Five biggest problems currently plaguing the Hamilton Tiger-Cats

Photo: Bob Butrym/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

For football teams, bye weeks are usually a time for reflection, recharging the proverbial batteries and getting ready for the grind that awaits following a week off.

For the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, this bye week should be more about figuring out why everything has gone wrong for them so far this season.

The Ticats entered the 2022 campaign as one of the favourites to win the Grey Cup, with many prognosticators picking them to make their third straight trip to the Canadian Football League title game. Others went even further and chose them to win their first CFL championship since 1999.

Instead, the Ticats are winless at 0-4, including a pair of excruciating losses at home where they blew double-digit second-half leads, and look far from the championship-calibre team many pegged them to be at the start of the season.

But why? Why is this team so bad right now? What has gone so wrong that instead of leading the division they are looking up at every other team in the standings?

There are quite a few answers if we are being honest, but I have found a way to narrow it down to the five biggest problems facing the team right now.

1. Dane Evans’ turnovers

This one is obvious. We have been talking about it for weeks now but Dane Evans is simply turning the ball over too much.

In the interest of being thorough, I went back and watched all the plays where the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ franchise quarterback turned the ball over to see if it was mostly bad luck like his defenders proclaim.

Spoiler alert: that doesn’t tell the whole story.

The bad luck argument isn’t without some merit but it is not the main reason why Evans has accounted for 12 total turnovers — eight interceptions and four fumbles — in the team’s first four games.

There are a couple of examples of interceptions occurring due to factors out of his control, namely the two that bounced off the hands of running back Sean Thomas-Erlington. there the fault lies more with the pass-catcher than the pass thrower, but those two were the exceptions.

Most of Evans’ turnovers have come because of bad decision-making by the quarterback and in looking at them in depth we can see the problem is not just unlucky bounces but the decisions that preceded them.

Evans’ throws on the interceptions by Saskatchewan’s Nick Marshall and Calgary’s Titus Wall in the team’s first and second games, respectively, were awful decisions by the quarterback. In both instances, his intended receiver was well covered, Steven Dunbar Jr. on the Marshall interception and Bralon Addison on the Wall pick. Those are throws Evans simply cannot make. That Wall one, in particular, was hurtful seeing as it occurred when the Ticats had the ball on Calgary’s 11-yard line.

Miscommunication possibly led to Evans’ second interception against the Riders but it was also a throw that did not look to be there. The intended target, Bralon Addison, was not open and may have slowed down his route while Evans expected Addison to continue into the space where Roughriders’ linebacker Derrick Moncrief made an excellent play on the ball and picked the pass off.

Evans’ pair of “bad luck” interceptions against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers were also due to some less than stellar decisions by the quarterback.

The first pick came about from tight coverage on his intended receiver which led to the tip that deflected the ball into the waiting arms of Bombers’ defensive end Willie Jefferson. A little fluky for sure, but a pass Evans probably should not have been making.

The same can be said of Evans’ second interception that night, which came after a high throw left his receiver in a vulnerable spot. The Bombers took advantage of that when linebacker Adam Bighill blasted Steven Dunbar Jr., jarring the ball loose and landing it in the hands of Nick Taylor.

The bad decisions continued against the Edmonton Elks on Evans’ second interception that night. The Ticats’ pivot threw a ball into tight coverage with three Elks’ defenders in the area. The likelihood of that play producing a positive result for the Tiger-Cats was minimal at best.

So yes, Evans has experienced some bad luck on a couple of his interceptions but the vast majority of them have been because of the poor decisions he has made.

We also can’t talk about Evans’ turnover issues without bringing up his fumbles, of which he has an astonishing four lost over the first four games.

Four on the season would be bad enough, but averaging one a week is an outright disaster. The reasons for the fumbles have been twofold but they mostly boil down to Evans being a little too cavalier with the ball in his hands.

