SURREY, B.C. — The B.C. Lions proved during the last half of the season they have the potential to be a very good football team next year, one capable of challenging for the Grey Cup in their own, rebuilt stadium.
Over the next few weeks Wally Buono will decide if he’s the best person to help the Lions fulfil that potential. The question Buono faces is does he want to continue his role as coach and general manager, or would the team be better served by him turning the coaching duties over to someone else?
“I’ve not answered the question,” Buono said Tuesday. “This is not a job you casually (take). It’s not a nine-to-five type of job.
“This is a good football club that needs to take another step. You have to create an environment where that can be possible.”
The Lions suffered a heartbreaking, 41-38 overtime loss to the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Sunday’s CFL West semifinal. It was a game few people thought B.C. would be playing in after starting the season a dismal 1-7.
The Lions spent Tuesday morning cleaning out their lockers and signing footballs for each other.
There were handshakes and a few hugs.
The frustration of losing in the opening playoff game was eased a little by some of the year’s accomplishments.
A team stocked with 23 first-year players, and led by a sophomore quarterback who started as a backup, went 7-3 down the stretch to clinch the final playoff spot with an 8-10 record.
“There is good reason to be optimistic,” said quarterback Travis Lulay. “It seems like a lot of good things are in place.
“We came a long way. That is definitely something to build on.”
Buono wants to finish what he started. But after back-to-back 8-10 seasons, the 60-year-old general manager must decide if he is the right coach for the job.
“The biggest question is what’s best for the organization,” said Buono, whose 243 regular-season victories is more than any other CFL coach.
“I think that’s why it’s important to discuss that with people who I value their opinion.
“It’s not something I want to delay too long because I don’t think that’s right. One way or the other the decision has to be made, then we will go forward.”
Veteran centre Angus Reid expects Buono to be on the sidelines in 2011.
“I don’t think he’s going anywhere,” said Reid. “He believed in this team he built when a lot of people told him not to. He proved himself right again.
“Having the Grey Cup here and having a team that’s on the up and up, I think he’s going to want to see this group through. He built this team. I think he’s going to want to see his plan keep going forward.”
Vancouver will host the Grey Cup next November in a refurbished B.C. Place. The stadium is undergoing $565 million in renovations, including installation of a retractable roof.
Maturity played a big role in the Lions’ turnaround. First-year players like linebacker and rookie of the year nominee Solomon Eliminian, cornerback Stanley Franks, offensive lineman Jovan Olafioye and wide receiver Steven Black rewarded Buono’s patience by improving as the season progressed.
Lulay, the 27-year-old from Salem, Ore., gained poise and confidence. He stepped into the starter’s role when Buono made the decision to release Casey Printers in October. Lulay completed 28-of 49 passes for 357 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in his first playoff start.
“As the year went along I felt more and more comfortable,” said Lulay. ”I think my teammates felt that around me.
“We look at the second half of the season as something we can build on.”
The Lions made a lot of strides forward this season. What they can’t do now is take a step backwards.
“This team must start at the level they are at today,” said Buono. “We don’t want to start over again.
“That’s maybe where we made a mistake this year. We started at the bottom and we were at the bottom for a while.”
The Lions face several personnel decisions over the winter.
Second-year wide receiver Emmanuel Arceneaux, who made the dramatic touchdown catch to force Sunday’s overtime, is entering his option year but could test the NFL this winter.
“Time will tell,” said Arceneaux, who had 67 catches for 1,114 yards and five touchdowns this year. “I wouldn’t mind being back here.”
Reid and defensive end Brent Johnson also must decide their futures.
Reid wasn’t happy at training camp when he was made a backup to Dean
Valli. An injury to Valli returned Reid to the starting centre role.
The 34-year-old from Richmond, B.C., won’t return to the Lions unless he starts.
“I still want to play football but I want to play in a situation where I think I should be,” Reid said. “I think I can still start and play well.”
Johnson was supposed to be part of a rotation this season. Injuries left him a starter, and he responded with seven sacks and being voted a West Division all-star.
The 33-year-old from Kingston, Ont., who now lives in Vancouver, won’t play anywhere else but B.C.
“I won’t come back if I didn’t think I could still be relevant and play an important role on this team,” he said.