Who starts at quarterback for the Ticats: Jeremiah Masoli or Dane Evans?

Photo courtesy: Bob Butrym

With the official go-ahead given for the CFL season to begin on August 5, it’s time to stop talking about business models and mergers with failed leagues, and get back to talking about what we all want to talk about: football on the field.

And what better way to get that going in earnest than to talk about a debate that has raged for the better part of two years: who should start for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Jeremiah Masoli or Dane Evans?

Most believe the Ticats have the best quarterback situation in the league after Masoli re-signed for one-year with the Ticats back in January. The team has two top passers who have both proven they can compete on the biggest stage in Canadian football. If 2019 taught us anything, it’s that you need two capable quarterbacks and the Ticats have that in spades.

But only one can start, and who should that be?

My gut answer is Masoli, based on his experience and high level of play before the ACL injury that ended his 2019 campaign prematurely. Though, given what Evans did after replacing Masoli, a solid case can be made that No. 9 should be on the field over No. 8 when the 2021 season kicks off later this summer.

I want to make it clear that this debate is not meant to disparage either player. I think both are very good quarterbacks and come the 2022 season they will both be starters in the CFL, one with Hamilton and one with another CFL team (Toronto, Winnipeg, and Ottawa, I’m looking at you).

This is also not meant to pit the passers against the other. I won’t be making the case why one of them shouldn’t be the starter, but why one of them should. I’ll look at stats and intangibles, but also do a little tea-leaf reading to give my best educated guess as to which player I believe will be under centre when the Ticats kick-off their season in a Grey Cup rematch in Winnipeg in a little over a month’s time.

Firstly, we have to talk about experience and that edge obviously goes to Masoli.

The eight-year veteran has started 45 games in his career compared to the 14 Evans has started over his two CFL campaigns. Masoli is older and has had more chances to play, though extensive experience isn’t everything. Evans showed that in 2019, proving rather quickly that he has what it takes to be a viable starting quarterback in the CFL.

Masoli has the overall edge on production, while Evans has slightly better numbers from the most recent season.

Evans saw action in 13 regular season games in 2019, starting 11 of them, while Masoli played in six games, finishing five. For the sake of a fair comparison, I am discounting the game where Masoli got injured — he completed six-of-seven passes for 59 yards — and the garbage time Evans saw in Week 1, throwing for 105 yards on five-of-six passing and one touchdown.

Taking all of that into account, Evans comes slightly ahead in three major categories: yards per game, completion percentage, and touchdown-to-interception ratio. His 323 yards-per-game is higher than Masoli’s 303; his 73.4 completion percentage beats out Masoli’s 70.8, though both are excellent; and Evans had a 5:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio compared to Masoli’s 3:2.

Some of this can be chalked up to Evans getting double the number of games, but their 2019 statistics are mostly a wash. Still, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Evans beat Masoli in every category. If you are in the Evans-should-be-the-starter camp, this is what you should be focusing on — not his 9-2 record.

That brings us to quarterback wins, a stat that I hate but just won’t go away. I want to make it clear that I do not believe that wins are a sound metric for judging the merits of a quarterback. It can be a piece of the puzzle, but it can’t be the crux of your argument.

Yes, the Ticats went 9-2 with Evans at the helm, but they also went 5-1 when Masoli started and even won the lone game rookie Hayden Moore started.

Hamilton was the best team in the CFL in 2019 whether Evans or Masoli was starting. They both played their role in helping the team win — sometimes a big role — but putting the wins and losses solely on their ledgers ignores the contributions of all the other players on the roster.

The Ticats didn’t finish with a franchise-best 15-3 record only because of the quarterback. They were a talented team that won games in a number of ways. For reference, the club lost a game in which Masoli threw for 401 yards, and won a game in which he threw for 169.

They also lost a game in which Evans tossed for 360 yards and won one in which he threw for just 194. Good teams win in a number of ways, and giving sole credit or blame to the quarterback is lazy.

So after all this: who do I think will be the starter when the 2021 season starts?

It will be Jeremiah Masoli.

I believe either passer can lead this team to a championship. We know Evans can at least get them to the Grey Cup, but it is hard to ignore all the success Masoli had prior to his injury.

The University of Oregon product has proven he is a franchise quarterback. You don’t get named a divisional all-star or become a finalist for M.O.P. without being on the short list for best at your position.

Masoli was all of those things the last time he played a full season back in 2018. He threw for 5,209 yards and 28 touchdowns, while adding another 473 yards and two scores on the ground. He also started off 2019 fairly hot with three games over 300 yards, including back-to-back 400-plus-yard games against Montreal.

Things were really starting to click for Masoli when he went down, and there is no reason to believe the Ticats wouldn’t have won the East by a large margin and made it to the Grey Cup if he stayed healthy.

Take nothing away from Evans — like I said, he will be a starter in the CFL in 2022 if he wants to be — but this is Masoli’s team. The team is paying Masoli to be the starter, signing him to a one-year extension in January worth $350,000, including a $125,000 signing bonus.

Evans, who restructured his contract in January of 2020, can make up to $257,000 if he hits all his incentives this year. Masoli will also be more than two years removed from his ACL tear when the 2021 season begins, and has proven over a longer period of time that he is a franchise quarterback.

Evans will be the man for a team in 2022, but in 2021 he will have to back-up the man in Hamilton.

As 2019 showed, you need two starting-calibre quarterbacks in the CFL, and the Ticats have the absolute best one-two punch at quarterback in the entire league. No matter who ends up winning the battle, if something happens to one of them during the season, you know you have a guy who can get the job done when his number is called upon.

Josh Smith has been writing about the Ticats and the CFL since 2010 and was sporting his beard way before it was cool. Will be long after, too.