VANCOUVER — Out of the playoffs for the first time in 21 years, the B.C. Lions are trying make something out of two meaningless games to salvage a remarkably disappointing season.
That's the stated goal of coach/GM Wally Buono, but with ownership and coaching issues hovering over the Lions, delivering results could prove exceedingly difficult.
At least five players will likely be activated off the practice roster and make their league debuts when the 6-10 Lions travel to face the 11-5 Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Saturday. For the Lions, the game represents nothing more than an opportunity to evaluate replacements on a roster which is in need of upgrades in several areas.
The play of quarterback Jon Jennings, who has the lowest passer rating among starters, tops the list. B.C. is also last in sacks and pressures made and allowed on both sides of the line of scrimmage, and tied for last in the turnover ratio.
Making matters worse, however, is the uncertainty surrounding the future of Buono, the league's career coaching victories leader, and whether the team owned by David Braley since 1996 will remain in the hands of the 76-year-old Hamilton businessman.
Braley told reporters last week he was unlikely to engage in sale talks with prospective buyers until it has been a determined if a concussion-related lawsuit brought by former receiver Arland Bruce will be heard on appeal by the Supreme Court off Canada.
Buono has a contract to serve in his current dual capacity until Feb. 1 and as a consultant until August. Buono said he would like to know if he is needed but hasn't spoken to Braley about his future, and has no plans to do so until the Lions have completed their schedule.
That hasn't stopped calls for clarity, however, and Buono met with his team prior to their 35-29 overtime loss Saturday to the Edmonton Eskimos to answer concerns from players as to who might be in charge of their future. Some 24 players will be eligible for free agency in the off-season.
Buono said he told them about the importance of a strong finish, regardless of who might lead the Lions.
"You want to know what a player's all about? See what how he handles adversity," Buono said. "I still think to this day our team has handled that very well. All you really can do is appeal to players to their pride and the fact their name is on the back of their jersey."
With little on the line, some players are admitting they could have done more to avoid a season which is ending with shoving matches between players on the sidelines and harsh words by coaches to each other during games. Buono said last week he may have taken a playoff spot for granted and wondered if his players might have done the same thing.
"If anyone doesn't think they could have done more, they're lying," said veteran receiver Marco Iannuzzi, who announced hours after the Lions were eliminated last week that he will conclude a seven-year CFL career and retire at the end of the season.
"It was a perfect storm. We all took our turns at doing something wrong or poorly. I'll take a lot of blame in the locker-room. We needed more veteran leadership. There's just too many young voices when there should be more voices of older guys."
Iannuzzi, a Harvard grad who has already established a successful career as an investment adviser, said he has made it known to those seeking to buy the Lions that he would like to have a managerial or advisory role in an ownership group.
Until a sale occurs, however, Buono can only focus on evaluation. Despite the glaring holes on the line of scrimmage and in their return game on special teams, the Lions still have a promising nucleus.
Emmanuel Arceneaux and Bryan Burnham should each hit the 1,000-yard mark in receiving against Winnipeg, though tailback Jeremiah Johnson may miss the 1,000-yard rushing mark as an expected healthy scratch Saturday. Another starter who will be out is offensive lineman Hunter Steward, who was on crutches Wednesday after suffering a sprained ankle and will not play in the final two games.
Linebacker Solomon Elimimian could break his own league record of 143 defensive tackles with two games to go. Nine players who are either their first or second seasons are starting or making significant contributions
"We did a good job of finishing our close games last year. It nipped us in the bud this year," said receiver Shaquille Johnson, who has better numbers in his second CFL season than veterans Iannuzzi, Nick Moore and Chris Williams. "The dice just didn't roll our way."
Lowell Ullrich, The Canadian Press