The B.C. Lions made some big strides in 2016. Picked by many to occupy the CFL’s basement, the club surged up the standings to finish with the league’s second-best record before winning a playoff game for the first time in five years.
B.C. was a confident bunch prior to Sunday’s West Division final in Calgary, believing to a man that an upset was in the cards. But for all the good vibes the Lions felt this season, the powerhouse Stampeders showed them in no uncertain terms how far they still have to go.
The players trudged into their suburban practice facility on Tuesday to gather their things and say goodbye, less than 48 hours after suffering a humiliating 42-15 loss.
“We’re a good team, but we’ve got to be better,” said B.C. quarterback Jonathon Jennings. “That’s on everyone. We all have to grow. We all have to continue to understand that the standard was Calgary this year and we’ve got to continue to march toward that standard.
“Calgary had that intensity, had that focus to make it happen. That’s a good thing for us. It’s going to allow us to understand that we have to set that bar even higher.”
The bar for the Lions heading into training camp was as low as its been in years after a 7-11 campaign under one-and-done head coach Jeff Tedford in 2015.
His abrupt departure forced the hand of general manager and vice-president of football operations Wally Buono, who had retired from coaching after leading B.C. to the 2011 Grey Cup to focus on his front office duties.
The 66-year-old, who holds the CFL record for most all-time wins, returned to the sidelines and led a revival that saw the Lions finish 12-6 before a last-minute victory over Winnipeg at home in the first round of the playoffs.
“I look at the season as one of progress, one of re-establishing exciting football and having some pride in the organization,” said Buono. “As disappointing as Sunday was, you’ve got to just keep that in perspective.”
Among the positives were Jennings’ emergence as a legitimate star in his second year and a rebuilt offensive line that paced the league’s top rushing attack, while Emmanuel Arceneaux and Bryan Burnham finished third and fourth overall in receiving.
“I think we took a lot of steps in the right direction,” said Burnham. “We didn’t get to where we want to go, but at the end of the day this team has a lot to be proud of.”
On defence, linebacker Solomon Elimimian returned from a devastating Achilles injury to lead the CFL in tackles with 130, while the unit as a whole tied for top spot with 52 sacks.
“It’s still disappointing,” said Elimimian. “Regardless of what people outside thought, we believed that we had a good enough team to actually get to the Grey Cup.
“We made a lot of strides, we made a lot of improvements, we’ve done a lot of good things, but it still hurts because we were so close.”
The off-season always brings change, and the Lions will be no different with upwards of 25 free agents poised to hit the market.
Elimimian – the league’s most outstanding player and top defender in 2014 – headlines the group along with Burnham, running back Jeremiah Johnson and defensive back Ryan Phillips for a club already tight to the salary cap.
Buono has never been afraid to make tough decisions with veterans, and there’s no reason to believe this winter will be any different. He pointed to a lack of turnovers on defence – the Lions recorded a league-worst nine interceptions – as one area where improvement needs to be made.
“My job is to try to build the best football club,” said Buono, who confirmed he expects to coach next year. “You need a lot of pieces.”
Elimimian expressed his desire to return to the only CFL team he’s played for, but added there’s a chance he’s played his last game for the Lions after seven seasons.
“I’ve seen a lot of good guys come and go. You never know,” said Elimimian, who is once again up for the league’s award for top defender. “That’s one thing about football: at some point we’re all going to exit the same door we came in. That’s just part of it.”
Another part of it is the pain of a disappointing ending, something Buono implored his team to use to its advantage.
“You always feel a little bit embarrassed and a little bit downtrodden after a game like that,” said Buono. “But it’s like I told the players: ‘Don’t define yourself by that, but learn from that. Learn what it’s going to take to be that team of excellence.’
“Calgary, all year long, has been a team of excellence.”
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press