It’s a good thing the Hamilton Tiger-Cats have already learned to live — and win — without Andy Fantuz and C.J. Gable.
Both players suffered arm injuries in Monday’s win over the Argos. Gable suffered a gruesome ‘it’s-not-supposed-to-bend-like-that’ moment, and Fantuz went down later on a seemingly innocuous play. The results, however, were the same: both were added to the six-game injured list on Wednesday.
But the Canadian receiver and American running back both missed significant time 2014, including a key stretch of win-or-go-home games late in the season. So while the losses are significant, they aren’t necessarily catastrophic for a team with Grey Cup aspirations.
Gable is the team’s most versatile back, capable of running the football, catching balls out of the backfield and providing sterling pass protection. His July 26 performance in Winnipeg — 20 carries for 135 yards and another five catches for 35 yards — demonstrated just how dynamic a player he can be when healthy.
But the East Division’s most outstanding rookie in 2013 started just seven games last season while dealing with ankle and shoulder issues, none after Sept. 20. He missed the first three games of this season with a finger injury suffered in training camp. The Ticats are 9-7 in games without Gable the past two seasons and also won both contests in which he exited due to injury, including Monday’s tilt versus the Argos.
Fantuz missed five regular season games due to injury in both 2013 and 2014 and was also out for the Ticats’ Eastern Final win over Montreal a year ago. He was, however, having an excellent bounce back campaign this season and leads the team in both catches (26) and yards (272). He’s an elite-level Canadian slot receiver and that’s impossible to replace mid-season.
But the team’s roster moves in the wake of the injuries provide some indication as to how the team will cope with the losses.
American running back Ray Holley has been added to the active roster, meaning he’s likely replacement for Gable this week against the Bombers. Holley’s a better receiver than Gable, but has struggled picking up tough yards between the tackles and doesn’t have his skills protecting the quarterback (to be fair, few do.).
The team has also re-inked international Nic Grigsby, who was the team’s starting running back in the 2014 Grey Cup game, but who was released on July 14 after struggling with injuries and performance during training camp. He’s a solid runner, but has struggled at times as a receiver — again, it’s Gable’s jack-of-all-trades skill set that makes him so valuable.
But Grigsby provides instant insurance for Holley and may yet work his way back into the starting lineup. His team-first approach during his first go-around with the Ticats — there were some character questions when he arrived — and the maturity with which he handled his recent release helped pave the way for his return.
To compensate for the loss of Fantuz — and to avoid making a ratio change — look for Matt Coates to be inserted into the starting lineup. The former Hamilton Hurricanes star in now in his third season with the Ticats and has earned the trust of the coaching staff with his work ethic and constant improvement. Instead of Fantuz’s normal position in the slot, Coates will play the outside receiver position and it will be up to the four American pass catchers — particularly Luke Tasker — to pick up the slack in Fantuz’s absence.
Canadian receiver Giovanni Aprile has been added to the active roster and will be the backup for Coates. Fellow national Robin Medeiros, a 27-year-old Hamilton native who spent some time with the Redblacks last season, has been added to the practice roster.
That’s a lot of moving parts, to be sure, but it’s worth mentioning that the Ticats have done an excellent job at coping with injuries during Kent Austin’s tenure as general manager and head coach.
The off-season pickups of starting guard Ryan Bomben and reserve running back Anthony Woodson — who performed admirably filling in for Gable on Monday — look even smarter now. Losing a Canadian starter of Fantuz’s calibre would be devastating to most CFL teams, but the Ticats look well-positioned to cope with the loss.
That doesn’t make it any easier on the players themselves, however. Both Fantuz and Gable are desperately trying to avoid the “injury-prone” label and Fantuz is in a contract year. A trip to the six-game injured list doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll miss six games — players can be pulled off early — but there is no definitive timetable for their return. Austin did say that both are expected to return this season.
But instead of waiting and hoping, the Ticats will just continue on. For them, living without their stars — and winning without their stars — is just business as usual.