On his first fumble, which occurred on the second play of the season, pressure forced Evans into an unwinnable situation. He initially sidestepped the pass rusher but Roughrdiers’ defensive lineman Pete Robertson beat Ticats’ left tackle Travis Vornkahl so quickly that Evans almost didn’t have time to react. While Evans did not display the type of field awareness you would hope for, it is hard to pin this one strictly on the quarterback.

Evans’ second fumble, which came in that same game against the Riders, is one you can blame on the quarterback. While he did face pressure, he was initially able to escape it and just did not protect the ball as well as he should in that situation. That allowed for a trailing defender to knock the ball out of his hand. While his offensive line did him no favours, this one falls on Evans and his need to better protect the football.

The most controversial of Evans’ four fumbles so far came the following week when he had the ball ripped from his hands by Calgary defensive back Titus Wall on a quarterback sneak. While I am still convinced Evans’ forward progress had been stopped and the play should have been over — I do disagree with Evans that he picked up the first down, however — there was no whistle blown and Evans simply relaxed too early. He’s admitted as much and that allowed Wall the chance to pry the ball out of Evans’ grasp and score the game-tying touchdown. You can blame the refs if you want for not blowing the play dead but if the whistle has not been blown, the players should not think the play is over. Evans knows that about as well as any other player in the league.

The most damaging lost fumble, his fourth of the season, occurred on last Friday night. With the Ticats nursing a three-point lead late in the fourth quarter, Elks’ defensive back Scott Hutter punched the ball out of Evans’ hands which allowed fellow defensive back Jalen Collins to scoop the ball up and score what would turn out to be the game-winning touchdown.

It was a phenomenal play by Hutter but it was made possible by Evans once again being too loose with the ball and perhaps even making a poor decision by keeping the ball himself. The play call was a read-option, which allows for the quarterback to make the decision to either hand the ball to his running back or keep it himself. Evans chose the latter and the results were disastrous. We can argue if that play should have been called at all but at the end of the day, the one thing the ball carrier cannot do in that situation is fumble. That is exactly what Evans did.

The bad luck argument many make to explain away most of Evans’ 12 turnovers this year does not hold up to scrutiny and is not supported by the facts. There have been some unfortunate circumstances surrounding a couple of his interceptions but for the most part, the blame for these turnovers falls squarely on the shoulders of No. 9.

2. Where have all the stars gone?

Hamilton’s roster does not lack star power on either side of the ball but some of those star players have not exactly been playing like such over the first month of the season.

We have already discussed the issues with Dane Evans so I won’t pile on here but Evans has not been the only star player to have a quiet start to the season. For instance, where has receiver Bralon Addison been in the last two games?

The 2019 league all-star started the 2022 season well with back-to-back eight-catch games, putting up 72 and 96 yards respectively. Since then, Addison has caught just six passes for a meagre 34 yards in the last two games combined.

Addison was expected to fill the role once occupied by 2019 Most Outstanding Player Brandon Banks but the former University of Oregon Duck has been all but invisible in his team’s last two games. If the Ticats are going to turn this season around, then Addison is going to have to step his game up.

On the defensive side of the ball, the team simply has got to get more out of free-agent signees Micah Johnson and Alden Darby, as well as perennial all-star linebacker Simoni Lawrence.

If you didn’t already know that Johnson was on the team, then watching games certainly wouldn’t clue you in. While stats aren’t the be-all and end-all for an interior defensive lineman, you do expect more than six tackles in four games from a marquee free-agent acquisition.

Johnson was brought in to solidify the defensive line following the loss of Ja’Gared Davis to the Toronto Argonauts. With just six sacks by the entire team on the season, it’s safe to say his presence has not been paving the way for his teammates to post the gaudy totals he was supposed to create.

Darby is another signing that has not yet lived up to his potential. His 10 defensive tackles are the seventh-most on the team and he has yet to create a turnover in four games as the team’s boundary halfback. His five-interception season in 2019 with the Argos is looking like an outlier, as he has not registered an interception in a regular-season game since his two-pick performance in Toronto’s season finale against the Ticats in November of that year.

