In order to contextualize the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ pre-season loss to the Toronto Argonauts on Saturday, it’s helpful to understand how the Ticats see themselves.
First, here’s what they’re not: an inexperienced team in need of a talent influx (like, say, Winnipeg), a cultural shift (the B.C. Lions) or both (how you doing, Rider Nation?) Pretty much every team in the CFL has questions of one sort or another this season — even West Division powerhouses Calgary and Edmonton are breaking in rookie head coaches — but some are more dire and pressing than others.
When the Ticats look in the mirror — let’s assume it’s a really big mirror — they see an experienced club filled with elite-level veteran talent, the foundation of which has led them to two Grey Cup appearances in the last three seasons (and within one botched interception and/or coverage assignment of a third.) Certainly, they have some unknowns, like, who will start at quarterback until Zach Collaros gets healthy, and who’s going to kick, but the fundamental ones — who and what they are — are already cemented in their collective psyche.
That level of self-assurance allows the Ticats to put aside the potentially troubling elements of Saturday’s 25-16 loss and focus on the positives gleaned from the experience. Hamilton wanted to get a look at as many first-year players as they could, thereby reducing the number of viable candidates for the limited number of roster spots that are actually available on this team. We won’t know the results until Tuesday when the first round of cuts are made — and we may not really know until the final roster is announced — but make no mistake, the inevitable culling has begun.
They may have come closer to resolving their big questions as well. Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli didn’t post spectacular numbers with just 43 yards on six-for-nine passing but he looked comfortable running the offence. With each passing day, Masoli acts more like the guy who will lead this club to open the season.
Jeff Mathews, meanwhile, resembled the magnificently maddening player from last season, his moments of strong-armed brilliance interspersed with deer-in-the-headlights decision-making and a penchant for turnovers. His second quarter red zone interception would have infuriated regular-season Kent Austin but, this being just a lowly pre-season game, all it warranted was a derisive head shake from the head coach. Different intensity, same message.
The kickers are also starting to work themselves out. Brett Maher looked like the complete package versus Toronto, his field goals, punting and kickoffs all looking rock solid. Maher’s eagerness to try a wind-aided 62-yarder got a chuckle out of Austin postgame and that in itself is probably a good sign: when this coach asks a kicker if he wants to try a field goal, no matter how ludicrous, the answer should always be, “Yes.”
Cody Mandell seems more than willing as well — both his attempts were from beyond 50 yards — but his lack of polish is starting to show. The CFL kicking game is full of largely unseen subtleties, directional and otherwise, and Mandell’s inexperience on the big field and with the ball on the ground were even more apparent on game day.
The Ticats have another pre-season game this Friday against the visiting Ottawa Redblacks and Austin said we’d see more of the “core group” that will be expected to power this team in 2016. Should that group — and they’ll likely get just a half — sputter, it will raise the possibility that the Ticats might not be what they think they are.
That’s not the way they’ll view it, though. Regardless of what happens on Friday — or even early this season — this team will consider itself just one way: as a force to be reckoned with. Whether that’s confidence or hubris, well, that question won’t be answered for some time yet.