Despite the club’s practice field being under a foot of snow this week, it’s good to know that the football season isn’t that far off. Following a busy number of days, GM Wally Buono is off to league meetings in Florida, but not before signing running back Stefan Logan to a contract extension.
The announcement came on the heels of a Paul McCallum extension announcement last week along with one for Dante Marsh, free agent signings of kicker Ricky Schmitt and linebacker Jamall Johnson.
For Lions fans it was a sigh of relief to some degree that their team does indeed have a heartbeat, but rest assured the journey to November will be followed at the club’s own pace.
“It’s never a good idea to manage your team through the media so I’m not really concerned about what their grades were from that first day of free gency,” quips Buono. “Those kinds of rankings or opinions create doubt and worry for fans of teams that perhaps weren’t as active, but they rarely take into account what each team’s individual needs were heading into that period.”
“We have a plan in place and we’re not deviating from that plan,” continued Buono. “It might not create the splashy headlines like some teams did on the opening day of free agency, but I would say we’ve made as many moves since then as the most active teams that day.”
The Ricky Schmitt and Paul McCallum deals alone may prove to be one of the more significant moves for the Lions when the team hits the field in June.
“I’m not sure people understand how much of our game is dependent upon field position,” stresses head coach Mike Benevides.
“It affects every part of your game-plan on offence and defence so pairing Ricky’s leg strength with Paul’s accuracy and experience is absolutely huge heading into the season.”
Still in the works are extensions for running back Andrew Harris among others which would continue to solidify the team’s offence heading into 2014, but the recent Stefan Logan deal was a also a big one.
“I think there was a concern for some people that Stefan’s return to our team was going to create an issue for Andrew Harris,” says Buono. “In fact, it’s was just the opposite and I believe we saw some very good signs of that in the tail-end of last season.
A running game that seemed stuck in neutral for 10 games prior to Logan’s return (72 yards per game) suddenly had a new approach and a more dynamic look. The result was that same average rocketing to 164-yards per game over the final three contests and a 200-yard combined effort in the Western Semi-Final versus Saskatchewan.
“Andrew is a pro, Stefan is a pro and together I believe they know they are a big part of our physical identity,” says Benevides. “If I’m either one of those guys I definitely want the other guy here too. An effective running game wears down a defence more than throwing the ball and together they can affect each other’s performance. Andrew will benefit from a defence chasing Stefan around the field and Stefan will benefit from a defence that’s had Andrew banging them around.”
Most importantly over the past couple weeks for Benevides is getting an early read on his room.
“This program only wants players who truely want to be here. It has to be in their hearts. This is a business no doubt, but our number one job as coaches and players is to win and that is the bottom line. Contracts, signing bonuses, who makes what on another team, all that stuff to me is secondary to having 42 players on the field each week committed to one goal.”
Departures too will make the march towards June a compelling one as the Lions look to their existing depth to fill some positions left by veteran departures of Korey Banks, Nick Moore, Steve Myddelton and Josh Bell.
“I think when fans see a familiar name deciding to play for another club that it hurts a little bit or creates a bit of worry,” says Buono. “You have to remember that we are constantly evaluating our players in all situations whether it’s in practice, in games or in our dressing room. From that perspective, I don’t believe that those departures will have a significant impact on our club.”
At receiver the Lions currently have Emmanuel Arceneaux, Courtney Taylor and Ernest Jackson as returning imports in 2014 and perhaps a quiet game-changer in Korey Williams who will get a long look in camp. Non-imports currently include Shawn Gore, Marco Iannuzzi, SJ Haidara and Kito Poblah.
“If we are starting today, I’m more than comfortable with every single one of those guys and we’re still three months from camp,” says Benevides. “There’s proven experience, outstanding speed, teachable youth, not to mention they’ll be led by an incredible position coach.”
On defence, the holes created by Banks and Bell will likely be covered off by depth and a shift in philosophy in the scheme.
“We were comfortable with Josh and I believe his best football is still ahead of him which is why we made him an offer,” says Buono. “Signing a guy like Cord Parks last year however, tells me that we can find first-year guys who can compete at a very high level. We also have a player in Cameron Chism who showed some good things late in the year and he didn’t have the benefit of an entire season or training camp.”
The Lions have five other defensive backs under contract that haven’t been announced by the club yet.
“Neil and Ryan (Rigmaiden) have secured some very good players who we’ll see down the road at our free agent camps,” confirmed Buono. “We need to see them on the field to confirm what we’ve seen on tape but yes, there is some deep talent on our roster right now.”
Replacing a player like Korey Banks on paper looks like a steeper challenge than Bell, but the reality for Buono is filling a spot in a defensive scheme that requires a different body type.
“Korey was a great player during his time here, and I completely understand the anxiety it causes our fans when those kinds of players depart, but we don’t simply look at resumes at this point in the year. We have to consider the kind of team we want to put on the field in 2014,” admits Buono.
“We did not win a championship the past two seasons and we have got to take steps to change and improve. Without a doubt, Korey will be in the Hall of Fame, but right now from a contractual and personnel standpoint we have to challenge that position in camp. There was reluctance on his part to be challenged and for us there are simply no free passes in June.”
Leadership too is a significant factor in personnel changes, but not something Buono will consistently put ahead of an overall team dynamic.
“We have a lot of leadership on this team, it’s not one or two guys,” confirms Benevides. “We’ve never had a lot of patience for head-cases regardless of what they bring to the table so yes, there has to be a balance between talent, discipline and leadership.”
“To me, leadership doesn’t always have to present itself in a vocal way. Even as a coach I knew certain players will begin to not hear your voice after a while,” admits Buono. “I can tell you however, the leadership we get from a guy like Adam Bighill is different than that of Dante Marsh or Paul McCallum or Travis Lulay or Solomon Elimimian. Trust me, we’re not in short supply of leadership on this team by any means.”
With a productive week under their belt and more to come as the season draws closer, Buono and Benevides continue to shape the squad in their own way.
“Each season brings changes even if you win it all,” admits Benevides. “This is a process and I’m confident that when we get to Kamloops for training camp we’re going to have a very difficult time making decisions on players. That’s exactly the kind of problem you like to have each year.”
In the meantime, the process continues with March being a key month on the player personnel calendar. The CFL has two regional combines in Edmonton and Montreal before the main event in Toronto later in the month.
“We’re a long way from June and we’re a long way from done,” assures Buono.