EDWARDS: Ticats facing some fundamental questions

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats, losers of three straight after falling 21-15 to the Ottawa Redblacks on Saturday, are now 2-4 on the season and faced with two distinct but plausible explanations for that disappointing record.

The first is that this is a team with all the requisite puzzle pieces that has yet to assemble them into the image of a consistently successful football team. This is the internal narrative, the one that coaches are telling themselves and each other.

“We have to do a better job, I have to do a better job,” said head coach June Jones. “We did things you do when you don’t win games: we dropped balls, we had a couple of penalties, missed field goal… I’m looking at our ability and I think we have a good football team.”

There is ample evidence to support this thesis.

Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli’s numbers were decent – 352 yards on 26 of 38 passing – but he steered the team into the end zone just once while throwing an interception. The offence moved the ball effectively for large sections of the game but couldn’t finish and have now scored just two offensive touchdowns in their last three games.

But 20 minutes after the game was over four offensive linemen, most still in the gear, gathered around Masoli’s locker breaking down the game’s last, ultimately futile sequence on an iPad, watching as their quarterback took two sacks with the game in the balance. Call it instantaneous accountability.

“It’s very frustrating considering we were knocking on the door all night. To have it come down to the last drive, to actually be there and not get it, it’s heartbreaking,” Masoli said. “We have to do a better job of communicating as offensive players. We have plays there but we’re off just a little bit on our assignments, wrong read – we don’t execute, we don’t finish.”

The defence limited the Redblacks to seven field goals, though they were still unable to generate a single turnover: a potentially game-changing interception late in the first half bounced off the hands of defensive back Cariel Brooks and clattered harmlessly to the turf.

But for all their miscues – add five surrendered sacks and 157 yards in penalties to the list – the feeling post-game was very different than the unique misery that accompanied last year’s 0-8 start. That team had flaws that were both fundamental and existential, a lack of faith that permeated and poisoned the entire locker room. Whatever this is, it isn’t that.

“We have a great group in here,” said linebacker Simoni Lawrence after the loss. “You look around the locker room, everybody is pissed off because we’re in the woulda-coulda-shoulda right now where we feel we could win but, for whatever reason, we’re not.”

So that’s one explanation for what’s happening. The other is that the Ticats are a fundamentally flawed team destined for yet another season of tortuous mediocrity.

That glass-half-emptiness is buttressed by Masoli’s sub .500 record as a starter (now 12-13), dismal performances at home (3-8) and inability to get it done in the fourth quarter. It casts aspersions on Jones’ schemes, now thwarted by three different defensive coordinators, and questionable decision-making – like going for an on-side kick against Ottawa with almost two minutes to go instead of trusting the defence to get the ball back (which they did after surrendering a field goal.)

Those questions are being posed externally but are dismissed, vehemently, internally. That’s an important distinction.

“Jeremiah is the ultimate leader and we’re all going to follow Jeremiah. We trust in Jeremiah and we know what he’s capable of, there’s nobody else we’d want to follow,” Lawrence said. “That’s why everyone is crowded around his locker and we all got his back.”

The way the East Division is shaping up – Toronto and Montreal have looked far worse than Hamilton – the Ticats may be able to shuffle along for quite some time without much by the way of consequences. But a loss next week to the Alouettes – especially if Johnny Manziel is at the controls – and the doubters will have further ammo for their argument.

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