Lions Game Day: Lulay vs. Lemon a battle of unlikely pivots

Mike Beamish

TORONTO — Lulay-Lemon sounds like some yoga-inspired athletic wear company.

In actual fact, they're the names of the unlikely starting quarterbacks for the B.C. Lions and Toronto Argonauts Friday at Rogers Centre.

Travis Lulay, with eight professional starts on his resume, none of them in the NFL or CFL, makes his Canadian league debut as a starter in place of injured Casey Printers. Cleo Lemon, a soon-to-be 31-year-old journeyman who has made eight NFL career starts, all with the Miami Dolphins, is the quarterback the Argos finally settled on after a training camp shakeout of six candidates for the job.

A few months ago, however, the Argos did not have a single quarterback on the roster. And head coach Jim Barker, newly installed in his second go-round with the Argos, put in a call to Lions counterpart Wally Buono to enquire about Lulay.

"Oh yeah, we enquired about everybody," Barker acknowledged at his pre-game press conference Thursday.

"I think Travis Lulay is one of the great young players in our league," Barker added. "They've had a lot of great quarterbacks go through there [B.C.]. The only guy that Wally wasn't going to allow anybody to touch was Travis Lulay. I thought last year, when I was in Calgary, he played very well against us. He's got a calmness and a composure to him."

Barker's words were meant as a compliment to Lulay's ability and the ability of Buono to find and develop young quarterbacks. But later, at his own pre-game briefing, the Lions coach did anything but acknowledge Barker's opinion in the spirit in which it was given. The word "tampering" came readily to Buono's lips.

“Say what you want, but you can't do that. Indirectly, that is tampering,' Buono charged. "It does compromise the process. If I really wanted to be a [blank] I would call the league and make an issue of it. It's not an issue right now. But it could be an issue."

Buono seemed concerned that Barker, by publicly expressing his interest in Lulay, could plant the seed in the player's mind if he should decide to move on at some point in his CFL career.

"I didn't know that," Lulay said of Barker's comment. "That's good for me."

For now, though, Barker is keeping his faith in Lemon, who bounced between second and third string with a number of NFL teams, beginning with the Ravens in 2002 and ending with the Jaguars last season.

Quarterbacks who have run out of NFL chances have seldom made an easy transition to the CFL game. Three years ago, the Argos gave the ball to Mike McMahon, who had a history with the Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles, but he lasted just two games before 44-year-old Damon Allen was returned to No. 1 status. Barker doesn't buy into the theory that those who choose not to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

"I don't look at that stuff," he says. "I look at this player and this situation and he's what we need. When I was in Calgary, we aggressively pursued Henry Burris [when he became a free agent]. But there were no Henry Burrises out there. Nobody who could take this team to the next level. Buck Pierce? The reasons are the ones we've talked about before."

Barker said early on that he no interest in Pierce, following his release by the Lions in March, based on his injury history.

"When Wally let's a guy go, to do it again, would be a mistake," Barker said. "He's not going to let a guy go who's a hit away [from career termination]. I was aware of the [Dave] Dickenson situation in Calgary, where just one glancing blow ended his career."

There's no way to sugarcoat it, however. The early reviews of Lemon-aid would appear to be more tart than sweet. Cleo's quarterback rating — 69.2 — is the lowest of any CFL starting quarterback and he has thrown just one touchdown pass in three games (vs. two interceptions). Nonetheless, his stats have been deflated somewhat by the inability of his pass receivers to hang on to his throws. Aesthetically, though, he looks the part. He's mobile, with a strong arm, and built for durability (6-3, 220). Plus, Lemon exudes a quality that doesn't show up on the stat sheet.

"When you look at him, he's the epitome of a quarterback," suggests Argo left tackle Rob Murphy, the former Lion, who feels rejuvenated under the new regime of Barker and Lemon. "Look into his eyes. Without opening his mouth, you can tell he's a leader. People will follow him."

And Lemon welcomes the opportunity.

"I didn't get a lot of playing time in the NFL," he says. "Now, I've been given the opportunity to just make plays. That's refreshing for my career.

"Coming up here, competing against guys who are laying it all out on the line … there's a lot of talent here in the CFL. Individually, I'm still growing, but my teammates are helping me get there."

For now, Lemon is simply sticking to the basics. The meringue will come later.

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