Early this season the BC Lions hardly had the look of a champion.
They opened with five straight losses and through seven games were a dismal 1-6. But with CFL MVP Travis Lulay coming of age, BC won 12 of its final 13 games and defeated the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 34-23 to capture the Grey Cup at BC Place.
The Lions were rewarded for their improbable championship run by being named The Canadian Press Team of the Year for 2011 in voting by sports editors and broadcasters across the country.
Not only did the Lions become the first team to win a Grey Cup after an 0-5 start, they were the first to do so at home since dispatching Baltimore 26-23 in the ’94 final.
“Starting 0-5 was frustrating,” said veteran slotback Geroy Simon. “Having a good year as an individual was great but winning as a team and knowing where we came from to where we ended up makes this the best year I’ve ever had as a football player.
“And to have someone recognize such a team effort is truly a great honour.”
The Lions finished with 116 points in the poll, including a majority of the first-place votes (22).
“(The) Lions’ comeback was incredible — almost fairy-tale like,” commented Mark Stephen of Calgary radio station CHQR.
The Stanley Cup finalist Vancouver Canucks were second with 82 points, ahead of the Memorial Cup-champion Saint John Sea Dogs (69 points).
Lions defensive end Brent Johnson said the voters got it right.
“Obviously I’m biased but it is the right choice,” he said. “All the things sports likes to use as cliches were actually true this year.
“It’s a story about a group of 50-some guys when their backs were against the wall and no one else believed in them, they rallied together and found a way to make it work and pull it off. Those stories don’t come around every day and don’t happen to a lot of people. I’m just so proud to be a part of the great team this year’s was and it’s going to take a long time before that’s ever repeated.”
Head coach Wally Buono credited owner David Braley’s patience as well as the character of his veteran leaders for BC’s remarkable turnaround.
“Guys like Brent and Geroy kept that locker-room together and were big in selling the coaches’ messages to keep working hard, keep focused and don’t listen to what’s going on around you,” Buono said. “I learned a long, long time ago you can’t listen when things are going well and you shouldn’t listen when things are going poorly … you must weather the storm and isolate yourself in a way that you kind of almost protect yourself so it doesn’t become a detriment or negative that affects all the other decisions you have to make at a critical time.
“The (front-office) leadership didn’t panic and didn’t put pressure on me. I think David realized there was already enough pressure on the football guys to get this turned around. The big thing he’d always say was, ‘I know you’re going to fix it.’ You walk away from the conversation feeling you have your boss’ confidence that if you keep working and doing the things you believe in you’re going to get it worked out and I think that was critical.”
On Wednesday, figure skater Patrick Chan was named the top male athlete while freestyle skier Jennifer Heil captured top female honours Thursday.
The Lions’ Grey Cup win was especially significant for Buono, who just over a week later resigned to end his 22-year CFL coaching career and concentrate full-time on his duties as general manager. Buono promoted defensive co-ordinator Mike Benevides, a Toronto native, as his successor and the league’s only Canadian head coach.
“If you’re honest with yourself, there’s a time and place you know it’s time to move on and for me it was that time,” Buono said. “Mike is the next wave and it’s exciting to give a fellow Canadian this opportunity but it’s not a token thing, it’s well earned.”
Buono, 61, leaves as the CFL’s winningest coach with a regular-season record of 254-139-3 and a record-tying five Grey Cup titles.
Buono not only left coaching on his own terms, but also while on top.
“If you were to write a story on your life as a coach over 22 years … you’d have to be a fairly creative person to be able to script it this way,” Buono said. “The nice thing is you’ll be remembered as a winner … although at the end of it I never perceived myself as a winner or loser, I’ve always felt I’ve been a good person who has been willing and able to help people.
“If I’ve been a positive influence on them, hey, that’s even better.”
BC’s nightmarish start hit rock bottom Aug. 13 when a struggling Lulay was benched during a 30-17 loss to Winnipeg. But Simon said there was no finger-pointing inside the Lions’ locker-room — the team’s self-belief never wavered.
“We stuck together,” he said. “Even when things weren’t going right there were no fights in the locker-room and I think this was the first year I’ve been around a team that didn’t have one fight in the locker-room or on the field.
“I think that just showed the character of the people we had and how we played for one another.”
Lulay quickly justified Buono‘s faith in him. In his first full season as the starter, Lulay finished second in CFL passing behind Montreal’s Anthony Calvillo and was tied with the Alouettes’ star with 31 TD strikes en route to being named the league’s outstanding player.
Lulay capped his breakout season in style, passing for 320 yards and two TDs to be named the Grey Cup MVP. But he certainly had plenty of help getting the Lions back on track.
Simon, 36, was again the anchor of BC’s receiving corps. The 13-year veteran was the league’s second-leading receiver with 84 catches for 1,350 yards and eight TDs. He’ll enter next season needing just 67 yards to break Milt Stegall’s all-time record of 15,153.
However, a turning point came Aug. 3 when BC acquired slotback Arland Bruce III from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Bruce‘s presence meant opposing defences couldn’t double-team either Simon or Bruce and leave the other in single coverage.
“Once Arland got into a rhythm, teams had to balance the field,” Simon said. “And when guys like Kierre Johnson, Akeem Foster and Paris Jackson, who came on late, started getting comfortable with the system it was tough for teams to stop us.”
Bruce had just nine catches for 104 yards and no TDs when he arrived but quickly fit into BC’s attack, recording 49 receptions for 755 yards and eight touchdowns. Bruce added five catches for 73 yards and a TD against Winnipeg.
BC also sported the CFL’s top special-teams player in kicker Paul McCallum. The 41-year-old was the league’s oldest player yet hit 50 of 53 field goal attempts for a single-season record 94.3 per cent success ratio.
And then there was the Lions’ defence. The unit surrendered an average of more than 30 points in the club’s first five games yet ended the year allowing a league-low 21.4 per game and second only to Winnipeg in sacks (55 to 54).
A big part of its success was a rugged defensive front that consistently controlled the line of scrimmage. That allowed the linebacking corps, anchored by Solomon Elimimian in the middle, free to either flow to the ball or blitz for added pressure.
“A good defence is on the bench watching the offence operate,” he said. “Our time possession and ball possession came along at that time and started to benefit the defence.”
And that benefit was clearly evident in the Grey Cup as BC held Winnipeg to just 41 yards rushing and 291 total offensive yards.
“Our defence always gave us a lot of opportunities to have a short field,” said Simon. “If you get a short field in this league you can put up a lot of points.
“We also knew if we got around (opposition’s) 42-yard line Paul would put it through so we had a lot of confidence in the guys around us.”