March 3, 2022

Upon Further Review: BC Lions

Jimmy Jeong/CFL.ca

Upon Further Review is a series that looks back at each team’s 2021 season, their key free agent additions and other staff and roster changes and looks ahead to their 2022 campaign.


Looking Back

After a season cancelled by the pandemic and a training camp in Kamloops cut short by smoke, Rick Campbell finally got the chance to pull on the Lions sweater in 2021 and put his stamp on BC football.

He adopted a game-changing middle linebacker in Jordan Williams, who would go on to win Most Outstanding Rookie, a dynamic weak side linebacker in Bo Lokombo, who earned Most Outstanding Canadian, and a future hall of fame quarterback in Micheal Reilly in what – unknowingly to us – would be his final attempt to win a Grey Cup.

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After three years in Vancouver, and six in Edmonton, Reilly returned to BC only to be harassed with poor protection all season in 2019, go through a coaching change and a COVID-cancelled season. Hope sprung eternal in 2021 though with Lucky Whitehead added to the mix, the defence on stable footing and Ryker Mathews added via free agency to lock down the right side of the offensive line so Reilly could work his magic down the field.

Thanks to offensive line coach Kelly Bates, the Lions 2021 protection scheme was much improved despite losing Mathews to injury. The increase in pocket comfort saw Lucky Whitehead explode from special teams ace to every down difference maker, joining Bryan Burnham to form the CFL’s most productive tandem of receivers per target.

After three-straight wins in mid-September, I took a look at the Lions schedule. They were 4-2 with a four week stretch against the West, primed to shake up the division playing three of those games at home against Saskatchewan, Winnipeg and Calgary. I really thought THIS was the moment BC would cash in for their Reilly investment but the Lions fell off a cliff by eventual West Division playoff teams losing all four games.

Despite their struggles, an Ontario double in Toronto and Hamilton was still on the table with a crossover playoff spot very much in the cards and a possible play-in game against Calgary at home as well.

A stunning overtime loss to Toronto with missed kicks the difference, a hard fought Ticats victory and a disappointing defeat to Calgary capped off a seven-game losing streak in the bulk of 2021’s 14-game shortened season. All of which made BC’s off-season attack crucial to finding answers.

New Additions

I was impressed with how active Neil McEvoy and Rick Campbell were early in free agency. The day before pending players hit the open market BC had re-signed a higher percentage of their soon-to-be-available talent than any other CFL team. Names like Sukh Chungh, Dominique Rhymes, Shaq Johnson, Whitehead, Burnham, Joel Figueroa, Garry Peters, Jevon Cottoy and Peter Godber all returning to the Pacific coast for 2022, then came the reinforcements.

With Nathan Rourke on a much less expensive deal than Reilly and the veteran quarterback retiring, BC had some money available and attempted to spend it on Winnipeg REC Kenny Lawler before Edmonton pushed the price to an unacceptable height. From there the Lions pivoted collecting K Sean Whyte from Edmonton to shore up that 2021 headache, DL Woody Baron and David Menard from Montreal to pair with incumbent standout DE Obum Gwacham and new acquisitions Steven Richardson and Mathieu Betts while Loucheiz Purifoy steps in for unsigned swing man Anthony Cioffi.

The Lions have done an excellent job shaping their roster in a multitude of key spots, the question now becomes how will it all shake out on the field?

Looking Forward

Putting the passports aside, the reality is running with quarterbacks as raw to CFL football as Nathan Rourke and Michael O’Connor is risky, but if it pays off – and selfishly as a Canadian QB, I hope it does – the Lions will reap major rewards.

Being able to disperse their salary cap in creative ways that other teams can’t has opened the roster to an influx of talent but you still need QB1 to play at a high level. Below is Rourke’s limited 2021 heat maps while playing behind the CFL’s leading passer Reilly.

I have great confidence in Rourke’s process and can’t wait to see how a full season – fingers crossed – of an offence built around him produces. With Whitehead, Burnham, Cottoy and Rhymes all back, BC has great potential if they can consistently protect and Rourke makes the right decisions.

In 2021 before the Week 4 game in Ottawa I asked Reilly what he was doing to share CFL wisdom with Rourke and he said, “it’s not about lessons, it’s more of a watch me thing. I’ll show you how to do this if you stick with me and pay attention.”

It’s time to see how good a listener Rourke is as he finds his voice in a CFL huddle. I can’t wait.

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