Johnny Football not the focus as Ticats get set for Riders

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats were having a perfectly quiet week, buoyed by the warm and fuzzy feelings brought on by two straight victories, when all of a sudden … Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny.

News that quarterback Johnny Manziel had given the Ticats a 10-day deadline to offer him a contract — a timeline which has subsequently been extended — began yet another round of will-he-or-won’t speculation from media outlets on both sides of the border. The team, trying to prepare for yet another crucial contest on Friday at home against Saskatchewan, did its best to play down the latest drama in a season absolutely chock full of it.

“We’re focused on this game. It’s very important that we win this game. I don’t have any comments about players that aren’t here,” head coach June Jones said. “Upstairs will answer some of those questions for you, I’m sure. It doesn’t do me any good to deal with that.”

Linebacker Simoni Lawrence did what he usually does when with faced with, well, almost every situation. He laughed.

“I’m focused on the Saskatchewan game. Johnny Manziel … if he comes, he comes, if he doesn’t, he doesn’t,” Lawrence said, the smile broadening. “I don’t know what to say about this … I don’t care.”

Kent Austin, vice-president of football operations, who faced the media in August when news of Manziel’s workout with the club first surfaced, was nowhere to be found on Thursday, the team electing not to make him available.

After an 0-8 start, Austin’s decision to step down as head coach, the Art Briles fiasco and a couple of rounds of Johnny-gate, Jones says his players have become masters of tuning out the noise.

“How can it be a distraction when we’ve had as much as we’ve had already?” Jones asked, his usual deadpan delivery now the perfect comedic tool. “This is a minor thing.”

The game, however, is a big deal for both clubs. The Ticats have edged back into the East Division race with those two straight victories and can get themselves into the thick of it with another win. The Riders, meanwhile, have won three of their last four and are suddenly a factor in the West.

But there was drama in Saskatchewan this week, too. Quarterback Kevin Glenn did very little at practice this week after suffering a bruised hand in last Saturday’s loss to Winnipeg and grainy, TMZ-like video of Glenn using – or not using – kitchen utensils and hand tools would not have felt out of place in the ensuing coverage. Riders head coach Chris Jones, predictably, has played coy, saying Glenn is a game-time decision.

“I want Kevin to play and if he can’t, we’ve got some good quarterbacks in behind him,” Jones said while outlining the decision-making criteria. “Tell me that he’s able to throw and be ready to go. We’re waiting to see if that’s going to happen or not.”

There are other intriguing subplots. The Riders are stocked with a number of ex-Ticats, many of whom left Hamilton under less than favourable circumstances only to find a measure of success in green and white. Among them is defensive back Ed Gainey, the CFL’s current leader in interceptions, who was allowed to depart after the 2015 season.

“I think any time a team doesn’t want you, you leave with a chip on your shoulder,” Gainey said. “I have a couple of teammates that I used to play with and I want to make sure that I’m on the good end of the trash talk after the game.”

Gainey and the Riders took the Ticats to the woodshed in Week 3, a 37-20 beatdown in Regina that was a sign of things to come for Hamilton. Of course, that seems like forever and a day ago now; before June Jones’ arrival, Phillip Lolley’s promotion to defensive co-ordinator, Jeremiah Masoli’s ascension to starting quarterback. And yes, before the Briles imbroglio and Manziel became a thing.

Much has changed, says offensive tackle Tony Washington, who missed most — but not all — of the exceedingly bad times.

“The first couple of weeks, you could see when the other team would score, the morale would go down,” Washington said. “But now guys are really starting to get into thinking that we can do this. It’s very powerful, what’s going on in this locker-room.”

Without Johnny, it should be said. At least for now.