It didn’t take long for Marcus Sayles to appreciate the kind of player Mike Reilly is.
Sayles was fresh into his rookie season with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers last year, when his team opened the regular season at home against the Reilly-led Edmonton Eskimos. Relegated to the practice roster just days earlier, the Bombers defensive back watched from the sidelines as Reilly carved up Winnipeg’s defence for 408 passing yards in a 33-30 win.
"I realized how good he was just after the first snap. He’s one of the bigger quarterbacks, he can also run," Sayles said Wednesday, as the Bombers wrapped up practice ahead of Saturday night’s season opener against Reilly's new team, the B.C. Lions, in Vancouver. "He’s a dang near-perfect passer, so he was a tough opponent. But it was a good experience going against him."
Sayles' own experience actually playing against Reilly has been a more positive one. In the first game he faced Reilly, a two-time Grey Cup champion (2011, 2015) and former league most outstanding player (2017), the Bombers won handily. Reilly was limited to just 164 passing yards and no touchdowns, while throwing two interceptions.
The other game — a 33-24 Eskimos win — came on the final week of the regular season, with the Bombers resting a number of starters after already securing a playoff spot. It didn’t seem all that impressive, then, that Reilly was more his usual self, completing 83 per cent of his passes (29 of 35) for 320 yards and one touchdown (plus an interception), while adding nine carries for 41 yards.
So, while Sayles certainly respects what Reilly has done for the league, and what he’ll bring to the Lions this season, he insists it’s less about the Lions' offence and more about what the Bombers' defence has planned. They’ve shut Reilly down in the past, and with what is a seemingly improved defence this year, there’s little reason to suggest they can’t do it again.
"We’ve always felt like we need to kind of centre on what we have to do," Sayles said before crediting the coaching staff for what’s been an intense few days of film study. "I don’t think it really matters what offence goes against us."
The level of confidence expressed by Sayles still feels new around these parts. The Bombers' defence went through a transformation last season, evolving from a team that used to get torched for yards, particularly in the passing game, to a stingy group that smothered opposing offences down the stretch and into the playoffs.
But as confident as the defence is, Reilly doesn’t discriminate against whom he punishes, and success one week certainly doesn’t guarantee victory in another. Reilly, at 34 years old, remains one of the league’s premier players, capable of controlling a game at any time or, in the case of the Lions, transforming an entire culture.
The hope in B.C. is that Reilly’s four-year, $2.9-million contract will inject new life into a club that has undergone heavy turnover on the field, and battles with issues off it, notably convincing fans to attend games.
But if anyone can do it, Reilly is a good bet.
"That’s just his personality, it’s fully down to business. If you told him, ‘Hey, this is what it takes Mike: come here at 3 a.m. and leave at midnight,’ he would do it," said Bombers middle linebacker Adam Bighill, who played two seasons with Reilly in B.C. and still considers him a close friend. "He’s going to demand the most out of the guys. And that’s what’s infectious. People gravitate towards that, and that’s why he’s so well respected and why he’s such a good player."
Reilly’s success hasn’t come without help. In Edmonton, talented receivers — including Derel Walker, Duke Williams, Vidal Hazelton and Brandon Zylstra, among others , surrounded him. In B.C., he has one of the most consistent pass-catchers in the game in Bryan Burnham, as well as Duron Carter, who, if he can keep his focus, has the potential to lead the CFL in receiving.
Bombers defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall has seen Reilly enough to know his defence will be tested with the long ball, making it a good first test for a secondary that will showcase three new starters. Hall didn’t have the numbers to back it up, but he does have his memory, and he predicts no one throws more deep passes than Reilly.
"I don’t know what the numbers say, but you just know that the receiver can be double-covered or have triple coverage and he’s going to chuck it. He has a lot of confidence in the guys that he throws to and for whatever reason they’ve come up with their fair share of explosion plays," Hall said. "That’s one of the key things for us. It’s not about playing scared or anything like that, or playing soft. It’s understanding that at any point in time that he’s going to throw the ball over the top."
Last year, Edmonton averaged a league-leading 311 passing yards per game; an average of nine yards per pass was just 0.1 yards fewer than the Hamilton Tiger-Cats for highest in the CFL. The Eskimos were also tied for second, with the Calgary Stampeders for most completions over 20 yards, with 55, with the Ticats leading the pack at 56.
But with Reilly now in B.C., surrounded by a number of new pieces on offence, it might take some time before chemistry builds. Perhaps it’s the perfect time to play Lions?
"Are they getting us at the right time? Because if you look at it… we have six new guys on defence. So there’s a feeling-out process that both teams have," said Hall. "It’s a great opportunity for us. We know what Reilly does. We’ve played well in B.C. over the years. Even though we haven’t always won, we’ve done well over there. We’re very excited about Saturday night."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.
Updated on Wednesday, June 12, 2019 at 11:41 PM CDT: Adds photo