It was a sombre and subdued atmosphere at the B.C. Lions’ facility on Monday. The hurt from their loss to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers was lingering — and will for awhile — for the players in the locker-room and halls.
But the knowledge that it was the last day that this particular team will be together burned just as much.
There’s a long list of players eligible for free agency who will get contract offers, and a long list of those who won’t. Some veterans will feel the aches and pains of another season, or are staring down the barrel of a long rehab, and feel the scales tipping in favour of retirement.
But this particular Lions’ team, whose season was ended by a 24-13 loss in the West Division final, won’t be the same next season. It can’t be.
“We have to evolve,” said Lions co-general manager and director of football operations Neil McEvoy. “Right now, we’re just trying to figure out how to beat the Bombers. Let’s call it what it is … they’re the upper-echelon football team in the Canadian Football League. We are trying to be them, and as we unfortunately saw on Saturday, we’re not there yet.
“But I think we’re close. I think we have a lot of good pieces … (But) we need to be better everywhere. I’d like to keep as many guys as I can; I think this is a solid team with a good core of players, but in today’s world of free agency, there’s going to be change. That’s just the reality of it.”
Leos cornerback Garry Peters knows this inevitability keenly, and was wistfully rewatching some of the videos he’s taken of his teammates during the season.
“It’s kind of sad, because you know the team won’t be the same,” he said. “A lot of guys can’t come back, some people outplayed their contracts. So we’ve got to pay those guys more — and that money has to come from somewhere.
“I was just going through my phone; I record videos of my teammates just walking around doing goofy stuff. From camp to during the bye weeks, when we’re all taking trips together, to now … you see where we’ve grown as men, as football players, and to see that it’s all coming to an end, it’s just a sad moment.
“The brotherhood and the bond that we built in this locker-room, you will never get it again. You have to start over and figure out what’s the new identity of this team. So that’s why I’m probably going to stay here all day, and just hang out. It just feels amazing with this team, and this bond, and you don’t want it to end … Everyone’s just sitting around, relishing the moment, before we all go our separate ways.”
The biggest names on the free agent list for the Lions are Mathieu Betts and Keon Hatcher.
Betts, the Montreal-born defensive lineman, is a ratio buster, and after setting a record for sacks by a Canadian player this season, will be a massive target for other teams.
Hatcher has developed into the team’s No. 1 receiver, and the effect of losing their “big brother” to an Achilles tear Saturday had a profound impact on the Lions’ psyche.
Other notable pending free agents on offence include receivers Alex Hollins, Jevon Cottoy and returner/wide receiver Terry Williams.
Sione Teuhema emerged as another impact player on the defensive line, sitting third on the team in sacks, while Tibo Debaillie provides roster flexibility as a global player who can actually play.
Linebacker Ben Hladik showed his worth as a Canadian player in his first season as a starter, and American Josh Woods also emerged as a talent. Woods had 12 tackles in Saturday’s game; no other player — on either team — had more than four.
Another factor that will affect how the Lions approach their roster construction this off-season is the injuries to both Hatcher and defensive back T.J. Lee — both of whom suffered Achilles injuries against Winnipeg. The extent of the damage isn’t known yet, but if surgery is required, rehab could mean six months to a year.
“We’re gonna have to see what these doctors say on what it’s going to look like and how long it’s going to be,” said B.C. head coach Rick Campbell. “But both T.J. and Hatcher are obviously really good players that we want here and want around here. So if for some reason they’re not available, we’re gonna have to fix that, but we honestly don’t know yet.
“We’ll see what the timeline looks like. (Treatment for these injuries) seems to be a little better these days than even 10, 15 years ago. Achilles (tears) used to be a death sentence for a player, but T.J. has actually already (tore his other one) in 2016 and obviously he’s been able to continue to play. A lot of times that didn’t used to happen.”
The loss to Winnipeg laid bare the areas the Lions need to fix: pass protection and physicality.
The playoff-record nine sacks conceded, while some can be attributed to quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. holding the ball too long, also exposed an inconsistent offensive line and running backs who couldn’t block.
On the other side of the ball, the Lions came into the game knowing they would face a heavy dose of Brady Oliviera, but the Bombers’ running back had cracked triple digits in yards rushing in the first half alone. The defensive line got tossed aside too easily, and the piles moved the wrong way too often, like Oliviera’s first touchdown of the night, an eight-yard rugby maul.
“We need to be better everywhere,” said McEvoy. “Those guys (Winnipeg) are relentless, those guys bring it. If you make a single error, they will capitalize. We want to be like that. And I feel we were like that at some point.
“You need guys with a lot of heart to play defence. And I think we have most of those guys — we just have to play more consistent. You saw spurts of us being dominant this year on defence. We shut out teams to zero, which is really tough in the Canadian Football League. But at the end of the day, we just have to regroup and step up and be able to beat the big boys.”
If there was a season to take the next step, clear the Bomber hurdle and make the championship game, it’s 2024, when the Grey Cup will be at B.C. Place.
The organization has taken huge steps forward, despite the past two seasons ending in near mirror-image losses to Winnipeg in the West final, and continuing that trend next season would pay huge dividends in community currency.
“I’m happy that the bar has been raised around here. We did the same thing last year,” said Campbell.
“For me, it doesn’t mean anything as far as a football coach,” he said of the championship game coming to B.C. Place.
“If someone ever said, ‘We’re gonna try harder this year because the Grey Cup is in Vancouver,’ then I’d say, ‘What the hell are we doing this year?’ Do I think it’s special that it’s in Vancouver? Absolutely. I think it’s gonna be awesome. I think it’s gonna be great. Do we want to play in it? One hundred per cent. But I hope we have that attitude every year.
“The B.C. Lions, on and off the field, are in building mode and growth mode. And I’m really happy that the bar is getting higher. This year was not as satisfying because we didn’t get to the Grey Cup … and I’m glad people feel that way.
“And the stuff getting people in the stands … that didn’t happen by magic. There’s a lot of people that are doing a lot of hard work and our marketing and ticketing, and players being good guys and playing good football. I think it’s gonna get highlighted during the Grey Cup. So I’m looking forward to the B.C. Lions being on display around the city, because there’s a lot of people doing a lot of good work.”
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