It has been an off-season of change for Wally Buono.
The B.C. Lions GM and vice-president of football operations has been busy revamping his roster following the club’s heart-breaking West Division final loss to the Calgary Stampeders.
Buono dealt such veterans as defensive tackle Khalif Mitchell (to Toronto) and backup quarterback Mike Reilly (to Edmonton), released others like receiver Arland Bruce III and cornerback Byron Parker while re-signing more than 20 players, including quarterback Travis Lulay, offensive linemen Jovan Oliafoye and Ben Archibald and linebacker Solomon Elimimian in an attempt to earn B.C. its second Grey Cup title in three seasons.
But no move was more significant than the trading of 14-year veteran slotback Geroy Simon — the CFL’s all-time receiving yards leader — to the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Jan. 24 for receiver Justin Harper and a 2014 third-round pick. Simon, who spent 12 seasons with the Lions, needs just 29 catches to break Ben Cahoon’s CFL record of 1,017 career receptions.
Simon, 37, missed five games last year with hamstring problems, limiting him to 54 catches for 700 yards and two touchdowns. It marked the first time in 10 seasons Simon hadn’t cracked the 1,000-yard plateau.
“For us, 2013 is a time of change,” Buono said during a CFL conference call Wednesday. “The change, obviously when you consider the fact we traded Geroy Simon, is a significant thing.
“He’s a class act and we’re going to miss him but at the end of the day my job is to make sure we field the most competitive team. The off-season has been very very very busy but I think it has been very very positive.”
Buono has never shied away from making tough personnel decisions. He released Hall of Fame slotback Alan Pitts following the 2000 season in Calgary and also cut receiver Jason Clermont, twice the CFL’s top Canadian with B.C., after the ’08 campaign.
It’s that eye for talent and knack for knowing when a veteran’s best days are behind him that have helped Buono register a CFL-record 254 career coaching victories and record-tying five Grey Cup titles. Buono has also been named the league’s coach of the year four times, second only to Don Matthews, who had five.
Buono said even if B.C. had successfully defended its 2011 Grey Cup title, changes would’ve been made this off-season.
“You can’t allow everybody to age all at the same time,” Buono said. “It’s a tough business, we all know that.
“But my job is to provide (Lions head coach Mike Benevides) with what he wants and his job is to win football games. At the end of the day I think we put ourselves in that position.”
Benevides, who replaced Buono as Lions coach after ’11 campaign, agreed.
“It was a tremendously disappointing result, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “But those changes would’ve occurred anyways.”
One player still on Buono’s radar is receiver Emmanuel Arceneaux, who played with B.C. in 2009-’10 before joining the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings. Arceneaux was waived Wednesday by the New York Jets but Buono said the move was expected and Arceneaux, 25, would re-sign with the NFL club Thursday.
“Manny is a player I have high regard for and I know this organization does to,” Buono said. “We’ve stayed in constant touch . . . and he lets me know how things are going.
“We wish him the best but if he was available we’d have a definite interest.”
But it’s not as if B.C.’s roster needs revamping. The Lions posted a league-best 13-5 record last year but their season came to an abrupt halt with a 34-29 home loss to Calgary in the West final.
And that was a bitter pill to swallow for Benevides, a Toronto native and the CFL’s lone Canadian-born head coach.
“It (2012 season) was a dream come true for a Canadian kid born in this country who now gets to be a head coach in this great league,” Benevides said. “The players did everything I asked of them.
“Unfortunately on the last day . . . we weren’t able to win that last game and that’s probably the hardest part. But you have to look at the entire body of work and I’m proud of the organization and players.”
Benevides’ coaching staff returns relatively intact as offensive co-ordinator Jacques Chapdelaine will also work directly with the team’s receivers after receivers coach Travis Moore didn’t return. Jarious Jackson, Lulay’s backup during B.C.’s 2011 Grey Cup run who earned another ring last year with Toronto, is also back with the Lions but as their quarterbacks coach.
It’s a move Lulay, the 2011 CFL outstanding player, approves.
“He’s a guy I’ve run the gamut with in terms of playing the position and to get Jarious back is something I’m excited about.” Lulay said. “He started three of four games last year and threw a TD pass in the Grey Cup which was the last game played in our league, so it doesn’t get fresher than that.”
Lulay said continuity in the Lions’ coaching staff is pivotal heading into the 2013 season.
“It’s important from a player’s perspective knowing you’re going to battle with guys on the staff you’ve been there before with,” he said. “Much of the staff is here that we won a championship with in 2011.”
One of Buono’s biggest off-season moves was re-signing Lulay, 29, to a contract extension reportedly worth $450,000 annually, making him one of the CFL’s highest-paid players. Lulay had a career-best 66.5 per cent completion average last year, passing for 4,231 yards with 27 TD tosses and just 10 interceptions.
Even without either Simon or Bruce III, B.C.’s receiving corps is rich in Canadian talent with the likes of Akeem Foster, Shawn Gore, Marco Iannuzzi and Paris Jackson. Winnipeg native Andrew Harris is also a dual at running back — rushing for 1,112 yards last year while adding 75 catches for 718 yards and four TDs.
The return of Oliafoye — the CFL’s top lineman last year — Archibald and veteran centre Angus Reid will certainly help keep Lulay upright. That’s good, too, considering Lulay was hampered with back issues during B.C.’s recent mini-camp after enduring a late-season shoulder ailment in 2012.
And with the start of training camp less than a month away, Lulay says he’s healthy.
“I don’t know where the back thing came from . . . it was a 48-hour thing and has been fine ever since,” he said. “The shoulder feels great, obviously it did slow me down a little bit at the end of last season . . . but physically, I feel great.”
The return of linebackers Elimimian and Adam Bighill (re-signed to an extension in off-season) anchors a defence that last season was the CFL’s best. Benevides said Elimimian and Bighill will combine with veteran Anton McKenzie to give defensive co-ordinator Rich Stubler plenty of options.
“They’re going to be extremely dynamic and used in multiple ways,” Benevides said. “It’s going to be really, really great for us to have that.”
The return of veteran defensive backs Dante Marsh, Lin-J Shell and Korey Banks gives a rugged secondary continuity. But safety Cauchy Muamba joined his brother, Henoc, in Winnipeg as a free agent.
Benevides said veteran J.R. LaRose will get a shot at replacing Muamba.
“He has the (first) right of refusal right now,” Benevides said. “He’s going to have to make sure he makes strides to take that job in training camp.”
Last season, Benevides asked his players to perform hard in training camp but plans to take a different approach when veterans report next month.
“I’m really going to try to make it about teaching and making sure we empower our players to understand what it is that’s expected of them,” Benevides said. “We’re going to try to employ more teaching to minimize some of the contact and protect the players, not only from injury but just try to keep them fresh so we start the season strong and fast.
“I think ultimately what we are is teachers so if we use the time to teach and get these guys prepared to play fast we’ll be better for it.”