The Canadian Press
Through the course of a 15-minute session with media on Friday in Winnipeg, Rick Campbell set the tone for his team’s demeanour ahead of its second Western Final clash in as many years with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
The BC Lions’ head coach and co-general manager was relaxed and insightful. He heaped all due praise on the Bombers, who took the season series against his team and with it the right to host Saturday’s game, where the winner will move on to the 110th Grey Cup in Hamilton.
After multiple questions on his team’s ability to deal with the weather in Winnipeg, after venturing out of the confines of the domed BC Place and on the Lions being the least productive rushing team in the CFL, Campbell fully embraced it.
“We’ll take that we’re the soft team from the west coast. We’ll live with that label and we’ll see how we do,” he said.
“West coast softies,” Postmedia’s Paul Friesen playfully lobbed at the coach. “No run game.”
“That’s what I keep hearing,” Campbell said over the laughter that followed. “That’s the vibe I’m getting!”
Campbell’s time with the media and the players that spoke after him gave a glimpse into a team that while it’s had far more highs than lows in its 12-6 run this year, weathers the good and the bad and goes into each week playing for one another.
“It’s a testament to him and all his coaches, the environment and the players themselves that it’s a tight knit group, that it takes a special person to get into that group,” said Neil McEvoy, the Lions’ co-GM, who has watched Campbell help build the team’s culture since arriving in 2019.
“The group itself a special group of people to keep it as it is. It’s a good group that, certainly coach Campbell is the leader that everyone follows. He has lots of great messages for them every day. It’s also leading to wins on the field, which is ultimately what it’s all about.”
The Lions lost quarterback Nathan Rourke to the NFL over the off-season and made Vernon Adams Jr. their No. 1 pivot. That transition was aided by Adams’ six-game run as Rourke’s fill-in last year while he recovered from his foot injury. Seemingly a perfect fit in Campbell’s locker room, Adams has had a career year with 4,769 yards, 31 touchdowns to 18 interceptions and a QB efficiency rating of 105.5, which is third among starting quarterbacks.
The Lions produced five CFL All-Stars this year and nine West Division All-Stars.
“He’s never given up on me,” Adams said of Campbell, remembering his personal low point of the season when he threw six interceptions in Week 4 against Toronto. Campbell let his starter stay in the game and try to work his way through it.
“It just showed me that he has so much confidence in me. He could have done the same thing in the Ottawa game at home (in Week 15) where I threw three interceptions before I threw I think two or three touchdowns…and we came back and we won that. It just showed me like I said, that he believes in me. He has confidence in me. That helps build my confidence as a player and a person. So I appreciate Rick, so much.”
There seems to be a consistent consideration for this Lions roster and staff that it’s made up of people and that people aren’t just constantly in win-producing mode 24/7. When Lions’ defensive line coach John Bowman approached Campbell about taking time away for his induction to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame — which fell a day before the Lions would have that dramatic comeback win against Ottawa on Sept. 16 — Campbell told Bowman to take as much time as he needed to celebrate the moment. Bowman was inducted and back in time for kickoff.
“It’s players-first with him,” Bowman said. “Whatever we’ve got to do as coaches to sacrifice, to make sure the players have the best time or whatever they need, that’s the kind of coach he is. It’s no fluff.
“Football is stress,” Bowman continued. “(As a player) you worry about how many reps you’re going to get, or if you’re going to look bad on TV, or if I’m going to get a sack or if I’m Canadian, if I’m American, what’s happening with the ratio? He does the perfect job of trying to eliminate as much stress as possible. As a player, that’s all you can ask for it. Make it competitive but make it non-stressful and everybody’s going to play to the best of their ability.”
Watching the Lions play in 2023 has felt at times like watching a CFL version of a season of Ted Lasso.
“That’s how it is,” Bowman said. “And it’s corny and people will be like, ‘Oh, he can’t be like that for real,’ but it really is, it’s genuine. Just have fun, enjoy it, compete. And don’t stress yourself out.”
Lions’ defensive end Mathieu Betts has thrived in that Lions’ environment this year. The 28-year-old almost tripled his previous career best in sacks. The 18 he got this year set a record for sacks in a season by a National player and it made him his team’s nominee for Most Outstanding Defensive Player and the West’s nominee for Most Outstanding Canadian.
Betts set that sack record in one of the few low points of the season, in a game where the team would end up being throttled by the Calgary Stampeders in Week 20. His teammates separated their shortcomings on the field to celebrate Betts in that moment, recognizing that he’d made history. The Lions of course avenged that regular season finale loss with an emphatic win over the Stamps in the Western Semi-Final.
“We have fun, honestly,” Betts said of the team’s culture.
“It’s different from other places that I’ve been to but it reminds me a little bit of a high school football team, where everybody just enjoys their time playing football. Everybody’s having fun, a little bit more laid back. But when it’s time to work, we’re working and we take pride in what we do.
“We have fun on game day, and especially when we’re at BC Place with our fans. I think it’s a big party. That’s what the culture is about. It makes it easier to come in to work every day.”
Perhaps the Lions’ most trying moment of this season came in their most recent game against the Bombers in Week 18 at BC Place. They let a 10-point third quarter lead get away from them and saw their offence dry up as the Bombers evened the score and won the game in overtime. That Winnipeg win essentially put the Western Final at IG Field.
“There was a genuine…I don’t know what word you want to call it but a grieving process because they care so much,” Campbell said.
“I tell them, ‘You’ve got that emotion and you’ve got that inside of you naturally that you care about each other and all that stuff, that’s where you can channel that in good directions.’ So I know that exists in our team, that camaraderie and that affection and that want to do well and it’s just a matter of channeling that in the right direction. If we can, we can do some pretty good things.”
It’s that desire for the group to succeed that extends beyond the Xs and Os of the game.
“It’s what makes the team,” Campbell said.
“That’s what the special sauce is on a team, where you point to (them) and you say, ‘I can’t quite put my finger on it but they just have a special quality.’
“I think the Bombers have had that. That’s how they’ve been good for so long. Talent is obvious, you have to have that, but there’s that other part where you have that chemistry as a team that’s kind of the thing you can’t always describe.
“I know that exists in this team, we’ve had enough people around here now for a couple of years and we invested in some young people that are that are growing into their spots and I think we I think we have that. I think we just need to learn how to channel that in a productive direction.”