Toothless Tabbies lose ugly to undisciplined Riders

Photo courtesy: Hamilton Tiger-Cats/Arthur Ward

Most of us suspected that the start of the 2021 CFL season would be a bit of a slog. With a near two-year layoff and no pre-season games, the first couple of weeks were bound to give us some pretty bad football.

The Ticats and Riders took that to a new level on Saturday night.

There were moments of brilliance, almost all of them coming from the team in green, but for the most part this game between two Grey Cup favourites was a near-impossible watch.

Hamilton’s offence is borderline unwatchable right now. There is no cohesion, no excitement, nothing that reminds you of the juggernaut we saw run roughshod over everyone two years ago. The Ticats turned the ball over six times, upping their total to nine on the season. That’s more than one per quarter played. You are not going to win very many games if you turn the ball over on average 4.5 times per game.

The Riders, despite putting up 30 points, weren’t all that much more watchable, committing 20 penalties, but Hamilton’s inability to hold on to the football rendered most of those fouls moot. The two teams combined for nearly 300 penalty yards. Like I said, this was some pretty bad football between these two expected contenders.

As the season moves along hopefully we will see some better football, because so far the comeback season for the CFL has been a dud.

Here are some other thoughts.

2019 this is not

Two years and one season ago, the Ticats were the class of the CFL. That led many, myself most notably included, to make grand proclamations about this year’s team. This year’s team is clearly not 2019’s team, and nowhere is that more evident than on the scoreboard.

Hamilton has scored just 14 points over two games, two fewer than Ottawa had in their Week 1 win. That was a game in which the Redblacks managed just 94 total yards of net offence. Just think about that for a second.

The Ticats have also lost both their games so far this season by double digits, a feat that never occurred during the 2019 regular season, where their largest margin of defeat was by seven points. They have lost by 13 and 22 in consecutive weeks in 2021.

I don’t think there could be any clearer an indication that this year is not the same as last than the Ticats’ inability to score points.

Getting run over in the trenches

Concern over Hamilton’s offensive line before the season felt a little overblown. New starters were brought in, but there was a still a solid veteran core that made up a majority of the unit. But after two games, the concern feels warranted.

The Ticats have been run off the field by both Winnipeg’s and Saskatchewan’s defensive lines. Against the Bombers that makes sense, given how good their bookends are, but the Riders don’t boast all-star calibre players and they ate the Ticats up on Saturday night.

Both quarterbacks were harassed and felt pressure on nearly every throw, nowhere was that more pronounced than on the series of plays after the Ticats recovered a muffed punt by Marcus Murphy in the early stages of the third quarter.

The Ticats were down 17-8 and had just gone two-and-out to start the second half, when Tyrice Beverette fell on Murphy’s fumble. This felt like the break the Ticats needed to get back into the game. Instead, it was back-to-back sacks for the Riders that pushed the Ticats into attempting a 55-yard field goal. It was a calamitous series of plays that signalled to this scribe that the Ticats were falling to 0-2.

The defensive line hasn’t been much better either, albeit they have not been at full strength. Ted Laurent missed Week 1 against Winnipeg and Dylan Wynn missed this past game, but the unit that was felt to be one of the team’s strengths has been decidedly not. The Riders have an almost completely revamped offensive line, but you wouldn’t have known that based on how they completely dominated Hamilton’s front four.

Cody Fajardo faced very little pressure, and when he did he used his elusiveness to still find a way to make plays. The Ticats have created very little pressure over the first two games of the season, and with changes in the secondary and linebacking corps, the front-four needs to be the team’s lynchpin until those other areas get up to speed.

QB non-troversy

I know this is what everyone wants to talk about, but I still do not believe there is any reason to make a quarterback change. Jeremiah Masoli has not looked good at all so far this season. He has reverted back into the turnover-prone player he was throughout the early stages of his career, and his poor play has been a factor in why the Ticats are winless so far this season.

But he is not the only reason, and when Dane Evans came into the game against Saskatchewan he didn’t exactly set the world on fire, completing just three passes on 10 attempts.

The Ticats made the choice to go with Masoli and they should stick with that for the time being. I think the problems with this team currently go much deeper than just the poor play at the quarterback position.

With a bye week coming up, the team has a chance to really assess why things haven’t been working. If things continue to peter out like they have, then they will have to make a switch. But as things stand right now, I think they should stand pat with Masoli starting their next game, a tough road test in Montreal against a very good Alouettes team.

The ejection

The CFL in recent years, probably starting with the Will Hill incident in 2017, has had some issues with players contacting officials. The most famous scene was probably when then-Redblacks defensive back Jonathan Rose two-hand shoved an official during a melee in the 2018 Eastern Final (for which he was suspended, then later had the suspension reduced to a fine).

I am all on board with the league getting tough on players who place their hands on officials, but the ejection of Jovan Santos-Knox for abusing an official was an absurd call.

The Ticats have been on the short end of two eye-rollingly horrible penalty calls in two weeks, with Brandon Banks being flagged for taunting against Winnipeg when he was trying to toss the ball back to the official and it accidentally hit a Bombers player. That was laughingly bad, as was the Santos-Knox flag.

There was clearly no intent, and while it occurred during a scrum that was started when Saskatchewan’s Jake Harty decided he wanted to throw hands at Hamilton’s Frankie Williams, the idea that Santos-Knox knowingly or deliberately mowed over an official is ludicrous.

We will see what the league thinks when fines are handed out later this week, but from what was shown on television it feels like the officials overreacted.

Reason for optimism

A lot of doom and gloom is being written and said about the Ticats after falling to 0-2, but the sky isn’t falling and there is a reason to be optimistic heading into the final 12 games of the season.

For starters, these two games to open the season were probably always going to be Hamilton’s toughest stretch. They were both on the road, against the defending Grey Cup champs and the West’s No. 1 seed from 2019, in two hostile and difficult-to-win-in environments. There was just as good a chance the Ticats would lose both these games than win them, and while I chose to reside on the ledge of victory, defeat is hardly that surprising.

Secondly, the injury bug has hit this team hard. Bralon Addison, DeVier Posey, Chris Van Zeyl, Don Jackson and Jake Burt have all missed time to start the season on offence, while the defence hasn’t yet had Tunde Adeleke or all four defensive linemen healthy at the same time. When the Ticats get these players on the field, the team will be better. An obvious statement, yes, but one that needs to be made given how prone to depression many in Ticats nation tend to get following a pair of bad losses.

Thirdly, with seven of the last 12 at home, and all but one of those coming in the eastern time zone, the Ticats will have comforts they haven’t been afforded yet. Both the Bombers and Riders have made the most of their home stands to start the season, while the Stamps and Elks have not.

Given that we haven’t seen the Ticats lose a game at home since 2018, I think giving them the benefit of the doubt that they will be able to string some victories together once they get in front of their fans isn’t too much to ask.

Things are bad right now and that shouldn’t be sugarcoated, but it is still far too early to write this team off.

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.