Among those inclined towards optimism, much has been made of the Ticats’ slow starts in 2013 and 2014 when the club stumbled out of the gate only to make back-to-back Grey Cup appearances. Certainly, the thinking goes, head coach Kent Austin can find a way to produce a similar quasi-miracle.
But 2017 is a very different beast.
The Ticats are 0-3 after losing 41-26 to the B.C. Lions in Saturday’s night home opener. There were signs of improvement – some moments of offensive production, better protection for quarterback Zach Collaros, three first-half turnovers from the defence – but it wasn’t nearly enough against the well-oiled Lions, who rolled despite losing starting quarterback Jonathon Jennings on their opening series. Veteran back up Travis Lulay strafed the beleaguered Hamilton secondary to the tune of 436 yards (a CFL record for a relief appearance) and the Ticats have now surrendered an astonishing 1,322 yards passing through the first three weeks.
In 2013, Hamilton started 1-4 before winning nine of their last 13 to finish 10-8, won an OT squeaker against Montreal in the East Semi then rolled Toronto at the Rogers Centre to make the Grey Cup. Austin and his entire coaching staff were brand new and there were the inevitable growing pains brought on by a new philosophy, not to mention offensive and defensive systems and terminology: the struggles were, in many respects, perfectly understandable.
The following year, the Ticats were 1-6 after seven games. But Collaros was injured in week two and missed five games and the team went 8-3 after his return to action, sparking a second run to the championship game. There’s no saviour to wait for this time around.
Much has changed since then. There are just nine players currently on the roster who were here for both those seasons, seven more who played in 2014: the rest of these current Ticats have no memory of those remarkable comebacks.
The coaching staffs are very different, too. Just four assistants are left from 2013 while two key pieces – former offensive coordinator Tommy Condell and defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer – are no longer with the club. Both men coached with a relentless positivity that seems largely absent with the current group, allowing Austin’s trademark intensity to become even more prominent. Collaros and Condell were particularly close and Steinauer was excellent at developing a bond with his players: Austin’s personality doesn’t necessarily lend itself to those types of relationships.
TSN analyst Glen Suitor, a former Austin teammate, gave a radio interview in the lead up to the B.C. game in which he alleged that the team missed Condell’s presence and there was “tension” between Collaros and Austin. Both men denied it, Austin in the strongest possible terms.
“There’s absolutely zero tension. Don’t even give my answer to Zach and ask him point blank. There’s no tension between me and Zach. We’ve never had tension,” Austin said in his post-game presser Saturday night. “That’s absolutely ridiculous and completely made up by Glen and he ought to be ashamed of himself.”
If there are differences, they certainly aren’t personal. While the two men aren’t besties – again, that isn’t Austin’s style – sources say there has never been open hostility between them. But both have strong opinions about the nature of offensive football, philosophies that may not exactly line up. While there may not be tension in the traditional sense, there could very well be a disconnect that didn’t exist, or it wasn’t as prominent, in 2014.
Nobody was seriously calling for Austin’s head that season, either. That’s certainly changed, as the call-in shows and message boards are filled with Ticat fans inclined to show Austin the door.
They’re likely to be disappointed, however. Getting rid of Austin mid-season would throw both the coaching staff and the front office into chaos and there’s no obvious internal candidate to patrol the sidelines. He’s also under contract for two more years in excess of $500,000 per season, making it an extremely expensive proposition as well.
No, Austin will get the chance to recreate the magic runs of 2013 and 2014 – albeit with a very different cast and under very different circumstances.
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