B.C. Lions named Canadian Press team of the year

Sports editors and broadcasters across Canada voted for the BC Lions as 2011 team of the year, ahead of the Vancouver Canucks.

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“If you were to write a story on your life as a coach over 22 years . . . you’d have to be a fairly creative person to be able to script it this way,” Buono said. “The nice thing is you’ll be remembered as a winner . . . although at the end of it I never perceived myself as a winner or loser, I’ve always felt I’ve been a good person who has been willing and able to help people.

“If I’ve been a positive influence on them, hey, that’s even better.”

B.C.’s nightmarish start hit rock bottom Aug. 13 when a struggling Lulay was benched during a 30-17 loss to Winnipeg. But Simon said there was no finger-pointing inside the Lions’ locker-room — the team’s self-belief never wavered.

“We stuck together,” he said. “Even when things weren’t going right there were no fights in the locker-room and I think this was the first year I’ve been around a team that didn’t have one fight in the locker-room or on the field.

“I think that just showed the character of the people we had and how we played for one another.”

Lulay quickly justified Buono’s faith in him. In his first full season as the starter, Lulay finished second in CFL passing behind Montreal’s Anthony Calvillo and was tied with the Alouettes’ star with 31 TD strikes en route to being named the league’s outstanding player.

Lulay capped his breakout season in style, passing for 320 yards and two TDs to be named the Grey Cup MVP. But he certainly had plenty of help getting the Lions back on track.

Simon, 36, was again the anchor of B.C.’s receiving corps. The 13-year veteran was the league’s second-leading receiver with 84 catches for 1,350 yards and eight TDs. He’ll enter next season needing just 67 yards to break Milt Stegall’s all-time record of 15,153.

However, a turning point came Aug. 3 when B.C. acquired slotback Arland Bruce III from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Bruce’s presence meant opposing defences couldn’t double-team either Simon or Bruce and leave the other in single coverage.

“Once Arland got into a rhythm, teams had to balance the field,” Simon said. “And when guys like Kierre Johnson, Hakeem Foster and Paris Jackson, who came on late, started getting comfortable with the system it was tough for teams to stop us.”

Bruce had just nine catches for 104 yards and no TDs when he arrived but quickly fit into B.C.’s attack, recording 49 receptions for 755 yards and eight touchdowns. Bruce added five catches for 73 yards and a TD against Winnipeg.

B.C. also sported the CFL’s top special-teams player in kicker Paul McCallum. The 41-year-old was the league’s oldest player yet hit 50 of 53 field goal attempts for a single-season record 94.3 per cent success ratio.

And then there was the Lions’ defence. The unit surrendered an average of more than 30 points in the club’s first five games yet ended the year allowing a league-low 21.4 per game and second only to Winnipeg in sacks (55 to 54).

A big part of its success was a rugged defensive front that consistently controlled the line of scrimmage. That allowed the linebacking corps, anchored by Solomon Elimimian in the middle, free to either flow to the ball or blitz for added pressure.

A secondary with more than 30 years of CFL experience and bolstered by the addition of veterans Tad Kornegay and Jerome Dennis capably provided tough man coverage downfield.

However, Johnson said Lulay’s emergence as an offensive leader was a huge factor in B.C.’s defensive improvement.

“A good defence is on the bench watching the offence operate,” he said. “Our time possession and ball possession came along at that time and started to benefit the defence.”

And that benefit was clearly evident in the Grey Cup as B.C. held Winnipeg to just 41 yards rushing and 291 total offensive yards.

“Our defence always gave us a lot of opportunities to have a short field,” said Simon. “If you get a short field in this league you can put up a lot of points.

“We also knew if we got around (opposition’s) 42-yard line Paul would put it through so we had a lot of confidence in the guys around us.”

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