With or without Lachie Neale, Brisbane's premiership window is still wide open

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AND THEN IT was done.

Just like that, the third successive year of Brisbane's long awaited return to finals football came to a close. A rushed behind in the final minute, consigning the Lions to the most heartbreaking of semifinal defeats. 'Bulldogs through and through,' blaring out before a packed and predominantly crestfallen Gabba. Chris Fagan looking like he'd rather be anywhere else. Charlie Cameron looking to the skies for solace, after a promising personal start had dissipated into an opportunity missed.

Another season of such promise has fallen away when it mattered most, and inevitable questions have arisen in the aftermath. Why are the Lions developing such a knack for finals disappointment? How have they possibly wasted yet another top four finish? Is this premiership window now closed, a fact emphasised by the still uncertain future of Brownlow star Lachie Neale? Do we need to have a talk about Chris Fagan and his 5-1 record in finals since 2019?

There's so much to unpack.

Before the Lions are herded off into the relative obscurity of the offseason, it's worth viewing the result -- and the season preceding it -- through a different lens. Because while any finals exit is a bitter pill to swallow, Brisbane is approaching two decades since their previous flag, are consistently knocking on the door but falling short. Still, it's an accomplishment well worth saluting.

So with 2021 done and dusted, ESPN presents a report card breaking down the Lions' efforts, while providing some evidence that the season's output shouldn't be viewed as a complete failure.

Early splutters and late roars

A 1-3 start to 2021 had some among the Lions faithful thinking the 2020 preliminary final run had been a mere taunt. But in their fifth season under Fagan -- and cultivating a high energy, pressure based, forward rolling game -- the Lions recovered in impressive fashion. They had a sensational purple patch through the middle of the year (thriving without Neale at various stages), but then endured a few late hiccups, before snatching a top four berth in a suitably climactic final round win over West Coast.

Overall, injuries to some key personnel -- primarily Eric Hipwood and Dan McStay -- caught up with the forward line and played a role in Brisbane not being able to dance with minor premiers Melbourne in week one of the finals.

But these Lions can dance

A lot of the talk around Brisbane's week one finals loss and subsequent week two exit has centred around them simply not being able to match it with the competition's genuine heavyweights. It was a topic highlighted in the buildup to finals, with the general narrative highlighting that late season success against teams outside the top eight would count for nothing against the big guns. And so it proved against Melbourne; the 33 point hammering at Adelaide Oval prompting cries of 'I told you so' among observers.

While exciting and irresistible when hot, the Lions apparently just didn't have the cattle to truly be considered contenders. Yet, when Hipwood and McStay were fit and playing alongside Joe Daniher, the Lions were reminiscent of a finely tuned race car; moving the ball around with speed and precision, and generally proving very difficult to keep up with. The trio helped Brisbane to 10 wins out of the 11 games they played together. Among the victims were Geelong and Port Adelaide, who both fell heavily to this inspired tall forward cartel.

Without Hipwood, McStay, or both, the record slipped to 5-8. In fact, after Hipwood's disastrous fall in Round 17, the Lions slumped to a three-game losing streak. Needless to say, the 13 games he and McStay were together constituted a significant chunk of the entire campaign.

Conclusion: Keep these guys on the field, and the Lions can surely dance with everyone, at any time, and on any dance floor.

Beware the wounded Lion

For the first time in his Brisbane tenure, and unlike in 2020, Fagan was forced to repeatedly rejig his squad. A glut of untimely injuries created inevitable difficulties with combinations, consistency, and (crucially) the form of those players actually able to return from their various niggles. Aside from the already mentioned mishaps of Hipwood and McStay, Cam Rayner's entire season was rubbed out by an ACL back in March. This was an especially significant blow for Fagan's plans -- having intended to use the No. 1 pick of 2017 as the cornerstone of a speed and power-laden midfield.

Additionally, Jarrod Berry sat out over three months, Darcy Gardiner three and a half; while the talismanic Neale was sidelined for seven weeks. And it doesn't stop there. Ryan Lester and James Madden spent time off the park, Noah Answerth and Marcus Adams augmented the loss of Gardiner by leaving an even more gaping hole in Fagan's defensive setup. Doom and gloom in any language, and that's before you factor in the issue of returning players taking additional time to rediscover form and fitness.

But there is no denying the fact that injuries are very much a part of professional sport, and thus it can't really be used as an excuse. The fact the Lions were able to overcome this, and even thrive -- in Neale's case winning all seven of the games he missed -- is a massive endorsement of the depth and potential of this roster.

Conclusion: The injured brigade comes back, those that replaced them have a season of performances behind them, 2022 instantly looks brighter.

Square peg moments

As mentioned, the Rayner injury put a large stopper in the vial of magic potion Fagan wanted to pour over his side this season. Among the rejigging this entailed, was some positional experimentation. Charlie Cameron was one who spent some time in the midfield, while Zac Bailey was used both in the middle and upfront. Cameron eventually made his way forward full time, as did fellow midfield experiment Lincoln McCarthy.

Cohesion definitely could be described as lacking during some of these stints, and a clunky midfield could often be pegged for dropping defensive energy and losing the all important pressure battle in the contest. This was a common theme in most of Brisbane's losses. But some silver linings also emerged, and promisingly, they did so in the form of youth.

23-year-old Hugh McCluggage registered 25 disposals per game and 28 goal assists for the year. A wingman of pure class, he spent a lot more time on the ball in the absence of Neale. As the above stats indicate, he handled it well. Keidean Coleman is another to have been exposed to some less than familiar territory. A small forward for the entirety of his short senior career, the 21-year-old was thrust into the backline by Fagan for the Round 21 clash against the Dockers. Proving himself as an apt one on one defender and first rate mover of the ball in the 64 point triumph, Coleman didn't look back.

Conclusion: More depth, more options, more potential to unlock the formula that takes this playing group to the truly elite level.

Will he stay or will he go?

The future of Neale has deflected the narrative away from Brisbane's exit quite substantially this week. Proving the extent of the panic button spamming this news has sparked, his father Robbie felt compelled to plead for an end to the torrent of vitriol directed at Neale and wife Jules, who are understandably considering the best place to raise a family.

No amount of trolling is ever okay, but to those who are refraining from the rubbish and merely fretting quietly over the prospect of a Neale-free Lions in 2022, it's definitely not the end of the road for the current premiership window. His departure would free up some cash to bolster the ranks in a variety of different ways, and Fagan is more than shrewd enough to deduce how best to turn what many are seeing as a disaster, as an opportunity.

If he stays, Lions fans can look forward to two first round picks for next season, and the chance to add even more depth and talent to an already heaving roster.

Conclusion: Lock in Lachie, or let Lachie leave. The Lions will most definitely endure.

So there we have it, Lions fans. 2022 is a new dawn, and it's a safe bet the challenges and disappointment of 2021 will steel this young playing group even further. The crop of youth will no longer be raw, the injured brigade will add finesse, the likes of Daniher will be even more comfortable with his place and role in the team, while superstars like Cameron can hopefully spend the whole year doing what they do best, in the position that suits most.

As for the unavoidable questions around Fagan and his finals record, perspective always helps. 2019 was the first dabble of finals in a long period of time, 2020 they were a win shy of a Grand Final berth, and this year was a false start against a rampant opponent, followed by heartbreak in what has widely been described as the game of the year. Perhaps it's worth giving this squad another year or two before definitively writing off their prospects in a finals series, or indeed their merit as a heavyweight contender.

Conclusion: keep the faith.