Were the CFL season to begin tomorrow, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats would be in relatively good shape with a pair of experienced quarterbacks, a solid receiving corps and plenty of talent on defence.
The only issue: there’d be nobody to kick off.
For the second straight year, the Ticats are halfway through their off-season and do not have a single kicker on the roster. The team allowed Brett Maher, who handled both the placekicking and punting duties in 2016, to go to free agency and while he remains unsigned, there does not appear to be a sense of urgency on either side to get a deal done.
Maher had two-thirds of a great season for the Ticats. After 13 weeks, he was third in the CFL with an 87.9 per cent accuracy rate on field goals while missing just one extra point. His 36.0 yard net punting average was good enough for fifth in the CFL.
But by the end of the year, Maher’s field goal percentage had dipped to 82 per cent, he was sixth in net punting and his kickoff average had fallen almost two yards a boot. In the East Semi-Final loss to Edmonton, Maher missed a 35 yarder in the second quarter in a game the Ticats would eventually lose by a field goal.
While some of the decline could be be attributed to the typically more difficult fall weather and there are some other mitigating statistics – Maher went 6-for-7 beyond 50 yards and his average make was from 35.3 yards out, second-highest in the CFL – there’s little question that Maher struggled down the stretch. That’s made the Ticats reluctant to hand him the job – and a contract with much by the way of guaranteed money – for the 2017 season.
Instead, the team seems inclined to go through much the same process as last off-season where they held a series of workouts for prospective kickers, including a two-day session at Tim Hortons Field with a more than a half-dozen candidates (that event is on schedule again this spring.) They brought three kickers to mini-camp, two to training camp and only gave Maher the nod after he ran gauntlet and defeated all challengers.
For his part, Maher likely feels he’s done enough to earn a raise from the approximately $65,000 he earned last season, not to mention some job security. His problem: he doesn’t have a ton (or any) leverage.
Even at this early stage, seven of the nine CFL teams look set in the kicking game. Some will go with a Canadian or two (Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Saskatchewan) while others employ a big-money American (Winnipeg and B.C.) Montreal seems determined to role the dice with Boris Bede again. That leaves just Ottawa – Maher kicked there in 2014 and didn’t like how the club handled his injury the following year – and Hamilton.
And there are lots of options. Both American Anthony Fera and Canadian Chris Milo kicked in the league last season and are available. So is former Ticat Sergio Castillo, who’s had stints with Winnipeg and Ottawa. There are literally dozens of former Canadian university and American college guys looking for an opportunity.
After taking a unsuccessful run at American free agent Swayze Waters, who ultimately signed in B.C. for more than what the Ticats were willing to pay, Hamilton seems confident they can duplicate last year’s qualified success – even if it means doing so without the guy who provided it.