Darby was brought in to bolster what was already a good defensive backfield, with the team opting to sign him in instead of focusing their attention on more concerning areas. To see the two-time Grey Cup champion get off to this slow a start is more than a little disappointing.

There has already been a lot of talk about Simoni Lawrence’s lack of impact plays and while I think that has been somewhat overblown — he is second on the team in tackles with 19 and led the team in tackles in their last game — the future Canadian Football Hall of Famer has had a quieter start to the season than you would expect from someone of his calibre.

While No. 21 has never been a big interception or sack guy — he had just three picks and four quarterback takedowns last season and has 30 sacks and 14 interceptions in 146 career games — you can usually count on him doing something impactful when the team needs a spark. The team has needed that spark all season and they have yet to get one of those “wow” plays from arguably their biggest star player.

3. Lack of offensive ingenuity

Just two seasons ago, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats were the highest-scoring team in the Canadian Football League. Last season, the Ticats were middle of the pack, finishing fifth in total scoring. This year, the Ticats are the second-lowest scoring team in the entire league on a points-per-game basis.

How did this fall happen so precipitously in such a short amount of time?

It can not be due to a lack of talent, as a lot of players on offence this year are the same ones who helped pace the team to the most points just two seasons ago.

There are obviously some execution issues but I do not think Hamilton is alone in that regard, with Toronto and Ottawa both having their own problems scoring points.

That means the only logical explanation is that it is a coaching issue and I think it is fair to start asking if (a) Ticats’ offensive coordinator Tommy Condell has lost his fastball or (b) if the rest of the league has figured out the offence Condell likes to run.

Football is a copycat sport and what works is usually stolen by other coaches. Think of the West Coast offence in the National Football League. It worked for the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s and paced them to four Super Bowl titles between 1981 and 1989. Their success running that system both bred copycats across the league and made the coaches on their staff hot commodities. You would see other coaches adopt the system and add their twists to it but the core principles remained the same.

The problem is that teams adjust and if a coach doesn’t adjust as well as the rest, they end up becoming obsolete. Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid is a perfect example of someone who was a West Coast offence aficionado, especially during his time with the Philadelphia Eagles and his early years with the Chiefs, but who adapted to the current NFL landscape of spread offences, particularly after he drafted quarterback Patrick Mahomes in 2017.

The same is true in the CFL, where Condell used to have one of the most inventive offences in the league. Condell would be able to scheme players open on pass routes and while he never developed a run game, he would use his running backs to great effect in the passing game. Think of Hamilton’s offence during C.J. Gable’s years with the team (when he wasn’t injured).

But Hamilton’s trouble this year has come because a lot of times players simply aren’t open. As was outlined above, more than a couple of Dane Evans’ eight interceptions have come with him throwing to receivers who were covered. In years past, those throws would have been academic since Condell’s offence allowed those players to have the space they needed to make an uncontested catch. This year, that has not been the case and it is starting to feel as if opposing teams have caught on to what Condell likes to do.

There is also a lack of creativity in the offence, with it feeling stale, boring and predictable. The Ticats do not utilize the run game in any great measure and when a team is throwing 40-55 times each game, the defence knows what is coming.

Even the jet sweeps and bubble screens that used to work so well for Condell have proven ineffective because they have become predictable.

If fans at home and in the stands can see what the offence is going to do next, so too can the opposing team’s defence.

4. Pass rush? Takeaways? What are those?

While the offence should shoulder a fair amount of the blame — their second-half scoring summaries are horrendous, and we will get into that in a bit — the defence does not get to escape responsibility for this 0-4 start.

Hamilton has just six sacks on the year, tied for third-fewest in the league with the Calgary Stampeders, has no player with more than one sack and just two of those sacks have come from a defensive lineman, with only one coming from a defensive end.

One of the concerns entering the season was who the team would find to replace the production of Ja’Gared Davis when he left in free agency to sign with the Argos. The answer, it seems, is no one.

