Backup quarterback battle takes centre stage in Ticats’ preseason loss to Argos (and eight other thoughts)

Photo courtesy: Hamilton Tiger-Cats

Just as the football gods giveth — like they did last week with the Ticats winning on a walk-off field goal — they can also taketh away, as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats dropped their preseason finale 18-17 to the Toronto Argonauts on a walk-off field goal by Argos’ kicker Boris Bede.

Sometimes the score doesn’t indicate the level of play in a game but in this instance, the final score might have actually flattered both teams.

This game was so u-g-l-y that it most definitely had no alibi.

The Tabbies rested a lot of starters, especially offensively. Quarterback Dane Evans, receivers Tim White and Steven Dunbar Jr., running back Don Jackson, and offensive lineman Brandon Revenberg were just some of the notable offensive players who didn’t suit up against the Argos.

Due to this lack of starting talent, the Ticats’ offence struggled mightily, producing just 209 net yards and nine first downs over 60 minutes of action. It made for an almost unwatchable experience.

Preseason isn’t about wins or losses or even high-scoring, entertaining football though; it is about evaluating talent. Because the Tiger-Cats used Friday night’s game more as an evaluation tool than a regular-season tune-up, they were able to answer several lingering questions.

Newman shines while Morton struggles

With both Dane Evans and Matthew Shiltz entrenched in their roles as QB1 and QB2 respectively, the Ticats used Friday night’s preseason finale to get a look at the two men battling for the third-string job, Jalen Morton and Jamie Newman.

Morton got the start and struggled, going six-for-11 for 44 yards and one interception while also rushing once for 13 yards. Those numbers are not good and it only solidifies what we saw during the game.

Morton seemed to have a hard time going through his reads and when he did make a throw, it was often high of his target and made the catch difficult for his intended receiver.

Newman came on in the second half and while he didn’t light the world on fire, I do believe he fared much better than Morton. The Wake Forest product finished the game a perfect eight-of-eight for 88 yards and one touchdown while also rushing three times for 18 yards. Newman looked more poised in the pocket and it seemed like he saw the field much better, going through his progressions and making the right read.

Newman’s touchdown pass to fellow rookie Anthony Johnson, a 34-yard heave that saw Johnson get behind his defender and Newman put the ball in the perfect spot, was one of the few offensive highlights of the game for the Ticats.

A lot more than just one game goes into deciding a player’s fate but based just on Friday night’s performances, I would be inclined to go with Newman over Morton for the team’s final quarterback spot.

Out of the Woods

The play of the night for the Ticats came early, when rookie defensive back Lawrence Woods took the Argos’ first punt of the game 99 yards to pay dirt. It was a spectacular return that featured great individual play by Woods and excellent downfield blocking by the Tiger-Cats special teams unit.

Woods also added value on defence and special teams, recording a team-high six total tackles against Toronto — five on defence and one on special teams. The Truman State product showcased his versatility and while I do not expect a lot of rookies to make the active roster when cuts are made this weekend, if I was Lawrence Woods I would be spending my weekend looking for a place to live in Hamilton.

Punters bounce back

After a disastrous opening game for them, the Ticats’ punters were much better on Friday night.

Blake Hayes and Joel Whitford each received plenty of opportunities as the Ticats punted 11 times against Toronto, and while some of their kicks were definitely aided by the gusting winds in Guelph — inclement weather during a Ticats game played at Alumni Stadium, who would have thought — the Aussie duo mostly showed well.

Whitford punted six times for a net average of 37.3 yards, while Hayes booted five punts for a net average of 44.8 yards. Both had punts over 50 yards and there was only really one bad punt the entire game, Whitford’s final one of the night.

For my money, Whitford was the better of the two, despite his final punt setting the Argos up with the good field position they needed to win the game. Neither was spectacular, but neither was an unmitigated disaster like we saw a week prior.

Given that I tend to lean towards a newcomer having to be substantially better than the incumbent to win the job, I think Whitford gets the call to open the season.

