Lions 2008 - Great expectations

[b]Lions 2008: Great expectations[/b] Matching last season's record-setting campaign will be tough. Win the Grey Cup? Then all is forgiven

Mike Beamish
Vancouver Sun

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The New England Patriots had a clear shot at history, chasing their fourth championship in seven years in Super Bowl XLII. They were on the verge of being the only NFL team to go 19-0. Then the New York Giants pulled their Cinderella Man act.

It was James J. Braddock decisioning Max Baer, Rocky Balboa knocking out Apollo Creed, Big Brown fading in the stretch run of the Belmont Stakes.

Giants 17, Patriots 14. The Pats not only lost their date with destiny, but their moral authority was in tatters after a spying scandal revealed New England coach Bill Belichick to be as principled as Barry Bonds.

B.C. Lions head coach Wally Buono was sick on two counts: Both because he was disgusted by Belichick's cheating and the sudden-ness of New England's fall. It resurrected the same feeling of crushing emptiness he experienced when the Lions were upended 26-17 by the Saskatchewan Roughriders in last year's West Division final.

Anyone who has followed the league casually over the past five seasons knows that the Lions have been above the rest of the CFL, in the manner of the Patriots in the NFL. There was even stray, premature talk of an undefeated season in 2005 when the Leos went 11-0. Then things started going wrong, very quickly. The Lions lost six of their next seven games, including the West final to Edmonton, and spent Grey Cup week in Vancouver packing up their gear in garbage bags.

More than anyone, Buono knows the vulnerabilities of the coaching profession - how injuries, karma, egos, bounces, critical calls; a whole host of factors beyond your control - can wreck the best-laid plans. He is confident that his 2008 team will be very good, if it stays healthy and plays well. But beyond that, there are no guarantees, other than a 14-win season will be difficult to repeat, as the Lions gear up for Thursday's regular-season opener in Calgary.

Buono said the same thing last year, but in a different context, when the Lions were attempting to become just the second team since 1982 to win back-to-back championships. And he was right - a franchise-record 14-3-1 didn't get him an invite to the big dance.

"We might have better ingredients than last year, but I don't know if we'll be a better team than last year," Buono admits. "You can't deny winning 14 games and losing only three. That's not an easy feat to duplicate. The only thing I can say is, we made progress during training camp and pre-season."

Since the Edmonton Eskimos ran the table with five Grey Cup wins from 1978-82, only the 1996-97 Toronto Argonauts, a team with Doug Flutie at quarterback, have been able to win back-to-back titles. By definition, a dynasty in pro sports is winning back to back to-back. So there really hasn't been a dynasty in the CFL in more than a quarter century. In Calgary, Buono had three straight seasons (1993-95) in which the Stampeders were a dynasty-in-the-making, going 15-3 each year. None of those teams won the Grey Cup, however; only one even made it to the final. Dynasty dashed.

By comparison, since 1982 the NFL has seen four repeat champions (San Francisco, 1989-90; Dallas, 1993-94; Denver, 1999-2000 and the Patriots, 2004-2005). In theory, staying on top should be harder in the NFL. There are 32 teams vs. eight in the CFL and the rules favour dislodging the champion. The more successful you are, the more difficult the NFL makes the schedule.

The reward for a 14-3-1 season is that the Lions get to do it all over again, with correspondingly more pressure than last year. Since the Buono regime began in Vancouver in 2003, B.C. has won a CFL-best 63 games, losing only 26, with one tie. There have been two Grey Cup appearances, but only one championship. The Lions have the superficial look of a dynasty, though not the patina.

"Oh, no, a dynasty is a team that wins championships," Buono says. "We've been a very good team - let's leave it at that. A dynasty, why that's what the [Montreal] Canadiens were [1975-79], that's what the Eskimos were. It's hard to do, physically and emotionally, and it's hard to keep your team together. When the Eskimos did it, players weren't playing out their options. They always controlled the roster and they always had the next guy in line - Warren Moon, Tracy Ham, Matt Dungian, Damon Allen. At that time, you could develop a dynasty because you could horde all those good players."

When you win, everybody wants more, everybody thinks they're better than they're really worth. Remarkably, in a league where players will change teams for an extra $5,000, Buono has been able to keep his core of veterans intact. The lesson, he says, is spend money on the indispensible players, up to the allowable limit of your budget and the $4.2-million salary cap, and trust your scouts to draft and find winners at other positions.

Buono believes that his core veterans and best players develop a winning culture, one where players are tough in games, serious in practice, where draft picks and free agents have somebody staying on their case if they coast in drills or become distracted in the film room. Winning also makes players think twice about moving on because they want to be part of a situation where very-goodness, if not greatness, is just another day at the office.

