VANCOUVER — John Hufnagel is lucky.
The Calgary Stampeders head coach is lucky in the way that, oh, Scotty Bowman was lucky when Larry Robinson would get injured and he’d have to make do with Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe on the Montreal Canadiens’ blue line.
Lucky in the way that Jackie Parker was lucky when the late Edmonton Eskimos coach could only choose from among Matt Dunigan, Damon Allen and Tracy Ham to play behind the centre.
That kind of luck. The kind you plan.
When Hufnagel’s Stamps roll into BC Place Stadium Friday night for their final, er, pre-post-season game — already guaranteed first place, so with nothing to gain by risking anything important prior to the West final at McMahon Stadium in two weeks — Hufnagel could put the names of his three quarterbacks in a hat and offer to let a reporter pick one, and still not get it wrong.
He could start No. 3 pivot Bo Levi Mitchell, thereby giving nothing away about his playoff plans for Kevin Glenn and Drew Tate, and might be able to beat the B.C. Lions, anyway, no matter how many other first-stringers sit this one out.
Mike Benevides? Not so lucky.
The B.C. coach is up there in leather-soled street shoes, walking a tightrope made of fishing line that’s strung between two fragile pillars named Buck Pierce and Travis Lulay, hoping that he can finesse some combination of the two — with maybe a small helping of rookie Thomas DeMarco tossed in — through whatever remains of the Lions’ erratic 2013 season.
The official word Thursday was that Lulay, who’s missed six weeks with a separated throwing shoulder, will dress for the game and be listed as No. 2 on the depth chart, and could even take some real snaps.
At least, Lulay thinks so. Benevides sounded more like a man who’d be happier if Pierce could go the distance, live to tell about it, and thereby make it unnecessary to risk the still-convalescing Lulay’s tender right wing until next weekend’s division semifinal in Regina, if then.
“I’m gonna keep playing Buck. He’ll start, and he’ll play as long as I feel he needs to, maybe even all the way to the end,” said the coach, though he did add: “I’ll play it by ear.”
And in Regina, in the West semifinal?
“I couldn’t tell you today. We’re just going to see where it goes.”
Risk/reward. That’s the tightrope.
Lulay’s shoulder is still sore. The 2011 CFL most outstanding player can throw, but maybe not deep.
Logic says the Lions, whose chances of beating either the Stamps or Saskatchewan Roughriders in the playoffs look highly tenuous — let alone one after the other, on the road — might be well advised to hand Pierce the ball for the duration, let Lulay have the surgery he’s all but certain to need after the season’s over, and save their bullets for next year, when the Grey Cup is in Vancouver.
But what did logic ever have to do with it?
Logic also says Pierce ought to play more cautiously, given his Sami Salo-esque injury history. Ditto Lulay, whose precious right arm is his key to employment.
But neither one is equipped with an emergency brake, and last week, when Pierce came off the bench to rally the Lions in a massive performance, including a block thrown 50 yards downfield that let Stefan Logan scamper untouched into the end zone, was the evidence.
Asked whether that block was really prudent, Pierce was incredulous.
“At this time of the year? Yes,” he said. “That’s what it’s about. Every snap, every day that I wake up, I’m a football player, and that’s what I do. I know how to play one way.”
“You can’t help but respect a guy who’s willing to sell out,” Lulay said Thursday. “I think that’s why last week, seeing him lay a couple of blocks ... that’s important for a guy who comes in mid-season and is still trying to identify with a lot of teammates who didn’t know him before.
“The guys have to trust you, and that’s a quick way to earn it, is proving you’re going to sell out. I have a ton of respect for that.”
He ought to. He plays the same way.
“Honestly, it’s a game, and when you’re in a game, you’re not thinking about all the scenarios of why you’re out there. Once the bullets are live, you’re playing a game, regardless of standings or what-have-you,” he said.
Yes, Lulay said, he might be a fraction smarter next time about lowering his right shoulder into a hit, but said that shying away wasn’t the answer.
“The guys see that. They see if you’re cowering away from something that could be perceived as selfish, they know if you’re in position to make a play and you don’t make it. If you’re a physical style of quarterback and there’s a play there to be made, you’ve got to make it.”
Neither quarterback has been given a firm plan for Friday night’s field time, but Lulay said the obvious: “Any time you’re not the starter, you’re one play away (from going in). So I will be prepared to play.”
And Benevides? He’s not looking down.
Maybe the high wire looks thin, maybe the posts are shaky, but a coach can’t just say “no thanks, I’m not going.”
“Where we are in the season right now, you’ve got to go with the guy who gives you the best chance to win, and if something doesn’t go well with that guy, you bring up the next guy,” he said. “It’s been this way the last six-seven-eight weeks since we lost (Lulay).
“It’s going to take all the quarterbacks to win. That’s what I think, it’s going to take all three at some point. If they’re healthy enough to be on the roster, they’ve got to be able to go play.”
Play intelligently? Play cautiously?
“That discussion was clearly had. I’m never going to change the way they compete,” said Benevides. “There are no tomorrows. I’m not going to pull them back. I’m going to tell them to play smart and protect the football, but goodness gracious, there’s no reason to hold anything back.”
Nothing to save it for, he said.
Nothing but the future, anyway.
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