SMITH: Ticats limp into playoffs following loss to Als

Three weeks ago, the Ticats were on top of the world. Winners of two in a row, and five of their previous seven, the Ticats had a singular goal in mind: win out and capture first in the East Division.

So much for that.

The last three weeks have been perhaps the worst three weeks of the Ticats’ 2018 season, with the nadir coming in Saturday night’s 30-28 loss to the hapless Montreal Alouettes.

The Ticats, set in their playoff seeding, chose to sit a number of regulars — Jeremiah Masoli, Luke Tasker, Ted Laurent, their trio of starting linebackers and Delvin Breaux, amongst others, all never saw the field — and it showed. The offence was sloppy and the defence was ineffective, especially early. Dropped passes and coverage breakdowns were all too frequent from a team that needed to get things right before heading into the most important (potential) three-game stretch of their season.

But that didn’t happen, and the Ticats finish the season under .500 for the third year in a row, a continuation of a trend that has seen the Ticats finish .500 or worse 15 times since 1900s became the 2000s. Luckily for them, the Als and the Argos were bigger messes this year than last and that allows the Ticats’ season to go on for at least another week.

If they play like they have the last three weeks, it will only be for another week.

Shut it about one division

With the Ticats’ loss and Edmonton’s win, there have been renewed howls about how it is unfair that an 8-10 team makes it into the playoffs ahead of a 9-9 team. But those criticisms ignore two major things.

  1. Hamilton swept Edmonton this season.
  2. The Ticats did not play a vast majority of their starters.

The Ticats lost by two points to a team that played most of their regular lineup. If Hamilton had done the same, this game wouldn’t have been close. The Ticats finished below Edmonton because they chose to, not because they are a worse football team. Because we know they aren’t. Hamilton victories in Weeks 2 and 9 prove that. If this game meant something to the Ticats because it was a one-division format or the six best records we reseeded, Edmonton is still on the outside looking in. In fact, Hamilton would have leapfrogged B.C. for the fifth seed if they had finished at 9-9.

Maybe a one-division format is best, maybe it would make games like Saturday’s more excited because it would mean something. But it didn’t, so let’s move along.

To rest or not to rest

Momentum is highly overrated in sports, but with the amount of injuries the Ticats have dealt with, it was strange to not see some of the starters play some of the game, at least on offence. Jeremiah Masoli proved over the last game and a half that the chemistry with his receivers not named Luke Tasker simply isn’t there. I understand wanting to minimize injury risks, and it’s not like the Ticats have a bye (like Ottawa and Calgary) to rest up either. The decision makes sense from that persepctive, but if the Ticats’ offence comes out sluggish in the East Semi, this rest thing will be debated.

June’s field goal decision

What I don’t think should be debated is June Jones’ decision to kick a field goal down five with two and a half minutes left in the game. Not just because the strategy essentially worked — the kicker missing the field goal doesn’t negate the fact that the Ticats got the ball back and drove the field — but because we always hear how much time is left in the CFL that there was no need to go for the touchdown on third and 10. If the kicker makes the final-play field goal, no one says boo. So we shouldn’t say it now.

What we can, and should, question is Jones’ play calling on the game’s penultimate play. Those receiver screens have not been Hamilton’s friend all season, and to call one with this lineup at that time was maddening. Those underneath out routes were working — we saw Dane Evans hit Sean Thomas-Erlington with three in a row for 49 yards to start the final drive — so to go away from those into something that hasn’t worked all season is a curious decision, and way more debatable than the double-field-goal gambit.

Bring back Mike Jones

The lone starter in the receiving lineup (unless you count Marquay McDaniel and Terrell Sinkfield as starters) was Mike Jones and he was once again spectacular. It has been an up-and-down season for the former third-round pick, but his 2018 season was by far his best yet. Jones finished the game as the team’s leading receiver, catching five passes for 114 yards and a touchdown, and once again stepped up in the absence of other players, which has been Jones’ calling card this year. Whenever anyone has gone down, Jones has seen an increased role and he has almost always made the most of it.

Jones finishes the season with 49 receptions for 841 yards and three scores; last year, Jones had 28 catches for 285 yards and one touchdown. Jones also ends the season 14th in the league in receiving, and the No. 2 Canadian receiver trailing only Ottawa’s Brad Sinopoli. The next closest Canadian to Jones was Drew Wolitarsky, who had a breakout season in 2018 with 650 yards.

We focus a lot on Mike Jones’ failures — the dropped passes, the balls hitting him in the face, etc. — but it’s time we cut the guy some slack. Over the last 10 years only Dave Stala and Andy Fantuz have had better seasons than what Jones did in 2018. One of those guys is going to the Hall of Fame, while other was considered one of the most reliable targets during his time in the league. Mike Jones is scheduled to be a free agent at season’s end, and the Ticats would do well to lock him up to a new long-term deal. He’s earned it.

