Much like dancing the tango, it takes two to quarterback the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Entering the 2022 season, much of the discussion in Steeltown centred around the decision to move on from quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and make the team’s experienced 1B option, Dane Evans, the face of the franchise.
Evans had started plenty of games in Hamilton, including two Grey Cups, but he’d never been the undisputed top arm in the building. His peaceful symbiosis with Masoli had benefitted the Ticats, but some wondered whether he could shoulder the load without a safety net behind him.
An early season rash of turnovers that accompanied an 0-4 start seemed to prove the naysayers right but Evans has since turned the corner. However, he’s not doing it alone.
Backup quarterback Matthew Shiltz has seen an increased number of reps under centre since the team’s first victory against Ottawa and never more so than in their defeat of the Montreal Alouettes on Thursday. A true two-quarterback system has emerged and Evans couldn’t be happier.
“You guys know me, I don’t care [so long as] we win,” he told the Hamilton media after the win.
“I think Matt is a fantastic quarterback just as well and this is a team sport, the ultimate team game. If there’s a way to get him on the field, like we’ve been doing with two quarterbacks the last couple of weeks, or just let him go, I don’t care. I’ll sit there, signalling everything for him and if we win the game, I’m the happiest guy ever.”
Released by Montreal ahead of free agency, the 29-year-old Shiltz was viewed as a valuable insurance policy for Hamilton. He wasn’t expected to be an on-field complement to the 28-year-old Evans and few would have predicted that the Ticats would be the first to exploit the CFL’s offseason rule change which allows for two quarterbacks on the field.
Yet offensive coordinator Tommy Condell has found an athletic spark in the veteran back-up that the team was initially missing, giving him unique packages to keep the defence off-balance.
“I’m just trying to stay ready for whenever my number’s called. That’s something I’ve always taken pride in, especially being a backup,” Shiltz said Thursday night, stressing the lessons he learned from his years on the bench in Montreal.
“You never know when your opportunity will come, whether it’s a few plays here and there or, God forbid, something happens to the starter and you have to go in and play the full game. I just try and stay ready for whenever my number’s called and do whatever I can to help the team.”
Evans remains the team’s primary passing threat, going 13-of-18 for 206 yards and a touchdown this week. Shiltz can throw the ball as well, connecting on seven-of-10 attempts for 44 yards, but provides a much different option on the ground. His four carries for 42 yards led the team against Montreal, a fact that excited his teammate post-game.
“Hell yeah, let’s go! I haven’t done that since like high school,” Evans grinned. “I can scoot a little bit but I’m not crazy [like that].”
Despite running a 4.61 forty-yard dash coming out of Butler, Shiltz’s athletic ability was never highlighted to this extent in his previous four CFL seasons and he’s quickly approaching a career-high in rushing. That’s an element that Evans — who ran a 5.05 at Tulsa — can’t provide and the two have formed a positive partnership that dates to before Shiltz ever wore black and gold.
“We go back a few years because we’ve been training together down in Texas a bit. Our relationship has been more than just this offseason and into this season, training camp and the first however many games we’ve had,” Shiltz said.
“We’re communicating all week. We’re in there watching film. We’re talking about how we see things, how we see things differently, and we have really good conversations in the film room and even out on the field. We keep each other accountable.”
“That relationship is just incredible and Dane’s a heck of a guy. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
Much as it did with Masoli, Evans’ ability to share the spotlight has helped to get Hamilton back on track. The team is 2-1 since Shiltz took on a larger role and his workload has only increased as the starter’s season has stabilized.
It appears some people just work better in pairs.