Lost in the endless chatter surrounding the arrival of a certain former NFL quarterback in Saskatchewan, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats signed a pair of running backs on Thursday, effectively sending veteran C.J. Gable a simple message: there’s competition for your job this spring.
Gable has been a favourite of vice president of football operations and head coach Kent Austin for his entire tenure, signing the former USC star in April of his first year at the helm. Gable was spectacular in 2013 with nearly 1,400 combined yards in 15 games played and a nod as the East Division Most Outstanding Player.
That was, as it’s turned out, his best season to date.
Gable was beset by injuries to his ankle, shoulder and arm in 2014 and 2015 playing in just 12 of a possible 36 games over that span. For most running backs, back-to-back years featuring prolonged absences would be enough to spur most teams to move on but Austin has always expressed an appreciation for Gable’s ability to run, catch the ball and contribute in pass protection. It’s a combination that’s tough to find at any level, never mind the CFL.
Last season was something of a bounce-back year for Gable as he played in 15 games, registering almost 700 yards on the ground (good enough for sixth in the CFL) and making 39 catches for 405 yards. Given Austin’s seemingly pathological aversion to running the football – the Ticats were last in the league in attempts in 2016 – it’s hard to blame Gable for not producing more but his 5.5 per carry average was down a half-yard from his rookie year and came in fifth of the 11 running backs with at least 60 carries.
Gable will turn 30 in October and there’s plenty of research that shows that running backs generally peak at age 26 with declining production until age 32 when it falls off a cliff. Entering the last year of a contract that pays him in the $90,000 range, Gable is entering the risk-reward phase of his career (if he’s not there already.)
Enter the new kids. Among the five players signed on Thursday, two are running backs: Alex Green, who has played in 29 games with the Packers and Jets, and Cierre Wood, who was a star at Notre Dame. Green is 28, Wood just 26 and both will be on entry-level (i.e. cheap) deals.
There’s also 24-year-old Ross Scheuerman, who looked pretty good in a Sept. 16 win over Montreal where he had 16 carries for 79 yards and five receptions for 40 yards while finishing the game with a broken wrist that ultimately cost him the remainder of the season.
Competition is an inherent part of training camp so bringing in more running backs was inevitable. Gable will still have an advantage, given his knowledge of the system and relationship with Austin. But his injury history, declining production, age, and Ticats clear aversion to sticking with players who can’t stay healthy – just ask receiver Chad Owens as well as defensive backs Johnny Sears and Rico Murray – are all indicators that Gable, more than ever, will have to prove he’s still the best man for the job.