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Flashback to 1996: Independence Day, starring a 27-year old Will Smith, was the top box office movie, breaking a previous record set by Terminator 2: Judgement Day for the highest-grossing opening weekend ever.
The Macarena ended the year as the Billboard number one music hit, causing millions of folks to make fools of themselves at weddings and parties alike.
Jaromir Jagr was still sporting his famous mullet and playing for his first NHL team: the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Point taken: it was a long time ago.
1996 was also the last time members of the BC Lions were cleaning out their lockers in the first week of November. With the Grey Cup dream over following a disappointing and somewhat surprising 7-11 campaign, running back Jeremiah Johnson was still trying to comprehend it all.
“It was almost surreal coming in here later than 11:00 and knowing that there’s no game plan going to be ready for you, but just like King Tut said, the great philosopher, ‘it is what it is.’ We just have to swallow it, lick our wounds and for the guys coming back we just have to ramp it up and make (2018) it our year,” Johnson said.
Different people have different theories as to what went wrong. Some have referenced the August home-and-home series with Saskatchewan where they let the foot off the gas in a 4th quarter win and the Riders used that momentum to crush them 41-8 the next week in Regina. A second victory over the Riders would have given Johnson and company a 6-2 record, and effectively a ten-point cushion on Saskatchewan when you factor in the head to head tiebreaker.
“It’s really hard to say, man,” Johnson explained.
“I could just say from a broad spectrum, as a team, we just couldn’t find that edge of just being dominate every game. That’s something that’s more learned than done instinctively. We just want to make sure next year we get the young guys’ and veterans guys’ mindset right, and just get this thing going full speed.”
For slotback and pending free agent Emmanuel Arceneaux, the warning signs came much earlier.
“You can kind of say week one when Edmonton came in here in that game we were up and let slip through our hands,” Arceneaux said.
“We kind of overlooked it because we went on a roll, won two or three in a row and figured maybe we were on a roll. When you’re winning, it kind of masks everything.”
“We were able to beat teams, but early in the season those teams weren’t that good. When we faced Western opponents, it seemed like we always faced adversity. It was just a lack of execution all season long and the one thing that got us over the hump was when we were facing teams that actually weren’t that good. At times we showed that we gelled and wanted to play winning football, but we were just too inconsistent to do anything this season.”
Arceneaux is coming off yet another 1,000-yard season and just hit the 100-reception mark for the second time in his pro career. Re-signing him should be at the top of the club’s priority list this winter.
“My main (offseason) goal is to do Tough Mudder and wait for my Son to be born in February, but I would love to finish my career out here in BC,” he said.
“They’ve been loyal to me for seven seasons, I love the community and everything is just great. We just have to change some things around here, get some guys in that really want to actually win, come to work with their hard hat and lunch pail and that’s just what I preach about the culture. If they can mix some of those guys in, I’d love to be here.”
One might suggest you can write a book on how confusing the 64th season in franchise history went down. Prized free agent addition Chris Williams never truly hit his stride after being activated from the injured list. You can also point to the injuries for both Jonathon Jennings and Travis Lulay as defining moments. Jennings going down in a week four victory in Hamilton set motion a quarterback shuffle that led to serious consequences.
The veteran Lulay torched the Tiger-Cats for 436 yards and helped lead an amazing fourth quarter comeback win over the Blue Bombers one week later. Jennings returned to action in that fateful visit to Saskatchewan and was benched following a 31-25 loss at Ottawa on August 25th.
In the next contest at home to Montreal, Lulay suffered his season-ending knee injury on the game’s second play from scrimmage. After that victory, they closed out 2017 by winning just one of their final six games. It all begs the question: How big a role did Lulay’s injury play in the team’s demise?
“Its all opinions, its all speculation, but it could be,” Johnson said when asked if it was a valid excuse.
“Lulay came back and he is doing his thing, and unfortunately he busts his knee. At that point the season is not done. We still had a good quarterback in JJ, and as a team we just couldn’t pull it together.”
Added Arceneaux: “A lot of guys rally and cling to Trav. He’s just a good dude, he has been in the league for so long, he knows what it is he’s seeing out there. Travis is just a good energy guy. Jennings is a good quarterback, but he hit a little lull and a little slump this year. I think guys can use this offseason to hit a refresh button, get their minds right and actually achieve those goals that they set and wrote down coming into training camp.”
Now the evaluation process begins. Every 20 years or so, you need a wake up call.
As the players were emptying their lockers downstairs, the Lions’ super boss for the last 15 seasons held court with media members in the upstairs boardroom. Will he be back for a 16th season guiding this ship? That has been the lingering question, even before the squad was mathematically eliminated from playoff contention on October 20th.
One thing we do know: Owner David Braley has no intention of selling the franchise right away.
“David was very clear to me today that he was going to own the club for 2018,” Buono explained.
“I think that’s something needs to be definite. We need to have definite direction. It applies with David, with the business part of the organization and the football part of the organization.”
Now that the ownership question has been settled (for now), Buono still maintains he will need to act quickly on announcing his future. His contract as General Manager/Head Coach expires in February.
“I told him we need to get our exit stuff done with the players, I need to sit down with the coaches tomorrow to give them some clarity on where we’re at and then the process will start with David after that.”
As for how hard a decision it will be for the CFL all-time wins leader to continue the day-to-day grind of both roles, he had this to say:
“I am conflicted and I should be. The onus really shouldn’t be on me. It should be on the players and coaches. It’s been tough on them too. They had their own goals, their own sites set on achieving. It’s been very disappointing. They’re the ones who have to go out there every week, play and win football games. That’s why they’re labelled as professionals. I’ve never enjoyed exit day. Even after you’ve won win the Grey Cup, it’s a difficult day. When you look out there you know there is always going to be players in that room that won’t be back. There’s always staff our there that won’t be back. Sometimes it’s their choice, sometimes it’s your choice.”
If indeed he does decide to go out this way, it may be a sense of Deja Vu. The only other time Buono missed the playoffs as a head coach came in his final season in Calgary in 2002. His Stampeders were only one year removed from winning the Grey Cup, and had much of their same core pieces back the following season. Braley and then-President Bobby Ackles capitalized on the Stamps’ setback and lured Buono out west in perhaps the greatest coup in Lions modern history. None of it can darken any of Buono’s accomplishments, but he acknowledged the fact 2017 would sting for a long time.
“It was a year of optimism that turned into a year of disappointment,” he said.
“The one thing I will say: the players hung in there. They played hard most of the games. When you’re 7-11, you can’t say it’s one of the most memorable seasons, right? (It’s) very frustrating because you can see the outcome could have been different. If we executed better, if we were more disciplined, some of those games could have gone the other way.”
It hurts when you break those close ones down. There was the 24-23 loss to Hamilton on September 22nd; a contest where the defence couldn’t get off the field on a third and six in the dying seconds. That dropped them to 6-7 and sent them into an apprehensive bye week. Upon returning to work, they blew an 11-point 4th quarter lead and fell 30-25 to the Ottawa REDBLACKS. From there, it really felt the 20-year playoff journey was going to come to an abrupt end.
Back in training camp we were all hopeful for November to be an eventful month. It appears it still may be, but not for the reasons many had anticipated.