I feels like yesterday that we were getting ready for the start of the CFL season and yet here we are at the halfway point.
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats have completed half of their season as they head into Vancouver to take on the B.C. Lions. So it felt like a good time to take stock of where the team is right now, look ahead to the future and hand out some mid-season awards.
Where the Ticats are
There have been some ups and downs for the Ticats in 2019, but I think even the most optimistic of fans probably didn’t envision a 7-2 start to the season. That many wins this early in the year is not something Ticats fans are used to, so pardon them if they are just a wee bit elated.
Orlondo Steinauer has the Ticats in a position they haven’t been in since he was playing for the team. The Ticats have won games convincingly — see blowouts of Toronto and Montreal — and not so convincingly (see last week’s win in Ottawa), but the main thing they have done is win.
It has been especially impressive considering the amount of injuries the team has suffered. Brandon Banks, Delvin Breaux, Simoni Lawrence, Chris Van Zeyl and Ryker Mathews have all missed time (with Luke Tasker and, likely, Ted Laurent joining that list by missing this week’s game). The Ticats also lost stud-in-the-making running back Sean Thomas-Erlington in Week 4.
But, obviously, the biggest loss was when Jeremiah Masoli went down against the Bombers. The worst fear was realized as a torn ACL was the diagnosis and the season was over for the Ticats’ incumbent all-star QB.
The Ticats have rebounded nicely with Dane Evans at the helm. Winning two of their three games so far with him as the starter and holding on to beat Winnipeg in the game Masoli was injured.
Part of the formula for success, and why the Ticats have still been able to win while Evans goes through some growing pains is that the team’s defence and special teams have been outstanding. The Ticats are tied for second in sacks, third in interceptions and have allowed the third-fewest points.
The additions of Ja’Gared Davis, Dylan Wynn, Tunde Adeleke and Rico Murray have taken the defence to the next level. The Ticats have allowed 30-or-more points just twice this year and have held their opposition to under 20 points five times. No matter how you slice it, that’s excellent.
The year of the returner began in Hamilton with Frankie Williams and has continued to reside in the Steel City ever since. The Ticats have five total return touchdowns by three different players. The aforementioned Williams has a pair, as does Brandon Banks and Will Likely has one of his own.
With a resurgent year by kicker and punter Lirim Hajrullahu, some exceptional coverage units and a few trick plays for good measure, the return of Jeff Reinebold to the Ticats once again has them at the head of the class when it comes to special teams.
Where the Ticats are going
While a lot can happen between now and November, it feels fairly safe to say that the Ticats will be playing in, and hosting, a playoff game this year. Even the most epic of collapses — as in losing all nine of their remaining games — might not be enough to keep them out of the playoffs.
While the Alouettes have drastically improved (and look playoff bound themselves) the Redblacks and Argos are in disarray. Ottawa’s offence is putrid, and Toronto is finding new ways to disappoint on a weekly basis. So the chances of either team catching and surpassing the Ticats is slim.
The Ticats have benefitted somewhat from a favourable schedule to open the season. They have travelled west just once (to Regina) and have already played five of their nine home games. The Ticats have won all five of those games and that is a big reason why they sit six points up on second place in the East.
The schedule doesn’t do the Ticats any favours, but there isn’t a game left that you would say isn’t winnable. There will be hiccups, maybe even as early as this week against the Lions, but the Ticats will not be massive underdogs in any of the games remaining this season.
The big test, however, will come in the form of a three-game Western road trip that sees the Ticats go to Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg in back-to-back-to-back games. That’s as daunting a three-game run as a team can have. But if the Ticats can managed those three games and maybe even come out of them with a win or two, this team should easily cruise to double-digit wins.
You look at the remaining schedule as a whole and even the most pessimistic person has to think a 4-5 record is the worst this team will do. Home games against the Argos, Edmonton, Ottawa and Argos again are all winnable. Even if they go 0-fer on the road and only win at home that is an 11-7 record to end the year. That will be good enough for first in the East, even with the resurgent Alouettes nipping at Hamilton’s heels.
Barring another catastrophic event — like, say, Dane Evans is lost for the year — the Ticats are likely going to be the No. 1 seed in the East meaning the road to the Grey Cup comes through the Hammer.
Handing out awards is fun and a great way to spark a debate. Here are my picks for the Ticats’ player awards.
Most Outstanding Player: Brandon Banks
There really is no argument against Banks. He is, right now, my front runner for the league award. Despite missing one game due to injury, Banks sits second in receiving yards, second in receiving touchdowns, first in catches and first in targets. He has been the best player for the Ticats so far this season and is an easy pick as the team’s MOP.
Most Outstanding Defensive Player: Ja’Gared Davis
Davis, who came over from Calgary in free agency has been everything as advertised. His six sacks has him tied for second in the league, 38 tackles has him ninth in the league and No. 1 for defensive lineman by a wide margin (he is the only defensive lineman in the top 40 in tackles).
He has been a terror on the field, creating pressure and making life miserable for opposing quarterbacks. There have been a lot of great defensive performances for the Ticats so far this year, but none have been as good as what Davis has done week in and week out.
Most Outstanding Canadian and Offensive Lineman Chris Van Zeyl
Doubling up here because, quite frankly, no Canadian has made a bigger impact on the team than Chris Van Zeyl. Coming over from Toronto on the eve of training camp after being unceremoniously cut, Van Zeyl has continued to play at the high level he did for a decade with the Argos.
He has allowed the Ticats to play four Canadians on the offensive line, which has given them tremendous ratio flexibility all year. He has easily been Hamilton’s best offensive lineman and also best Canadian.
Most Outstanding Rookie: Jaelon Acklin
Not a lot of rookies have been given a chance to play significant minutes for the Ticats this year, but Jaelon Acklin has shown everyone that training camp and the preseason was no fluke. He sits third on the team in receiving yards and was a key cog in the team’s most recent win, catching a touchdown pass to help seal the game. Acklin’s numbers don’t pop off the page, but they are good enough for him to be my pick for the Ticats’ top rookie for the first half of the season.
Most Outstanding Special Teams Player: Frankie Williams
With all due respect to Lirim Hajrullahu, who has had a very good second year with the Ticats, Frankie Williams has been the biggest difference maker on special teams. His league-leading 577 punt return yards is over 100 yards more than his next closest competitor (Chris Rainey, 462 yards).
He has provided the Ticats with big plays on almost a weekly basis. The two return touchdowns will get all the press, but he has ripped off numerous long returns that set the Ticats up with great field position. In the year of the returner, few (if any) have been better than Williams.