While Davis isn’t generating headlines for his poor play like his former teammate Simoni Lawrence has, the former Tiger-Cat has just six tackles and zero sacks in his first three games in Double Blue. Not exactly the type of production the Argos thought they would get when they signed Davis for close to a quarter of a million dollars this offseason and made him the highest-paid defensive end in the league.

That said, his replacements for the Ticats have not exactly been filling up the stats sheet either.

Mason Bennett and Malik Carney have mostly taken over duties from Davis and have combined for 15 tackles, no sacks, no forced fumbles, and no fumble recoveries. Neither has accounted for anything impactful so far this year.

The Ticats have also been awful at creating turnovers, with just three interceptions on the season, tied for second-fewest in the league with the Ottawa Redblacks. Their lone forced fumble and fumble recovery came on special teams in the first game of the year.

If the Tabbies are to get this thing right, they are going to need to find a way to get after the quarterback much more frequently and find a way to create more turnovers. Those two things usually go hand in hand, so if the Ticats can find a way to generate more of a pass rush, then the turnover creation should follow.

5. If only the games were 30 minutes long

I outlined this in my piece following Hamilton’s loss to the Edmonton Elks last week but it is such an incredible stat that it bears repeating.

Since last year’s Grey Cup against Winnipeg, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats have been outscored in the second half and overtime of their last five games 26-15, 24-10, 30-6, 12-3, and 20-6. The fourth quarter and overtime have been especially problematic as the Black and Gold have been outscored by a combined 86-25.

In three of those five contests, all at home, the Ticats held a lead at halftime, had at least a 10-point lead at some point in the second half and twice had double-digit leads in the fourth quarter.

In fact, if the Tiger-Cats had any ability to close out a game, they, not Winnipeg, would be the defending Grey Cup champions.

A number of factors have contributed to this second-half malaise, from offensive ineptness to turnovers to defensive lapses, but the fact of the matter is this team has a problem finishing out games. Playing a full 60-minutes is something the team will have to do if they hope to turn their season around.

Bonus: Reason for hope

As Harvey Dent once said to Bruce Wayne and Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight, “It is always darkest before the dawn.”

Things look rather bleak right now for the Tiger-Cats and it definitely does not look like dawn is anywhere close to coming, but there is one saving grace for the team as they work to figure out how to right this ship.

The East Division is in shambles.

The combined record of the three other teams in the division right now is 2-8, with the Argos and Als sitting atop the division with one win a piece and the Redblacks joining the Ticats among the ranks of the winless.

Ottawa was the only East Division team to play in Week 5, losing 28-13 to Saskatchewan in a game where they also likely lost starting quarterback Jeremiah Masoli for the foreseeable future.

The East being a dumpster fire is not an excuse for the Tiger-Cats poor start but it does help minimize its impact. No team in the division is running away with anything right now and with seven of their next eight games coming against divisional opponents, the Ticats have a chance to get themselves back in this race quickly.

In 2014, Hamilton was 2-7 at midseason and rolled off seven wins in their final nine games to finish first in the East. They would make the Grey Cup that year, losing by just four points to an excellent Calgary Stampeders team.

The division that year was also horrible. The Alouettes started 1-7 and finished second at 9-9, while the Argos finished third and out of the playoffs at 8-10 and the Redblacks pulled up the rear at 2-16 in their inaugural season.

We often see and hear people invoke the 2011 B.C. Lions whenever another team gets off to a slow start. If the Lions can start 0-5 and win the Grey Cup, surely anyone can do it.

The truth is most teams can’t and there is a reason we still talk about the 2011 Lions and not one of the dozens of other teams to start seasons that poorly since then. When you start your season in a hole that deep, it is hard to climb out of it.

The same can be said of those 2014 Tiger-Cats. You do not want to be emulating that team and the chances of the Ticats going on a similar run are minuscule, but the East Division in 2022 is starting to look just as bad as the East Division of 2014 so if you are looking for that tiny sliver of hope, you have it there.

If the East Division continues to produce at the levels they are now, perhaps the dawn that District Attorney Dent was talking about in that classic Batman film is closer for the Tiger-Cats than it would appear.

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.