Lost in the general aura of enthusiasm surrounding the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ 6-4 finish to the 2017 season was this little factoid: all four of those losses came by eight points or less.
One came in overtime, a critical game against Toronto that saw the Ticats blow a 14-point fourth quarter lead and the Argonauts convert a third-and-18 in the late stages, tie the game on a two-point convert and win in the extra frame. A home loss to Calgary saw the Ticats commit a pass interference penalty that set up the game-winning field goal with zeros on the clock. Another happened when they gave up a two-point lead with 90 seconds left in Ottawa by allowing a 43-yard touchdown run.
The Ticats also won some close ones as well: a 24-22 triumph on Labour Day for the first victory of the June Jones era came when Lirim Hajrullahu (now with the Hamilton) missed a last-minute 37-yard field goal that would have given Toronto the win. They took a 26-22 nail-biter over Ottawa the following week by storming out to a 23-7 halftime lead and hanging on for the victory. In their one-point win over B.C. on Sept. 22, quarterback Jeremiah Masoli drove them into field goal range on their final possession and Sergio Castillo sent them home winners.
Though Saturday’s 28-14 scoreline wouldn’t indicate a close game, the reality is that the win in Calgary was very much there for the taking. Hamilton had the ball at their own 34 yard-line with just under three minutes to play and trailing by just six. When Masoli moved them to the Stampeder 45 with just over two to play, the Ticats looked to be in a position to steal one on the road and walk away with their first victory in Calgary since 2004.
Instead, Masoli threw in an ill-advised interception, forced to roll to his right after pressure from Micah Johnson up the middle. Instead of promptly getting the ball back, the Ticats defence gave up a touchdown and that was that.
The easiest thing to do is pin the loss on Masoli and question whether he has the big-moment mojo that all elite quarterbacks seem to possess (and thus strengthen the argument for the pro-Johnny crowd.) But the numbers don’t back that up. Masoli had two game-winning drives in the last three minutes in 2017 and two more in just eight starts in 2016. He also orchestrated the game-winning drive in the 2015 East Semi-Final and put them in position to win the final. Yes, he made a bad decision on Saturday: it happens to all quarterbacks.
No, this was a team loss (as they all are.) A football sage once told me that good teams take care of business at home, beat bad and mediocre teams on the road but the last step in the evolution is learning how to win against elite teams in hostile environments. In a very limited sample size under Jones, the Ticats haven’t really been able to do any of those things consistently.
Repeatedly losing close games can become part of a team’s DNA, too. And while the Ticats certainly aren’t there yet, the idea of the June Jones Ticats being a close-but-no-cigar squad, one that fills its fan base with dread when the big moment inevitably arrives, is starting to germinate.
There’s no shame in losing to Calgary, certainly on the road where they’ve been essentially unbeatable in the Bo Levi Mitchell era. But in the same way that last year’s 60-1 shelling at McMahon came to be a defining moment in their 2017 season, Saturday’s loss had the potential to be an equally impactful moment in a decidedly different way: a come-from-behind, last-minute road win against an elite West Division team would have kickstarted the season and given this squad an instant and dangerous identity. Instead, we just have the same old questions.