Though he has the final say, Buono surrounds himself with smart football people like Roy Shivers, Bob O'Billovich and his position coaches.

Considering the productivity of their previous partnership in Calgary, Shivers was the first person Buono dialed when he needed a replacement for O'Billovich, the Lions' player personnel director who was named GM of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Shivers and O'Billovich have been given much credit for defining Buono's career, helping the rich get richer by providing a golden talent base that runs the gamut from Allen Pitts to Cameron Wake. Yet Shivers says Buono's skill at picking the right players should never be underestimated.

"Most coaches don't know crap about personnel," Shivers says. "They're too involved with Xs and Os. But Don [Matthews, the retired all-time winningest CFL coach] and Wally are the best coaches I've ever worked with in knowing personnel. I give him my input, Wally listens to me, but that's it. I let Wally make his own choices."

Buono went to training camp knowing he has a team capable of playing championship-level football again. Roster churn is what flawed teams do. His job was to tweak and fill in the blanks: A back-up running back/returner (Stefan Logan), a fifth receiver (Clarence Coleman), an extra defensive back (Reggie Myles), a third quarterback (Zac Champion).

"If Wally can get three or four guys out of camp, he's happy," Shivers says. "That's all you want, too. Good teams don't need to make a lot of changes."

The given is that the Lions will be very good again. A great team? That designation is much harder to come by and, for Buono, much more elusive.

But the composition is there to be a Grey Cup champion. It's left to the competition, and the fates, to determine if the Lions will be treated as such.

sixbeamers@aol.com

Good article. Very interesting.

Thanks for the post RLR.

My pleasure Kobe, I thought it was an interesting article as well.

.....I agree, good article, this was the best line...

The Lions have the superficial look of a dynasty, though not the patina.
...in fact, I think Hufnagel used it on the chalkboard tonight...

Thats nice! yawn!

It was the arrogance of the Lions that proved there undoing. It seems they have learned little from last year. And this same article but with a note about High expectations regarding home teams appears in Each team city. BC has High expectations for the Lions - the majority of sports writers pick Toronto this year.
I'm pulling for my riders this year myself :slight_smile:

One of the things that made them great last year was that they were 5-1-1 in games that were decided by 7 points or less. Most teams don't have that kind of success in the close games.

edit
An interesting note here. The Riders were 4-2 in the close games last year, with one of those losses being to BC.

Good team - yes. Dynasty - no. It doesn't matter anyway. They will meet Calgary in West final. So...fuggetaboutit.

RLR where did Superman Simon go? Is he like Waldo we have to look for him. LOL Anyway you guys might want to change the outlook for those expectations. That oline for the Lions did they exist?

'''Leos looked average in this game....Stamps have made 'big' improvements...and may be the team to beat in the west....I'm seeing a fragile qb. at the leos pivot spot...and i thought that they got rid of that problem when they dumped D.D..... If Jackson doesn't pick up his game they could be in a lot of trouble...Good game to watch all in all... :thup:

The final score was flattering to the Lions--- Calgary clearly outplayed them in all facets of the game. Well done Stamps.
QB situation with lions is suspect as I said in pre-season predictions. The two touchdowns (by the lions) were not well thrown balls just great adjustments by receivers as was simon's catch. The lions are in trouble. Only Saskatchewan has an equal question mark at QB. The rest of the teams clearly have better quarterbacks.
A long season for the Leos! It started with the shellacking they got in Regina in exhibition season for all to see their many weaknesses.

Maybe the Lions are just trying to keep it interesting by starting 0-1. :lol:

I'm sure thats what the lions fans are saying. lol.

Can't win 'em all, but I'm pretty sure the Lions will win most games this year. Not playing like that, however. Lions didn't even show up last night to play.

Its difficult to compete when your gettin punched in the mouth on almost every play. Pierce, Clermont and Simon all got rocked.

Stamps must know how it feels, they were 2-11 in their last 13 against the Lions. Can't win em all I guess, odds are the Stamps are going to have to beat the Lions once in a while. They can have this one, at least it was a road loss.

And the beauty of it is that it was just one game.

It's a new season and a new team. Quit bringing up the past.

But it's all he has... :frowning:

The past matters babycakes. Enjoy that 1 win, you guys played great and we played just awful. I still think we'll win the West given the Lions show up. I'm still not too worried, given that's the worst I've seen the Lions play and the best the Stamps have played. Get all that shit outta their system now and start playing some football next week against the Riders.

Well there's not much present considering one game has been played out of 18. But if you want to base the entire season on this one game go right ahead. I guess the Lions will go 0-18 this season, maybe I should stop being a fan.

Talk to me when Calgary's actually accomplished something other than winning a home opener. They have 3 wins against Buono in the last 14 games, not much to brag about there.