VANCOUVER – Ryan Phillips would always tell his younger B.C. Lions teammates that if Geroy Simon was expendable, they all were.
Simon, the CFL’s all-time leading receiver, couldn’t agree on contract extension with B.C. before the 2013 season. So after 12 years on the West Coast, Simon was dealt to the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Phillips knew his day would also eventually come. But the 34-year-old didn’t expect his tenure in B.C to end this way.
On Friday, the Lions announced they and the veteran defensive back had “mutually decided” to part ways, cutting Phillips loose after 12 seasons and just four days before the start of CFL free agency.
The Seattle native said in a telephone interview with The Canadian Press the term “mutual” was technically true. However, what the Lions offered in terms of a contract and potential playing time were a slap in the face.
“The starting point was nowhere near worth the value of someone of my calibre,” said Phillips, who joined B.C. in 2005. “The pay cut was outrageous.
“It’s one thing to restructure and it’s another thing to pay cut all the way. You don’t ask a 12-year vet with my resume to go back to making third-year type money. That’s just kind of insulting, let alone the role of being behind some guys that haven’t done anything.
“If you want to say ‘mutual’ I guess so in that sense … it’s mutual I wasn’t going to settle for something like that. They weren’t going to budge, they weren’t going to give me a legitimate shot to compete.”
Lions head coach/GM Wally Buono didn’t fault Phillips for his reaction. But Buono reiterated it’s his job to make tough decisions to try to improve his team.
“We wanted Ryan to be a part of our football club,” said Buono. “We wanted him to be a part of our locker-room.
“We wanted him to be a part of our team going forward. The role then had to change. Unfortunately we couldn’t agree.”
Phillips played 212 regular-season games with the Lions, helping them win the Grey Cup in 2006 and 2011. He leaves B.C. with 47 interceptions and six touchdowns to go along with 478 tackles.
“You feel like you put your blood, sweat and tears into something … it’s hard not to take it somewhat personal,” said Phillips. “I could have easily gone: ‘You know what? My heart is in B.C. … I’ll just settle for whatever.’
“But you’ve got to take the emotion out and say from a professional standpoint, as an athlete, as a competitor, what is benefiting you and benefiting the family?”
Phillips appeared in all 18 games for the Lions in 2016, registering one interception, his lowest total since 2008, and 30 defensive tackles. But the year before he tied for the league lead in interceptions with six despite missing four games to injury – the only instance over his 12 seasons where he missed time.
“I wouldn’t say I need this as motivation, but if you want to say it puts a little bit more kick in the step then why not?” said Phillips. “I can understand (the decision) if my best years were three, four, five years behind me.”
The Lions, who lost to Calgary in last year’s West Division final after a bounce-back 12-6 campaign, finished last in the CFL in 2016 with nine interceptions. Part of that came down to major injuries to three key contributors but Buono consistently said throughout the year his defensive backfield needed to be better.
“This is not something I look forward to doing and this is not something the club took lightly,” Buono said of waving goodbye to the four-time CFL all-star. “When the person gives 12 years of their life … I felt it was at least worthwhile to sit down and have a conversation and see if we couldn’t get into a slightly different relationship.”
The Lions don’t often re-sign veteran players, let alone ones in their mid-30s. But Buono agreed the situation was similar to Simon, who retired after winning the Grey Cup with Saskatchewan and is now a member of the Lions’ front office.
“What we offered Geroy or Ryan is not something we usually offer players (at their age),” said Buono. “Usually with a player like that you say: ‘We’re going in a different direction,’ and life goes on.
“But I felt because of Ryan’s great contribution to the club, his longevity, that I had to sit down and discuss with him this role, this possibility.”
Phillips turned that down flatly and is now looking for a new CFL home.
“I want to be a part of a team that has a chance of winning,” said Phillips. “I want to be a part of team I can be a value and an asset to. A team that’s going to appreciate what I bring to the table, plus the intangibles.
“I’m happy about my decision, but it’s still sad and disheartening at the same time because I’ve been a part of a team and an organization, and my family has as well, for the past 12 years.”
Notes: The Lions announced Friday defensive back T.J. Lee, who missed all but four games last season because of an Achilles injury, has signed a contract for 2017. Lee could’ve become a free agent Tuesday. B.C. also signed Canadian defensive lineman Dylan Ainsworth and announced the retirement of offensive lineman Tim O’Neill, an 11-year veteran.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press