There’s no such thing as a simple fix when a team is 0-6, but let’s try it anyway: the Hamilton Tiger-Cats are a team that needs a little more intensity on the field and a little less intensity off it.
This is, of course, a gross oversimplification. Ticats head coach Kent Austin was asked to identify “one or two” keys to victory against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Saturday night at Tim Hortons Field. He gave an answer that went on for nearly two minutes and touched on, conservatively, eight different themes — and didn’t include old chestnuts like winning the turnover battle and getting pressure on the quarterback (which they also need to do.)
This has been a week of seismic change for the Ticats, some of them designed to deal with the simple things and others aimed at the deeper, more complex issues.
New assistant head coach June Jones has taken a lead role in game-planning, spending plenty of time with the quarterbacks and receivers. Austin said the play-calling duties will remain with offensive co-ordinator Stefan Ptaszek, who has handled them for much of the season, but will be done with “a lot of input” from Jones.
While Jones brings plenty of experience to the table — he has more than 25 years in coaching and is considered one of the godfather’s of modern offensive football — it may be his relentlessly positive approach that is most beneficial to a team still hanging out with “Owen.”
Austin’s intensity is on full display on most game days and Ptaszek is also wired pretty tight. Even former defensive co-ordinator Jeff Reinebold, for all his Aloha-ness, coached with a certain focused energy, both on the sidelines and behind the scenes. The loss of former co-ordinators Tommy Condell and Orlondo Steinauer — both relentlessly positive guys — robbed the Ticats of a certain equilibrium that the arrival of Jones and promotion of new DC Phillip Lolley may have restored.
“The first thing that strikes you about June is that he’s relaxed. He’s not a stressed out guy, he’s just going to talk offence and it seems like he really enjoys doing that,” said receiver Luke Tasker. “When you’re losing, you try hard not to grind and force things and get all stressed out. But it’s inevitable, so his level of calmness about the game is helpful.”
If the new coaches have brought a slightly more laid-back vibe, some of the players the Ticats have added to the roster this week are bound to bring a certain amount of swagger. Canadian safety Craig Butler will play in his first game in more than a year and half, after recovering from a knee injury; while veteran defensive back Emanuel Davis will get his first start of the season after recovering from hamstring issues.
Davis is mild-mannered in his dealings with the media, but talks his share of smack on the field and hopes to bring a beleaguered secondary a jolt of energy.
“A little bit of an attitude. Veteran status, a guy that’s been out there, that knows the game, settling down the young guys in the crucial moments,” Davis said. “A level head and a little bit of experience … and a couple of picks.”
Butler’s road back has been a difficult one, and the former all-star safety will ease himself back into the line up primarily as a special-teams player on Saturday. There’s a warm-and-fuzzy storyline involving overcoming adversity, personal tragedy and perseverance. But Butler — who has is no doubt aware of the social media “experts” who wondered if his career was over — isn’t interested in any of that.
“It’s my job, my career, my passion. It’s what I love to do. If I didn’t love to do it, I wouldn’t have worked so hard to get to where I am. I’m ready to be that guy again,” he said.
“I’m sure you guys had those worries, but I never doubted myself. Ever.
“I’m here to win a football game. It’s not about me, it’s about beating Winnipeg and being 1-6. That’s it.”
Sounds simple enough.