Lions can prove they’re contenders in Calgary
Buono says it’s time for enigmatic team to ‘step up’ against powerful Stampeders
In the run-up to a defining game for a team that’s still impossible to define, a group of veterans addressed the B.C. Lions this week.
Their message — everything we have worked for this CFL season is still in front of us — is about what you would expect this time of year. But the more interesting, and telling, aspect of the lockerroom oratory were the players who did the talking.
There was the quarterback, Travis Lulay, whose left shoulder is held together with duct tape and paper clips. There was running back Jeremiah Johnson, who’s ceding his job as the feature back to Tyrell Sutton for tonight’s meeting with the Stampeders. There was fullback Rolly Lumbala, who has rushed for three yards on two carries this season. And there was tackle Joel Figueroa, who has now played 14 games in his storied Lions’ career.
These four players also help make up the core of the Lions’ leadership group that might explain the erratic nature of this season. But whatever else they are, the Leos are on a 4-1 run, they have four games left on their schedule, and a playoff berth is hanging in the balance.
True, after 14 games, their head coach still isn’t certain what he has with this team but, beginning today at McMahon Stadium, he’ll start to find out.
Hell, we all will.
“I don’t know yet,” Wally Buono said as the Lions went through their final walk-through on Friday. “Ask me on Sunday. Seriously. You have to step up sometime. You can’t keep waiting. This team has waited long enough.”
And, to paraphrase the late great Tom Petty, that waiting has been the hardest part for coach Buono.
This game comes equipped with some ready-made storylines: It’s Buono’s final regularseason trip to Calgary, where he coached for 13 seasons; he’s facing Stamps head coach Dave Dickenson, who Buono coached in Calgary and Vancouver; and his relationship with Stamps GM John Hufnagel dates back three decades.
But the old Lion is concerned with only one thing.
“All that other stuff is great,” he said, “but I’m here to win a football game.”
How he goes about doing that is the next question, because over the last 10 years, McMahon has been as hospitable to the Lions as the Bates Motel was to Janet Leigh.
Since Hufnagel took over the Stamps in 2008, the Lions have gone 5-11 in Calgary, with a nifty 0-3 mark in the playoffs. Still, this will be a different Stampeders team facing the Lions, largely because they figure to be missing four starting receivers. But the Lions will also have a different look tonight because, well, they seem to have a different look for each game.
In this week’s makeover, Sutton steps in for Johnson as the feature ball carrier while Johnson supplants Chris Rainey as the return man and backup running back.
The Lions will try to get both players on the field in some packages, but the larger goal for the offence is a more physical running game that’s been Sutton’s calling card in his five-plus CFL seasons.
“You’re not going to win in October or November unless you can run the football,” said Buono.
“See that wind (gusting to 35 km/h Friday)? It’s going to be colder (Saturday). You have to be physical, and when we’re physical, we win. When we’re not physical, we lose.”
To that end, Figueroa becomes a key cog in the run game. The six-foot-six, 320-pound tackle from Miami isn’t exactly loquacious, but he’s a presence and he’s emerged as a leader this season. When members of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats were messing with Lions kicker Ty Long two weeks ago in Hamilton — are you really that tough if you’re trying to intimidate a kicker? — Figueroa arrived on the scene and restored order.
“He had my back,” Long said. “I’ll always have your back, even when you’re wrong,” Figueroa said, before adding: “This is a brand new team. There are guys from all over. It’s taken a while, but we’re finally starting to jell. We just have to keep grinding.”
Still, the key to the Lions’ playoff aspirations is Lulay, the oftinjured former most outstanding player who returns to the starters’ job this week after missing four games with a separated left shoulder.
The 35-year-old vet represents the ultimate variable in the Lions’ equation. When Lulay has played this season, he’s given the team a spark.
But he hasn’t been in the lineup long enough to gain any traction with the offence.
He now has these four regularseason games left to rally this team, four games that could change the narrative of the latter part of his career with the Lions. Lulay admits he’s thought about that.
Then again, he’s thought about a lot of things recently.
“You have to get over that,” Lulay answered when asked about the mental hurdle of coming back from yet another injury. “It can’t exist. If that’s in the back of your mind, if it clouds your focus in any way, you’re not ready.”
And he believes he and his team are ready.
“Nothing is guaranteed in this game, but we have four games guaranteed as a group,” Lulay said. “What we make of those four games is up to us, and we have this chance to have a fun ending.”
And, maybe, figure out who they are.
After missing the last four games with a shoulder injury, quarterback Travis Lulay hopes to lead the Lions to the playoffs.