Hamilton’s two-quarterback system will only be successful if everyone buys in

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

The talk of Tiger Town following Hamilton’s 24-17 win over the Montreal Alouettes in Week 8 was the team’s successful use of quarterbacks Dane Evans and Matthew Shiltz.

While the pair were not equal in numbers — Evans played more than double the snaps and posted better passing statistics, while Shiltz was the more effective runner — the Ticats likely would not have beaten the Als without both playing their part.

The two quarterbacks said all the right things about their tandem performance after the game that helped lead Hamilton to their second victory of the season. The Tabbies have certainly done more winning since Shiltz’s role was increased, picking up victories in two of their last three games and coming agonizingly close to winning all three.

The black and gold have started to turn their season around by becoming a lot more flexible offensively, with the biggest change being the team becoming the first this year to make use of the ability to have two quarterbacks on the field at the same time, a new rule adopted this past off-season.

The Ticats used it to great effect in their Week 6 victory over the Ottawa Redblacks and Shiltz has received more and more playing time since. Last week’s game against Montreal was the most action he’s seen in a game so far this season and given the Ticats the first true two-quarterback system a team has run in some time.

Two-quarterback systems are rare in pro football and have become increasingly so as the game has become more pass-oriented. Quarterbacks are pointed to as leaders and the concept of swapping leaders is a difficult one for some to grasp.

In recent years the terms “truck” and “trailer” have been used to describe quarterbacks. “Truck” quarterbacks are guys who are the primary reason for their team’s success. Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell, a two-time Grey Cup champion and two-time Most Outstanding Player, is a prime example of a “truck” quarterback.

Then you have your “trailer” quarterbacks, ones who aren’t a detriment to winning but also aren’t the main reason for their team’s success. Montreal’s Trevor Harris and Toronto’s McLeod Bethel-Thompson are examples of “trailer” quarterbacks.

Many thought that Evans was a “truck” entering the season, but the 29-year-old struggled without having Jeremiah Masoli as a safety net, turning the ball over at an alarming rate and suffering his first multi-game losing streak as a starter.

Evans’ inability to lead the team essentially forced the hand of the coaching staff. They had to try something drastic to get the team out of its rut and giving a two-quarterback system a chance was the decision they appear to have made.

The Ticats are going to have to figure out at some point if Evans, the fifth-highest paid quarterback in the league, can be that “truck.” That might prove difficult if the team continues to use Shiltz as liberally as they have in recent weeks, though his appearances may have provided an answer without the question even being asked.

You cannot argue without the results so far, however. The team has won two of their last three after beginning the season winless in their first four. The question becomes whether or not using both quarterbacks over the course of a full season is viable or not.

This isn’t the first time we have seen a CFL team deploy two quarterbacks, though it has become far less frequent than it was before. The most famous quarterbacking pair would have to be Edmonton’s tandem of Tom Wilkinson and Warren Moon that led the team to four of their five consecutive Grey Cups from 1978-1982.

That pairing worked in large part because Wilkinson had experience sharing the duties previously in his career when he was platooned with Bruce Lemmerman for a few years prior to Moon’s arrival in Edmonton.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

Moon overtaking Wilkinson in 1980 — Wilkinson still saw a ton of time but was surpassed statistically by Moon for the first time — could have blown everything up. Wilkinson was a league all-star the year prior but everything went smoothly as the green and gold won the next two championships with him playing a smaller role than before.

The Toronto Argonauts followed in Edmonton’s footsteps and used two quarterbacks to help win a championship in 1983. Condredge Holloway was the league’s reigning Most Outstanding Player but that didn’t stop Argos’ head coach Bob O’Billovich from using Joe Barnes throughout the season. The two combined for over 5,000 yards passing that season and led the Argos to their first Grey Cup title in 30 years.

Like in Edmonton, this pairing worked because Barnes was not unfamiliar with sharing the quarterbacking spot. Just two years prior in 1981, Barnes was part of a moderately successful one-two punch in Saskatchewan alongside John Hufnagel. Dubbed J.J. Barnagel by the local media, the pair led the Riders to their first winning season since 1976.

The CFL has seen more two-quarterback systems since then — the Riders used Kevin Glenn and Brandon Bridge in 2017, while the Bombers operated effectively in 2019 when they deployed Zach Collaros and Chris Streveler — but for the most part, the system has been reserved for teams without a proven starter.

Except in Hamilton, where the Ticats have not been shy about using every member of their roster, including their backup quarterback, to win games.

Just last year, the team had Evans and Masoli. Hamilton went from Masoli to Evans in the East Final, a decision without which the Argos would have occupied the home locker rooms at Tim Hortons Field during the Grey Cup. Masoli took over for Evans in the title game against Winnipeg and came agonizingly close to securing the victory.

The Tabbies also used multiple quarterbacks in 2011 with Kevin Glenn and Quinton Porter and again in 2013 with Henry Burris and Dan LeFevour. One play many fans still remember to this day was LeFevour coming on for Burris in the 2013 East Semi-Final and scoring the game-winning touchdown in overtime to beat the Montreal Alouettes.

As starting quarterbacks take up more and more of the salary cap, it becomes rarer and rarer to see teams have the desire or ability to play multiple passers. But the successful ones, like the Moon-Wilkinson and Holloway-Barnes pairings, require that everyone — not just the principal actors — buy into what the team is doing.

Burris was vocally against being used in a tandem with LeFevour in 2013. His displeasure didn’t stop the team from doing it — and being at least moderately successful — it was never going to work to its full potential as one of the main players involved was vehemently opposed to it.

The Tabbies seem to have the buy-in from the two guys that matter the most. It’s just a matter of time to find out if the rest of the team buys in as well.

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.