Coming into their game on Sept. 19, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats were leading the East Division with an 8-3 record and looked on track to make a third straight Grey Cup appearance. Not only were they playing outstanding defence and special teams, but the offence was led by a quarterback in the midst of a tremendous season, the odds-on favourite to win the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player award.
Then Zach Collaros got hurt and everything changed.
Collaros was injured on innocent-looking play against the Edmonton Eskimos, tearing the ACL in his right knee, as he scrambled away from pressure. The initial diagnosis was bad, and a few days later the team confirmed the worst: the 27-year-old would have surgery and miss the remainder of the season.
It was the moment that defined the Ticats’ season.
The loss of Collaros posed a significant challenge for vice-president of football operations Kent Austin, who serves as both general manager and head coach. Behind Collaros, Hamilton had a trio of quarterbacks – Jeff Mathews, Jacory Harris and Jeremiah Masoli – with just a single CFL start between them. How to win with young, inexperienced players behind centre – something few teams can manage – became the most daunting task of Austin’s time with the Ticats.
The 2015 campaign had started with plenty of optimism in Hamilton. Despite back-to-back losses in the championship game, Austin and staff had assembled a formidable roster with plenty of experience: of the 46 players on the depth chart for the Grey Cup defeat in Vancouver, 43 were back, including 22 of 24 starters on offence and defence.
The coaching staff featured plenty of continuity, too. Austin was entering his third season with the same co-ordinators on offence (Tommy Condell), defence (Orlondo Steinauer) and special teams (Jeff Reinebold). Many of the assistants had been around for the duration as well. And the front office had enhanced the roster with players suited to Austin’s style and philosophy.
There were some early scheduling issues, however – par for the course in Hamilton. After spending the 2013 season playing their home games in Guelph during the construction of Tim Hortons Field, then dealing with stadium delays the following year, the Ticats were forced from their new home by the Pan Am Games to start the season. The team would play its first four games on the road.
After finishing that portion of their schedule with a 2-2 record, the Ticats would rip off four straight victories and win six of their next seven, as Collaros and company posted 30 or more points six times.
The offence was getting plenty of help, too. Steinauer’s defensive unit scored eight defensive touchdowns in the opening 12 weeks – one off the CFL record for a season – led by all-star defensive back Emanuel Davis (three pick-sixes) and defensive end Eric Norwood (two fumble return TDs).
On special teams, kicker Justin Medlock led the CFL in scoring while Brandon Banks registered three punt returns – he’d finish the year with four on his way to being named the East Division’s top special teams player. In other words, Hamilton was getting significant contributions from all three phases.
Then, Collaros went down.
The backup was Mathews, a 24-year-old who played under Austin for three seasons at Cornell University, setting a number of school and Ivy League passing records. Though familiar with the offensive scheme – he’d been outstanding in the preseason – Mathews was a rookie and prone to the critical mistake many young quarterbacks make: turnovers.
He coughed the ball up four times after coming on in relief of Collaros against Edmonton (a game the Ticats lost), then struggled in his first start against Calgary, committing two more turnovers. While the defence and special teams continued their strong seasons – linebacker Simoni Lawrence would be the East’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player and Hamilton would block a league-high six kicks – the offence struggled under Mathews.
There were some bright spots. He threw for 385 yards and three touchdowns in a win over Saskatchewan and led the team to its first road win in Montreal since 2002. But the days of the high-flying offence were over: the Ticats were now trying to win games using defence and special teams, with just enough offence to get the job done.
There were other injuries to contend with, too. Running back C.J. Gable missed 13 games with finger and arm injuries, and Canadian receiver Andy Fantuz was sidelined for nine contests. All-star guard Ryan Bomben battled an ankle injury before breaking his arm in October.
A home-and-home set against the Ottawa Redblacks to end the regular season decided the pecking order of the East Division and it could not have not gone worse for the Ticats. They fell 12-6 in the opener, losing Mathews to a concussion in the process. They were trounced the following week 44-28 as both Harris and Masoli – who started the season as the No. 4 and spent time on the practice roster – saw action.
Masoli was named the starter for the East semifinal against Toronto, but opened the game five-for-11 for 26 yards and an interception, before getting pulled for two series in the third quarter. After Austin put him back in the game, Masoli responded by going seven-for-seven, 115 yards with a passing and a rushing touchdown. On the final play of the game, Medlock hit a 47-yard field goal to give the Ticats an improbable 25-22 win.
Hamilton then almost punched its ticket to a third straight Grey Cup the following week in Ottawa, a game that was – quite literally – within its grasp.
One play after defensive end Arnaud Gascon-Nadon – making his first career start – allowed an errant Burris toss to tumble from his hands to the turf, former Hamilton players Henry Burris and Greg Ellingson connected on a 93-yard TD with just over a minute remaining. They turned out to be the winning points in a wild 35-28 game that ended the Tiger-Cats’ season.
Would Collaros have made a difference?
Masoli played well in the East Final, throwing for 349 yards and two TDs. But the Ticats won just two of six regular season games after their starting QB went down, squandering first place in the division and a crucial first-round playoff bye.
Changes are now coming. This February, the Ticats have a huge number of players slated for free agency including defensive tackle Ted Laurent (the team’s Most Outstanding Canadian the past two seasons), starting cornerback Courtney Stephen and wide receiver Andy Fantuz.
Collaros will spend his off-season rehabbing his injured knee, but the timelines for the early part of the season are tight. Meanwhile, Masoli is another free-agent to be and may not return.
As for 2015, a season that appeared so promising became a struggle the moment Collaros went down. Yet even with that, the Ticats still came within a play or two of a third straight Grey Cup.
Leaving a fan base that’s now gone 16 years without a title wondering what might have been.
Before and after
How the Ticats’ offence performed before and after the season-ending injury to quarterback Zach Collaros
Record before: 8-3
Record after: 3-5
Points per game before: 35.6
Points per game after: 21.6
Most points in a game before: 52 (twice)
Most points in a game after: 30
Times scoring 30 or more points in a game before: 8
Times scoring 30 or more points in a game after: 1