The difficult part of the rebuilding process sometimes comes in the deconstruction.
The 2016 edition of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats was always going to look vastly different than last year’s team, especially with more than 30 players slated to hit the free agent market. That the team had a couple of big name Canadians to sign — defensive tackle Ted Laurent and defensive back Courtney Stephen were never going to come cheap — made it all the more certain that change was in the offing.
Still, Wednesday’s news that several players from last year’s club had signed elsewhere — including veteran receiver Bakari Grant, the longest serving Ticat after Peter Dyakowski — were heading to other teams was … well, just a little weird. Even the most strident Black and Gold fan understands the cold-hearted business side of football but watching stalwarts like Grant, kicker Justin Medlock and linebacker Taylor Reed move on can still be disconcerting.
Grant, as per usual, handled his departure like a pro. Just minutes after the news that he’d signed with the Calgary Stampeders broke, he tweeted out a heartfelt thanks to the fans and organization. This is the guy who scored the first touchdown at the new Tim Hortons Stadium — and promptly gave the ball to owner Bob Young, standing on the sidelines of the House that Bob Built.
But here’s the harsh reality, delivered with as much respect to the departing players as possible: none of the guys who have left, not Grant, Reed, Medlock, defensive backs Brandon Stewart and Ed Gainey or defensive end Arnaud Gascon-Nadon — were in the Ticats plans moving forward.
Part of it is simple economics. For every Laurent, Stephen, Zach Collaros, Brandon Banks, John Chick or Luke Tasker — guys on the upper end of the pay scale — there must be a corresponding number of players on entry-level or exceedingly affordable deals. Good teams don’t pay for talent they should be able to find themselves and Kent Austin and his football operations staff have shown they have the ability to do that (see Underwood, Tiquan and Toliver, Terrence.)
The other part is straight football: better is better as former general manager Bob O’Billovich used to say. After two years with Reed, five with Grant, three with Gascon-Nadon, it’s very possible — even likely — that we’ve seen their full potential. Can’t say the same for Toliver, Underwood or Alex Hoffman-Ellis, the linebacker the team signed on Tuesday. Stewart is almost 30. Gainey had a hard time keeping his starting job last year and was one of the goats on the 93-yard touchdown play that effectively ended the Ticats’ season.
That’s harsh, for sure. But it’s also the reality of football where there are very few happy endings. Ask Mike Morreale, Rob Hitchcock, Marwan Hage or countless other Ticat greats before and since. Ask Chad Owens, face of the Argonauts through some dark times and a former CFL Most Outstanding Player, currently sitting at home waiting for a contract offer that doesn’t feel shameful.
And the Ticats still have some work to do. They have reportedly signed free agent defensive back Demond Washington, a four-year veteran who can play halfback and corner as well as return kicks, and have brought back offensive tackle Brian Simmons, who was traded away last September. But there remains a big hole on the roster: kicker.
With Medlock’s departure, the team is without a hoofer of any kind and the free agent market is uncomfortably thin. Former Argonaut Swayze Waters makes sense but he’s drawing NFL interest and had a workout with the Carolina Panthers on Wednesday.
There are other options: UBC kicker Quinn Van Gylswyk was ranked No. 20 in the last draft rankings and there are plenty of Americans looking for a job. But getting one that can do all three jobs — even Medlock struggled with punting — can be a challenge (especially in The Wind Tunnel that Bob Built.)
Whoever they find probably shouldn’t get too comfortable. The last guy kicked a playoff game-winner and didn’t get a contract offer. He’s in Winnipeg now.