After the latest uninspired performance from the black and gold that sees their record drop to below .500 yet again, a question is being asked by many of the Ticat faithful: what is wrong with this team?
Outside of the obvious — the recent banishment of Kent Austin from the sideline for Saturday’s game against Calgary — there are a number of things wrong with a team that simply should not be fighting for a playoff spot as we head into the final month of the season. This team has a lot of talent on it and has a mostly experienced coaching staff, but yet here they are, sitting at 6-7 and in a dog fight for a playoff spot in the wretched East Division.
The terrible state of the East Division is Hamilton’s saving grace as it is looking more and more likely that a .500 or so record will be enough to claim top spot in the division. And with the Ticats well within striking distance of the first-place Redblacks — Ottawa has 13 points to Hamilton’s 12, but also have a game in hand which they could use to extend their lead to three points — you would think that most people would be happy. Second place is nothing to sneeze at, but expectations for this team make a .500 record and sneaking into the playoffs no longer acceptable.
Just go back to last summer, when the Ticats steamrolled everyone and looked poised to run roughshod over the entire league. That was the Ticats team many fans have been waiting nearly two decades to see. Then a knee injury to Zach Collaros ended what could have been.
But that was last year. And the Ticats had a chance to exercise the demons of past seasons by doing what they showed they could do. Bumps along the road were always expected — Collaros wasn’t due back until near midseason — but once he returned, things would go back to they way they were, right?
Not so fast.
While many pundits, including yours truly, expected the Ticats to hover around .500 before Zach Collaros returned and then expected to the team to take off after No. 4 got back in the lineup, it is clear that has not happened. Masoli guided the team admirably to 3-3 start, but since then the Ticats have gone just 3-4 and that is all with last year’s presumed MOP back under centre. But the problems this team had with Masoli the first six games — erratic play, too many turnovers — are still present with Collaros in there. Collaros has nearly as many interceptions in his first seven game this year (7) as he did in 12 games last year (8), and he has committed at least one turnover in all but two games this year, and has eight in his last four games. We know Collaros can make better decisions and not turn the ball over because we have seen him do it. But after four consecutive games with a turnover and multiple turnovers in five of his seven starts, it is starting to become a trend.
The Ticats have also been hit hard by the injury bug lately. They played their most recent game without their top three receivers (Luke Tasker, Chad Owens and Terrence Toliver), their leading rushing (C.J. Gable), his backup who played admirably the week before (Ross Scheuerman) one of their starting linebackers (Rico Murray) and their all-Canadian starting safety (Courtney Stephen). Rarely does a CFL team go through a year full healthy and a team that does, think last year’s Ottawa Redblacks, are the exception. Everyone deals with injuries, but some do it better than others. Look at Calgary. One player goes down, another comes in and they don’t miss a beat. The injuries we are seeing from Hamilton is forcing them to go deeper on their bench and, with a few exceptions, those players are not stepping up. We saw some good play out of Mike Daly against Saskatchewan, but Michael Ford, John Chiles and Junior Collins did nothing to make use forget the likes of Chad Owens, Luke Tasker and C.J. Gable. Someone needed to step up aside from Andy Fantuz and no one did. If Tasker, Owens and the rest miss extended time, it does not look like the Ticats have depth needed to end their long Grey Cup drought.
One thing that also continues to hamper this team are slow starts. Not to continue going back to a year ago, but during their incredible run last summer, the Ticats had leads of 14, 31, 21, 21, 26 and 12 at halftime in their wins. They jumped on opponents and never let them get into the games. This year, it has been the opposite. They have been down at the half nine times and up just four times. They have won three of the four games in which they have had the lead after 30 minutes and lost six of the nine in which they trailed. They have developed a reputation for making comebacks, but that was never going to be sustainable and despite furious second-half turnarounds, the near misses (at B.C., at Calgary) equal the incredible victories (at Edmonton, vs. Toronto). Hamilton, like pretty much every team in CFL, don’t win when they trail at the half and do win when they lead. If Hamilton wants to make a move up the standings they are going to have to start games better.
Last, but certainly not least, is the secondary. This has been a problem for over a year, and while it is becoming almost cliche to say the team still has not found Delvin Breaux’s replacement nearly two years later, the team still has not found Delvin Breaux’s replacement nearly two years later. But the absence of a shutdown corner is not Hamilton’s only problem in the back end. It does not seem to matter who they put back there, the issues with coverage continues to persist. Hamilton has started 12 different players in the secondary this year, two of which (Geoff Tisdale, Quinton Pointer) are no longer with the team, only one (Emmanuel Davis) has started all 13 games, and they have fielded the same group of five in three straight games just once. Secondaries need time to jell, and rotating in players does not allow for that. Unfortunately, the players they have had have not been good enough, so that has necessitated all the different combinations. The Ticats added Jermaine Robinson last week and just swung a deal with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers for 2015 West Division all-star Johnny Adams. It is clear the team is not happy with their secondary and the shuffling will continue until the right combination of players is found.
Now that we know the problems, can they be fixed? We will find out over the next six weeks.