Bulldozer Wes versus Shifty Lee

The Tiger-Cats running back competition took centre stage against the Argos, with a pair of American backups getting their last chance to impress before cutdown day.

While Canadian Sean Thomas-Erlington got the start, it was the Wes Hills and Dejoun Lee who were the real focus of the run game.

Hills carried the ball four times for 13 yards and once again displayed his power in fighting for extra yards. He also displayed his inability to make people miss or break tackles. Hills would be a load to deal with near the goal line, but it is hard to get consistent playing time in the CFL as a running back if you can only average 3.3 yards per carry.

Lee’s numbers weren’t much better, carrying the ball seven times for 21 yards, but the diminutive University of Delaware product also contributed on special teams, returning two punts for 26 yards, two kickoffs for 34 yards, and one missed field goal for 27 yards.

His first return, an 11-yard scamper up the sideline, was maybe his most impressive of the night. Lee had little room to maneuver and made something out of nothing, a trait that CFL teams desire.

Papi White is going to be the team’s primary return man when the season starts, and Lawrence Woods should clearly be his backup, but Dejoun Lee may have found a way to stick around on the practice roster due to his versatility.

Hills has shown he is exactly who we thought he is, a tough, downhill runner who can pick up the dirty yards but won’t be a game-breaker. The team is very high on the former Detroit Lion but given the Tiger-Cats’ crowded backfield and the difficulty in getting two non-special-teams-playing American running backs on the roster, Hills’ chances of making the team could be hurt by the numbers game.

Don’t test this defence

While Hamilton sat a lot of projected starters on offence, the same cannot be said of the defence. For the most part, the defensive lineup we saw against the Argos on Friday night is the same one we are likely to see when the team opens their season against the Saskatchewan Roughriders on June 11 and they looked good.

The defence allowed more yards than you would like to see but they clamped down where it matters most, in the red zone. The Argos, who kept most of their projected starting offence in for the entire first half, managed just three field goals over the game’s first 30 minutes.

The Ticats did surrender a lot in the passing game — with Toronto quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson completing 16-of-26 passes for 187 yards in the first half — but once again shut the door against the run by giving up just 14 yards to the tailback who started for the Argos on Friday, A.J. Ouelette.

The passing yards could concern some, especially given how the secondary was supposed to be the lynchpin of the defence, but there were a couple of nice pass breakups by Richard Leonard and Ciante Evans, while Alden Darby had another solid outing. I believe the secondary will be fine.

The Chad Kelly experience

Argos’ quarterback Chad Kelly has gotten a lot of publicity from the CFL media mostly due to his family lineage — Kelly is the nephew of Buffalo Bills’ legend and Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Kelly — so I was interested to see him get into the game and find out for myself if the production matched the hype.

To my surprise, it mostly did.

Kelly played in the second half against Hamilton’s second and third-string defence, but I saw a lot to like from the former University of Mississippi star. Kelly finished 8-of-15 for 85 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and looked way more comfortable out there than I expected for a player in just his second game of CFL action.

The Argos released veteran quarterback Antonio Pipkin because of how well Kelly has performed during his first CFL training camp and now I can see why. I don’t know if he will ever reach the heights of his much-more-famous uncle, but the younger Kelly has gotten off to a pretty decent start in his CFL career and if he continues to progress, I do think the future is bright for the former seventh-round pick.

The returns of Speedy and J.G.

While it was only the preseason, Friday night marked the first time former Tiger-Cats stars Brandon Banks and Ja’Gared Davis played against their old team. Davis did not record a stat and I am honestly not sure how much — if at all — he even played, as I do not remember a single instance of his name being mentioned.

Banks, however, was a focal point of the Argos’ offence during the first half, being targeted seven times and catching three of those passes for 34 yards.

The University of Guelph was where Banks broke into the CFL with the Ticats. He came to the team in 2013 when the Black and Gold played their home games at Alumni Stadium while Tim Hortons Field was being constructed, so Friday night was a homecoming of sorts for the 2019 Most Outstanding Player.

