As Hamilton Tiger-Cats road roommates for two months Johnny Manziel and Dane Evans bonded by watching TV’s “Westworld.”
But as the CFL’s Eastworld regular season concludes Saturday night, they’ll be on opposite sides not of a hotel room, but of Tim Hortons Field.
The two quarterbacks, both lodged deeply behind Jeremiah Masoli in the depth chart before, during, and after the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ training camp, will be the starters in a game that might mean something to the playoff-bound Ticats and the eliminated Montreal Alouettes but nothing in the standings nor, for the most part, the stands.
Many football fans in Canada – and all of them south of the border – assumed that Manziel would be a CFL starter by now, but not necessarily for Montreal.
Masoli’s play long ago justified the late July trade that sent Manziel to Montreal. Alouettes head coach Mike Sherman confirmed that Manziel will make his second start this year against the Ticats, and his eighth overall, although Antonio Pipkin and Matthew Shiltz will also play. Manziel’s inaugural CFL start came against the Ticats in Montreal on Aug. 3, and he was picked off four times in the opening half of the 50-11 drubbing.
“I think a lot of progress has been made since that point, ” Manziel said Friday. “I think we’re playing better football, as well. I felt like coming off last week (a 40-10 victory over Toronto for Manziel’s first CFL win) we got a bit of momentum. I feel a lot more confident with what we’re doing on the offence. I’m treating this like another game. I’m not really looking back at what happened in the past.”
Hamilton coach June Jones says he expects Manziel to play his best game of the year because of that first game, adding that Manziel was traded because he needed playing time and wasn’t getting it in Hamilton.
But, it says here, that deal wouldn’t have been made had Evans not demonstrated enough to earn Jones’ confidence to step in if needed.
The Ticats sent left tackle Tony Washington to Montreal with Manziel for Canadian defensive end Jamaal Westerman, impact receiver Chris Williams and two first-round draft choices. Paradoxically, although it was a very profitable deal for Hamilton, only Washington and Manziel will play Saturday.
“I do think it was good for me, ” Manziel said. “Me and coach Jones have kept a little bit in touch. He’s somebody I look back and say I was glad to have worked with. I learned a lot when I was there, but in Montreal I’ve got a lot of reps, a lot of time on the field, which wouldn’t have been the case if I was in Hamilton. Like he said, he was doing me a solid (favour) and I think it’s worked out for both sides.”
Manziel confirmed Friday that he’d be back in Montreal next year and was glad to know for the first time in a few years what he’ll be doing after the winter break.
When the Ticats finally signed him on the very cusp of this year’s training camp, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner hadn’t played a regular-season game since he was a 2015 Cleveland Brown. He’d had a series of off-field issues, and was obligated to meet a number of conditions imposed by the CFL before the Ticats could even make him the off-season contract offer which kept him on their negotiation list.
Manziel said that although it’s “just another game” he’s looking forward to seeing Tim Hortons Field again and reconnecting with Evans.
“Dane is as good a dude as there is out there, ” he said. “I enjoyed my time in that quarterback room with ’Soli, Mo (Bryant Moniz, Evans’ backup Saturday), and Dane. I’m obviously happy for him getting a chance to play and giving ‘Soli some rest for a playoff run.”
Evans completed all three of his passes in a mop-up role in Montreal back on Aug. 3 but all three of the recipients – Williams, Brandon Banks and Jalen Saunders – are out for the season with injury. His other completion this season was to Rashad Lawrence, who will be replaced by Bralon Addison tomorrow.
During practice this week, Evans reminded an offence which will start seven backup players that its primary job was to build winning momentum for the starters’ return for the eastern semifinal on Nov. 11 against the B.C. Lions.
He also recognizes the “story” in he and his former roommate and fellow Masoli backup, starting against each other.
“It is odd, ” he agreed. “But the game of football has a way of tying people together and circling back.”
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