A nice Addison-dition

Another bright spot for the Ticats in this game was receiver Bralon Addison. Addison came to Hamilton after being cut by the Argos in the summer and saw some spot duty (mostly on special teams as a returner) before being relegated to the practice roster. With the Ticats resting virtually everyone, Addison got another chance to make an impression and boy did he. His seven catches were the most by any Ticat, and he eclipsed the 100-yard mark for the first time in his career. And his second quarter touchdown catch was a thing of beauty.

Two years ago, due to rest and injuries, Brian Tyms emerged for the Ticats and there was a lot of hype for him the next year. It didn’t ultimately work out — Tyms was cut early in the 2017 season — but Addison could be a similar late-season find that, if given a chance, could be a breakout candidate in 2019.

Defence lit up

Backups or not, and the Ticats fielded way more starters and major contributors on defence than they did offence, for a bad Montreal offence to rollup 30 points and throw for over 300 yards is a troubling sign. Hamilton’s defence had been stellar up until the last few weeks. They had surrendered over 30 points six times this year, with five of those coming in the last seven games and three in the last three weeks. Teams are supposed to be rounding into form during the stretch run, but the Ticats, who have lost five of their last seven, are doing anything but and the defence’s shortcomings over the last two months is a big reason for it.

White brings balance

When you think of balanced football, you don’t think of the Ticats. The June Jones run-and-shoot is all about passing and putting up big numbers. But with the season at a close, the Ticats finished as the No. 2 passing offence (no surprise) and the No. 3 rushing offence. The two teams ahead of them, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Saskatchewan Roughriders, finished as the Nos. 6 and 8 passing offences. Hamilton has as balanced offensive attack as any team in the league, and they have done it by using a bevy of backs. Alex Green sat this one out, but will be the lead back come the East Semi, but John White has shown in each game he has been in during the season’s second half that he still has hit. White topped all backs in this one with nine carries for 88 yards, and he did almost all of his damage in the second half. The Ticats, as a team, rushed for 165 yards, with four players totting the rock in this one. There are plenty of concerns about the Ticats going into the playoffs, but whether they can (or will) run the football is not one of them.

A good first start

Dane Evans got the start in this one and, after a rough start, settled in nicely. He made rookie mistakes, which is to be expected since he’s essentially a rookie, but he did enough good stuff to see why the Ticats opted for him over the more-hyped, and higher-paid, Johnny Manziel. Evans finished his first game going 22-of-37 for 315 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, and he is a missed field goal away from also guiding his team to a late-game comeback. Evans obviously still has a long way to go, but in his one start he looked better than almost every quarterback that Ticats have tried to develop in over a decade.

A fitting sendoff for two legends

Saturday’s game gave a sendoff to a long-time Ticat great and may have been the final game of one of Montreal’s future Hall of Famers as Peter Dyakowski said goodbye to the game, while John Bowman may have.

The Ticats produced a goodbye video for Dyakowski and the fans gave him a raucous ovation when he came onto the field to wave goodbye. He also got to be Pigskin Pete Dyakowski during the fourth quarter. As an aside, if Dyakowski wants the job, they should give it to him; if he doesn’t, they should force him to take it.

Bowman, how has strongly hinted that this would be his last season, got to go out on a win. Bowman is one of the league’s perpetually underrated players, and playing for a bad Montreal team the last half decade did him no favours. But Bowman was one of the league’s best during his 13-year career and will one day have a bust inside the Hall of Fame.

Congrats to both on great careers.

Looking ahead

It’s playoff time, and the Ticats enter as probably the longest shot to win it all. What a difference a month makes, eh?

First up is the East Semi-Final against the B.C. Lions where the winner heads to Ottawa to take on the Redblacks for a shot to go to the Grey Cup.

Hamilton and B.C. split their season series this year, with both teams winning at home. B.C. won an overtime thriller (that never should have been) 35-32, while Hamilton held steady at home the following week and pasted the Lions 40-10.

The big difference between those games and this one is not just the playoff atmosphere, but that Travis Lulay will be under centre for the Lions. In those other two matchups it was Jonathon Jennings at quarterback. Lulay has torched the Ticats on numerous occasions, including just last year when he set a CFL record for passing yards in a relief appearance, when he threw for 436 yards after replacing an injury Jonathon Jennings. The Lions are just a different team with Lulay at the helm and the Ticats are going to be in tough to extend their season by at least another week and get a shot to finally topple the Redblacks.

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