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November 22, 2016

Moving Forward

B.C. Lions' quarterback Jonathon Jennings passes against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during first half western semifinal CFL football action in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday November 13, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

176 days after they first reported to Kamloops for training camp, BC Lions players were beginning the process of cleaning out their lockers, holding exit meetings and reflecting on an overall successful season that ended with an abrupt thud in Calgary on Sunday. And although a 42-15 loss to the CFL’s best team appeared to be a rude awakening, in the long run it will serve as motivation and a nice reminder that perhaps this Lions team is one or two steps away from ascending back into the league penthouse.

Jonathon Jennings heads to his off-season home of Columbus, Ohio a much better player than he was at this time last year. The quarterback is already looking forward to the next step.

“We’re disappointed, but we had a great season. We came a long way from last season as well. We have to work to be a team that can beat Calgary. They set the standard this year and next year hopefully we’ll be better prepared. We’ve got a core group and a foundation right now to do some great things.”

Jonathon Jennings

Jeremiah Johnson is also among those that feel building blocks have been firmly put in place.

“We’re going to be more even more hungry,” the running back said about coming back next year. “That’s a good thing. It’s (the loss) something we can kind of hang our hat on and say ‘we don’t want this taste in our mouth.’ The offseason is a big deal for us. We just have to get to it, get grinding, come back and get ready to go.”

Ryan Phillips, who has certainly been here for good times and bad, will for sure look back on 2016 as a positive one for the organization.

“It should be. Anytime you can bounce back and almost double the wins that you had last year it speaks volumes about the growth of the team and the direction they are heading in,” Phillips said.

“We came up a little bit short, we were one step from where we wanted to get to but in previous years we didn’t even win a playoff game. We have a good young nucleus.”

As is the case heading into any off-season, the group acknowledges it won’t be 100 percent the same once camp breaks at Hillside Stadium in 2017.

Johnson and fellow tailback Anthony Allen are among the list of pending free agents for Wally Buono and company to consider keeping over the next couple of months. The two-headed monster approach paid dividends as the Lions led the CFL in total rushing yards. Perhaps the most impressive part of it was the fact both players embraced it and didn’t mind if it meant sitting out a couple of games at a time. Johnson and Allen insist priority number one is to stay in the den and use the same formula in 2017.

“Most definitely, man, “Johnson said. “I want to finish my career here. The way this team is going, I most definitely do not want to miss that. I’m just blessed at what the great minds up there (front office) were thinking and I think Anthony and I both really cherished and loved the idea ”

“We’re salt and pepper, you know what I’m saying? We taste good when you put both of us on there,” Allen said. “Hopefully we can come back next year the same 1-2 punch.

We wanted to create a culture here. We said to ourselves that we’d set the tempo every day by how we practiced. There’s a lot of camaraderie here. There’s a lot of brotherhood here where we’re not just teammates and co-workers, we’re actually brothers.”

You have to commend Allen for his upbeat mentality, especially when you consider Johnson was chosen as the featured back come playoff time. Should the arrangement continue next year, the club for sure knows it will be trotting out a very capable, and fresh, running back every week.

The other side of the ball has a few uncertainties as well, including Solomon Elimimian, who would likely be considered the club’s top priority, and Phillips who did not rule out coming back for a 13th season in orange.

“I’m still going to train the same and do the things I’ve always been accustomed to doing, but at the end of the day there comes a time where you and Wally have to sit down and understand what’s best for the organization and what your value is to that organization. There’s nothing to hang my hat on. I’ve had a successful 12 years without a doubt and it’s something I want to keep going. ”

Phillips added was proud to see youngsters such as Anthony Gaitor and Chandler Fenner step in and contribute following the various injuries in the secondary. Number 21 acknowledged it would be rewarding to come back and see those guys continue to develop, although decisions will likely need to be made with Ronnie Yell and Steven Clarke, both lost for the year, set to become free agents as well. TJ Lee, lost for the season on July 16th with a torn achilles, also needs a new contract.

Phillips also made one thing clear: If he plays football in 2017, it will be here and nowhere else. “That’s not something I’ve ever wanted to do,” the Seattle native said about switching teams. “I’m going to continue to be a BC Lion for a lifetime and that’s my mindset every single week in and week out.”

It was, in many ways a season to remember. Following last season’s achilles injury, Elimimian bounced back to the elite form that won him the CFL Most Outstanding Player Award in 2015 and will head to Toronto as a nominee for top defensive honours at the Awards show Thursday night. Elimimian and Adam Bighill became the first teammates to record over 100 tackles in the same season in league history. Jennings was only the fourth Lions’ QB ever to eclipse 5,000 passing yards in a season while Manny Arceneaux and Bryan Burnham both had over 1,000 yards in receiving.

Jennings admits he won’t spend the next 3-4 months thinking about his personal stats. “I still wasn’t good enough,” Jennings stated. “That’s the goal every off-season to better yourself. I need to understand the game even better, I want to come back even more physically prepared and I’m exicited for the challenge ahead.”

They may have come up short of the ultimate prize, but the feeling and vibes in the locker room are a lot more positive than this time last year.

Buono Speaks On Offseason and Free Agency

One thing we know for sure is that Wally Buono will be back as both GM and head coach in 2017. The CFL’s all-time wins leader had a huge impact on the club after returning to the sidelines following a four-year absence in which they regressed every season in the win column. The 66-year old will be a busy man with a total of 24 free agents to consider bringing back. He was asked specifically about Elimimian. “We know the value of Solomon, so that’s not going to be the issue,” Buono said. “The issue is we have a cap, we’re right up against it this year and obviously there is going to be some tough decsions going forward.” Elimimian reminded the inquiring minds he has taken pay cuts in previous years. After once again leading the league in defensive stops, his value is no doubt as high as it has ever been. Would he be willing to do so one more time in order to help the club either upgrade or keep players at other positions? It could turn into one of the biggest offseason questions. For now, number 56’s top priority is heading to Toronto where he is once again nominated for the CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player Award. Buono has been in the game long enough to know that with every offseason comes tough decisions when it comes to finalizing your roster. “You have to build a competitive football team. We did last year, we made some decisions that maybe some people questioned and we’re going to sit down as we always do and evaluate the whole thing.”

Matt Baker:mbaker@bclions.com