It’s only August, but there are already plenty of reasons to be concerned about the state of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
And yet they can still save their season.
The team has yet to win a game in 2017 — they are 0-5 — and are coming off a 59-point defeat at the hands of the Calgary Stampeders.
The big stories from practice included a brawl between offensive and defensive players, and the sudden hiring of a new assistant head coach — possible signs of a frustrated and increasingly desperate team.
Oh, and their opponent on Friday: The undefeated Edmonton Eskimos.
With 18 regular season games and just nine teams, scoreboard watching and advanced standings mathematics are usually reserved for the period post-Labour Day. And while the Ticats have been the beneficiaries of a dominant West Division — they’ve gone 12-2 against the East so far this season — the Ticats can’t afford to fall much further behind.
They are — obviously — in last place in the East but are just four points behind the second-place Montreal Alouettes and three behind the Ottawa Redblacks. If the playoffs were to start today, Winnipeg would cross over into the East and play the second-place team: Hamilton needs three wins to catch the Blue Bombers.
But Ottawa and Winnipeg play each other this week so Hamilton will be even further behind one of those teams if they can’t find a way to pull off an improbable upset on Friday in Edmonton.
The schedule has been unkind to the Ticats in the early going.
They are about to finish a stretch that’s seen them play five of their first six against the stronger West Division while hosting just two contests at Tim Hortons Field. They also had an early and largely useless bye in week two.
The flipside is that the team will soon return to Hamilton where they will play seven of their last 12 contests in front of the home crowd.
Improbable as it may seem, the Ticats still control their own playoff destiny, a situation that won’t change even if they lose Friday night in Edmonton.
What the Ticats do not have, however, is any margin of error.
Losses against East Division teams would be akin to nails in the coffin and it won’t take many to get the lid closed and fastened tight. Having fallen to Toronto in Week 1, a loss on Labour Day would give the season series to the Argos and put the Ticats in all kinds of trouble: that game will have a playoff atmosphere and real post-season implications.
That game will be sold out — it always is — but as the losses pile up, it will interesting to see how long the fans stay engaged.
The team has sold out every game at Tim Hortons Field since it opened in 2014 — a stretch of 29 games — but they’ve also hosted a playoff game each season. It’s unlikely they can sustain it if the team continues to falter.
There is only one, exceedingly simple solution for the Ticats at this point: Win some games and fast.
Without some victories, Hamilton’s season of discontent will be well and truly over before Thanksgiving.