Kent Austin holds three titles in the Hamilton Tiger-Cats front office: head coach, general manager and vice president of football operations. But in order for the Ticats to fulfill their Grey Cup aspirations this season, Austin may have to add a fourth role: miracle worker.
The team is facing a difficult and uncertain future in the wake of the left knee injury suffered to franchise quarterback Zach Collaros in Saturday’s 25-18 loss to the Edmonton Eskimos. Collaros is scheduled to get an MRI on Monday that will determine the severity of the damage. Best case scenario: a partial tear that allows Collaros to return after sitting out anywhere from four-to-eight weeks.
Worst case scenario – and frankly, the most likely – he’s done for the year.
Given Collaros was the top candidate for the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player award and leading the league in most meaningful statistical categories, it is a devastating, seemingly insurmountable loss. Back ups Jeff Mathews and Jacory Harris looked terrible in relief, committing five turnovers and essentially handing the game to Edmonton. It was the opposite of encouraging.
That’s where Austin comes in. Over the past two-plus seasons, he’s done a remarkable job of getting his players to ignore all sorts of significant obstacles – a year in Guelph, a daily bus trip to practice, continuing stadium hijinks, a mind-boggling array of injuries – while leading them to two straight Grey Cup appearances. Even while expressing sympathy for the fallen Collaros post-game, Austin was already switching over into “no excuses” mode. Inside the dressing room, the players were, too.
Despite pulling him from the game in the fourth quarter after his second pick six, Austin still believes in Mathews. He coached him for three seasons at Cornell and put him on the Ticat neg list to secure his rights. After Mathews lit it up in a pre-season game, Austin installed him as the team’s back up: all that history doesn’t go out in the window in 45 terrible minutes.
And without making excuses for some truly egregious decision-making, there are some reasonable explanations for Mathews’ performance. After taking very few reps with the first team offence last week, Mathews inherited a game plan designed for Collaros’ unique skill set and played behind an offensive line patched together with duct tape and baling wire. Starting right guard Ryan Bomben was scratched, left tackle Jake Olson was hurt – he’s also done for the season, by the way – and left guard Pete Dyakowski was hobbling. When they’re better, Mathews will be, too.
The other calling card of Austin’s Ticat tenure has been his ability to construct innovative offensive game plans based on the talent available. In 2013, with a largely immobile Henry Burris at quarterback, Austin utilized packages designed for back ups Jeremiah Masoli and Dan LeFevour with great success. With Collaros playing lights out, the razzle-dazzle wasn’t necessary but with Mathews at the helm, Austin may get the creative juices flowing again. Masoli is still around.
Austin’s loyalty to Mathews and his unshakable faith in his own coaching skills are two of the many reasons why it’s unlikely the Ticats will pursue Saskatchewan quarterback Kevin Glenn via trade. Glenn’s a veteran but he has no experience in the Austin system, which is predicated on reading and reacting, adjusting routes based on coverage in lock step with the receiving corps. It would also send a bad message to the room: it’s hard to preach a next-man-up philosophy, then bring in a new guy at the first sign of trouble.
All that said, Mathews’ learning curve is Sydenham Road-steep. The only seemingly reliable way to develop a consistent CFL quarterback these days is to let him learn as a back up for a couple of seasons, get him some playing time and then see if he’s ready to do the job on a regular basis. Recently examples include Mike Reilly, Drew Wily, Trevor Harris and… Zach Collaros. Mathews has less than a season of learning time and the vast majority of his in-game experience came on Saturday. To be successful, he’ll have to buck a long and well-established trend.
Over the last two seasons, it sometimes seemed as if Kent Austin has pushed his team to remarkable heights through sheer force of will. This year felt different, as though the pieces of his plan were finally in place and running things were running as they should. That’s all over now. We’re back to Austin trying to accomplish the improbable in unfathomably difficult circumstances.
Who wants to bet against him?