This contest was just the appetizer though, with the real homecoming for both players occurring in August when the two former Ticats make their first trip back to Tim Hortons Field in enemy colours. I do not expect a warm welcome for either and the reception will be even worse when the Argos head back to Tim Hortons Field on the first Monday in September for the Labour Day Classic.

Argos’ broadcast versus Ticats’ broadcast

Up until the day before kickoff, this game was not set to be televised anywhere. Then the Argos came through and offered a live stream of the game on their website. The video wasn’t great, as it was just the feed from the video screen at the stadium, but that was to be expected. Some video was better than no video at all.

What made the experience nearly excruciating to watch was the commentating.

For the first quarter, I sat through the Argos’ side of the broadcast with play-by-play man Mike Hogan calling the action and I have to say it was one of the worst called games I have ever heard.

I understand that being a radio announcer for the team means a little bit of homerism, but Hogan was over the top in not only his praise for the Argos but also in showing his clear disdain for the Ticats.

I understand that Hogan is catering to his listenership, which would mostly be super diehards of the Argos. Barbs about opposing teams aren’t something that normally bothers me but the relentlessness of it made the game borderline unlistenable.

Hogan kept referring to the Ticats as the “Tabby Kitties” which, while cute and even a little funny at first, gets old and lame after you hear it every time the Ticats have the ball. His assertion that Dylan Wynn’s “Ravishing” Rick Rude/Val Venis-inspired sack dance is somehow the worst sack dance in the league — when it is clearly the best — might be one of the worst takes from any sports personality we will hear all year.

Those were minor quibbles and while I do not agree at all with some of his opinions on this Argos team — namely that Toronto has the best roster in the East Division and that health is all that stands between the Double Blue and a Grey Cup berth — it was his glossing over of the Chris Edwards situation from last year’s East Final that had me switching over to the Tiger-Cats’ broadcast.

Making that switch made me feel like Dorothy after she left Kansas and landed in Oz. The dreary black and white had been replaced by resplendent colour and the experiences could not have been more opposite one another.

The Ticats’ crew of R.J. Broadhead doing play-by-play and Luke Tasker doing colour commentary was phenomenal. The Ticats duo called the action in a much more visually pleasing way, giving information to the listener that was lacking on the Argos’ side of the broadcast. They also didn’t make eyebrow-raising errors like when Hogan claimed that Matthew Shiltz was in at quarterback for the Ticats when it was clearly Jalen Morton. Whenever the Ticats’ crew did make a mistake they were quick to correct it and give the right information to the listeners.

Broadhead and Tasker also weren’t afraid to be critical of the Ticats, with Tasker, in particular, bringing up the team’s punting issues from a week ago and bemoaning players for taking unnecessary penalties. I much prefer honest assessments of a team’s strengths and weaknesses versus constant cheerleading.

If you are an Argos fan and enjoy Hogan’s schtick, more power to you. As someone who doesn’t listen to radio broadcasts, I found the difference between the Argos’ crew and the Ticats’ crew to be night and day.

Cutdown day looms

Ticats’ head coach Orlondo Steinauer says this is the worst part of the job but now that training camp and the preseason are over, teams around the league need to trim their rosters to get ready for the start of the regular season.

Hamilton has a lot of tough decisions to make, but I don’t anticipate seeing any shock releases as we have seen in the past.

Injuries have helped in this regard, with Bralon Addison’s unspecified ailment possibly opening the door for a second rookie American receiver to make the active roster and the absence of a trio of Canadians — receivers Lemar Durant and Tyler Ternowski, and offensive lineman Coulter Woodmansey — also potentially forcing the club into changing their starting ratio.

Playing the guessing game of who stays and who goes is fun for fans and media, but it’s obviously tough for men whose careers hang in the balance. Some very good football players will see their professional dreams end this weekend and you can’t help but feel for them.

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.