Milton: Ticats season can’t be considered an on-field success

Brandyn Thompson Andy Fantuz

The Tiger-Cats had a chance to re-set the hands on the clock but, really, it was Ottawa’s time.

And once again, Hamilton will spend Christmas without a Grey Cup championship. Still just the one in 29 years.

It’s a tough judgment given how close they came to another national final, but using the Tiger-Cats’ self-expressed standard that true success is measured only in Grey Cup championships, this season was not a success. Not on the field.

For the third year in a row, they were eliminated as much by themselves as by the other team. They have found ways to get there, yes, but have also found the way(s) to let it slip away. A big play or two short each time. So far this decade, they are the best team to never win it.

Falling down on a season-ending pass that was terrific but defendable, not making the kind of late-game tackle you have made all year, dropping an interception that would have clinched a Grey Cup berth, muffing a key punt, stepping out of bounds plus taking a penalty late in the first half that gifted the Redblacks the yards and the time for a five-point turnaround.

You might get away with some of those mistakes, maybe all of them, if it was your day for legend-making but it was not the Tiger-Cats’ day, or even season, for it. That script went on the injured list with  Zach Collaros. So the uplifting Tale of Jeremiah Masoli unfortunately gets snowed under by the triumphant Ottawa is Back and, quite frankly, the CFL can grind out more yards on the latter.

The Cats will be good again next year, especially with Collaros returning sometime during the season, but they will look different because of their heavy list of free agents, many of whom will receive attractive offers elsewhere.

One could be the reserve quarterback who came up so big Sunday after being demoted to the practice roster for almost the whole year. That’s a little ominous: Burris had a bee in his bonnet about the Ticats and won the east with a pass to Greg Ellingson, another player the Cats didn’t bring back. While Ellingson was validating the Redblacks’ tickets to Winnipeg one of the taller receivers who replaced him, Terrence Toliver, was in civvies, replaced himself by Kealoha Pilares who had never played a CFL game and didn’t look that good in his first one. Not all the mistakes in Sunday’s game were made on the field.

There was lots of room to second-guess the Cats on Sunday and during the year. People will talk forever about not getting Kevin Glenn, but that’s a moot point because in the end the offence did  enough to get to the Grey Cup. Kent Austin and Tom Condell did a great job of coaching up, first, Jeff Mathews then Masoli.

But way back in June, the Cats decided to enter the season without a backup quarterback with more than a game of CFL experience.  Nobody noticed when Collaros was outrageously steering the team toward an all-time season, but when he went down it took time to re-vamp the offence around green, green arms. . . . then to do it again when Mathews was hurt.  That was time which likely cost them first place and the chance not only to recover from injuries but to avoid the ones they incurred in the semifinal they were forced to win.

And it was clear that, despite some outstanding coffin corners, Justin Medlock was struggling with punts in weather conditions. The Cats did sign Hugh O’Neill but when he was hurt in September they didn’t hire another punter and, a couple of times in November, paid the consequences. In both the punting and quarterback decisions, the Cats felt that what they had was potentially as good as what was available…but we’ll never really know if that was an accurate assessment.

But despite the eventual early elimination it says here that the 2015 Ticats made the very best of a bad situation that began long before the season’s first snap, when three Canadians central to their plans and ratio building – receiver Spencer Watt and defensive tackles Lyndon Gaydosh and Brian Bulcke – were lost for the year.

And the injuries, low-lighted by Collaros’s torn ACL, kept coming, right until the deciding moment of the season. Big-play practitioners Eric Norwood and Terrell Sinkfield were injured in the semifinal and on the East-clinching 93-yard touchdown the Ticats’ best defender, Ted Laurent, was missing from the rush, taken out by an illegal chop block on the previous play. The man who bobbled the interception on that play, Arnaud Gascon-Nadon, was playing because Norwood couldn’t.

And who knows who’d have been covering Ellingson had Johnny Sears not been hurt the final dozen games, or whether the Cats could have won a necessary game or two if injured guard Ryan Bomben had been available for more than two games after August. Those are two all-star calibre acquisitions.

Plus, this was the third straight year in Austin’s three years here that was affected by schedule disruption. The Pan Am Games forced the Cats out of their home field, yet again, until Civic Holiday.

But the Ticats survived all of those factors – which Austin would refer to as excuses – and they were within one play of being in position to win with a field goal or even a single.

But this will always be the bottom line: They didn’t make that play.