It was a celebratory night for the Lions. Their 2011 Grey Cup banner was hoisted before the game, receiver Geroy Simon set the CFL’s all-time receiving yards record with a 56-yard catch, and Mike Benevides, the sideline successor for legend Wally Buono, won his first game as Lions head coach.
Walking off the field following the 33-16 win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Friday, Simon said the Lions are poised for all comers: “Guys are going to be going gunning for us, being defending Grey Cup champions. We’ll be ready for everybody’s best shot.”
The Lions looked like a team that has the makings of a repeat champion, with almost all starters on both sides of the line back this year. Friday's win extended the 12-1 run that ended 2011. Any hint of a CFL dynasty has been rare since Edmonton ended a run of five in 1982. Since then, only two teams have repeated, Toronto, in 1996 and 1997, Montreal, in 2009 and 2010.
And the Lions have the essential element with a star quarterback, Travis Lulay, last year’s outstanding player and Grey Cup MVP. The 96-97 Argos were led by Doug Flutie, who was MVP of the league and Grey Cup both seasons. For Montreal, Anthony Calvillo was the league’s outstanding player the two years he led Grey Cup teams, though he didn’t win MVP in his either of his Grey Cup squeakers (winning both by a combined four points).
On Friday night, Lulay had flashes of brilliance but only threw one touchdown. Lulay’s best came running the ball, particularly the first touchdown. It capped the Lions first drive, with began with five successive first downs, and was punctuated by a five-yard dash for the score by Lulay, a sprint to the sideline, a quartet of Bombers almost within grasp, Lulay diving, his arms outstretched and the ball extended barely over the goal line.
The Lions didn’t notch another TD until the fourth quarter, so it was the Lions defence that carried most night in the season opener, yielding only 204 yards - 72 rushing and 132 passing. Winnipeg quarterback Buck Pierce threw an anemic three of nine, for 11 yards, before he was sidelined in the second quarter by a knee injury, as he was sacked for a fourth time.
The most intriguing move of the night, and perhaps telling of the season ahead for B.C., came with six minutes to go in the third quarter. The Lions had settled for another field goal, Paul McCallum’s third of the night, and held a narrow 16-10 lead.
Benevides then made an aggressive, and impressive, gamble: he called an onside kick. He obviously had big confidence in his defence, that it could hold off the Bombers in good field position if the kick wasn’t recovered. But it was, as the right-footed McCallum made a left-footed boot to the sideline, a diving Korey Banks getting his hand on the ball as it went out of bounds.
A bold, and unconventional, call, especially given the slim lead. It was a cool move from a rookie coach. Expect more of it. The call is exactly what Benevides meant when, in a recent interview with The Globe, he said: “You’ve got to attack the opponent, and find ways to create explosive plays.”
In this instance, it only half-worked: Lulay and the Lions couldn’t get the ball upfield, and the team punted. But it was a spark. Soon enough, the Lions popped a 17-point blast in the fourth quarter to close out the win.
Throughout the night, the Lions hinted they could dominate, and credit to the Winnipeg defence, and strong secondary, to hold B.C. in relative check. It does seems a good gamble that B.C. is ready for a wire-to-wire run.
Five years ago, after their 2006 Grey Cup, B.C. went 14-3-1 in 2007, the best of the league, but lost in the west final. This year’s team, says all-star centre and decade-plus veteran Angus Reid, could be the best Lions squad he’s been on.
“We don’t have cancers,” he said after a practice last week. “Someone’s not trying to outshine someone else. Everyone’s here with the right purpose. That’s very rare to find in professional sports.”
One win in, another veteran on the line, all-star left tackle Ben Archibald, sees a team with blossoming potential.
“There’s nothing definitive to say about our team yet. We’re not a finished product,” said Archibald Friday night, walking off the field.
The Superman theme played on the BC Place sound system, a tribute to the Simon and his favoured post-TD touchdown pose.
The Lions opened the 2012 campaign with a celebration, the same way they aim to end it.
“Good night,” said Archibald, smiling. “Not a perfect night, but a good night.”