An uneasy air hung over the B.C. Lions practice field on Tuesday, as did a mixed grey sky, a 2-2 record, and a major suspension under appeal.
Come Saturday night, the defending Grey Cup champions take on the Calgary Stampeders on the road, and the loser will fall to last place in the Western Conference, a spot B.C. knows from a year ago when the team started the 2011 season 1-6.
There was hardly a sense of panic at the Lions' practice facility. But after two straight losses, a team that believed it had the potential to sprint through the season with barely any losses isn't quite sure how they managed to end up at .500 after four games.
And then there is the spectre of Khalif Mitchell, the biggest player on B.C.'s defence, a 6-foot-5, 315 pound CFL all-star at defensive tackle. On Friday night at home against Edmonton, Mitchell brutally hyperextended the left arm of Eskimos lineman Simeon Rottier. Mitchell grabbed at Rottier's left hand, pinned it to his body, spun and yanked.
Rottier wasn't severely injured, but the Canadian Football League's ruling on Monday was relatively stiff, a two-game suspension, the longest such penalty under five years of leadership from commissioner Mark Cohon. Mitchell appealed the suspension on Tuesday and the Lions, mostly mum on the subject, stood by their teammate. Despite his ferocity on the football field, Mitchell is also known as a self-taught pianist, and a man who cried when the Lions won the Grey Cup.
"I'm very thankful and blessed to have a good heart, a good conscience," Mitchell said to reporters on Tuesday. "When I go to bed, and when I look at myself in the mirror, the one who I really got to answer to, I can look at myself and know that I play hard and I play very fair."
When Wally Buono, the team's general manager, was asked about the video that shows what looks like a deliberate attempt to injure, the former Lions coach said observers shouldn't pre-judge the outcome of the process. The appeal is set to be heard Aug. 6, which leaves Mitchell available to play in Calgary.
"I don't want to speak on what's perceived," said Buono. "Everybody's perception is totally different."
On football, and standing at 2-2, Buono was also terse.
"My only thought is I'd like to be 4-0. Let's just leave it at that."
In Calgary, the Lions face an opponent that has lost its starting quarterback and last week produced a fourth-quarter comeback and an overtime win against the previously undefeated Saskatchewan Roughriders.
The Lions, however, feel they are close to dominating opponents and racking up wins. B.C. has the second-most offensive yards this year, and the second-least yards against. It has yielded the fewest sacks, with four, and delivered the second-most sacks, with 11. But the team has been jolted by big plays – the 129-yard touchdown return of a missed field goal against Saskatchewan– and turned over the ball, including two interceptions by Travis Lulay against Edmonton, the second returned 106 yards for a decisive fourth-quarter touchdown.
Lulay was 28-for-38 passing for 360 yards against Edmonton, but on Tuesday took the blame for both interceptions, saying he was trying to vault his team forward by pressing too hard.
"There are things to improve on, no question,' said Lulay. "We're very close to being a lot better football team."
The answer is simple, and elusive. "More touchdowns," in the words of receiver Geroy Simon. B.C. is the only team in the CFL without a player who has scored at least three touchdowns.
While the Lions brushed away comparisons to the five straight losses that began the 2011 season, all-star centre Angus Reid knows there is a huge difference between 3-2 and 2-3 and a win in Calgary matters a lot.
"We have to stop this now," said Reid. "Because you understand the way losing streaks and winning streaks go, we've got to put an end to this before it becomes an issue of finding a way to get out of these losing ways."