottoy also showed improvement from his rookie season, making 39 catches for 519 yards and three touchdowns.

What hurt the Lions during the year was a lack of finish. BC was in the lower third of the league in points scored. While the air attack was the best in the league, BC was last in rushing.

The Lions’ offensive line left Reilly scrambling for his life and the defence was in the bottom three for points allowed and sacks made. The kicking game also struggled, with BC using three different placekickers.

Bryan Burnham led the team in receiving yards again this season and said he feels like the Lions are close to getting over the hump and being competitive (Photo: The Canadian Press)

Burnham doesn’t think the Lions need a major overhaul, just some minor repairs.

“I think this organization has the right pieces,” he said. “We were in some pretty close games this year. A few things go a little bit different and we’re preparing for a playoff game.

“It’s so disappointing because in 2019 it felt like a bad team. In 2021 it felt like a good team.”

Campbell believes the Lions need to add just a few quality players to the roster.

“I think it’s fewer people that can have a bigger impact as opposed to needing to bring in a whole pile of players,” he said. “It’s getting some targeted people I would call playmakers.”

Among the players Campbell might want to add is a running back, a pass rushing defensive lineman and another defensive back.

Neil McEvoy, the Lions co-GM said the team will “make the moves that make us better.” The team also has a new owner in Amar Doman, who is committed to rebuilding the franchise both on and off the field.

“This football team has been young, which is good,” said McEvoy.  “That puts us in a unique position to really build on the current guys we have. We’re not in cap problems.

“We’re going to have the opportunity to bring in some really good football players to complement our team.”

There are some questions swirling whether Reilly will be back in 2022. He’ll turn 37 before the start of next season and carries a hefty salary.

Reilly, who has been training for a career in firefighting when his playing days are done, wasn’t available for the season-ending media conference, having returned to Washington state to be with his family for U.S. Thanksgiving.

“I don’t want to speculate on anything,” said McEvoy. “I’m going to let him talk to us. At this time, it’s just too early to say what the future holds for all of us.”

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