Tiger-Cats can’t overcome systemic issues & 14 other thoughts on a humiliating loss to the Argos

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

Coming up with new ways to describe the same thing is becoming as difficult as watching the second half of any Hamilton Tiger-Cats game.

For what felt like the hundredth time this season but was really the sixth, the Ticats lost a game where they entered halftime either leading or tied.

This time, the Tabbies were up 16-10 at the break and watched as the Toronto Argonauts completely dominated the second half to win 37-20 on a breezy night at BMO Field.

The Ticats held a 13-3 lead with less than two minutes remaining in the half before the Argos marched the field to cut it down to three. Hamilton would respond with a three of their own before time expired but all told, the visitors watched as the Argos stormed back from down 10 to score 34 of the game’s final 41 points.

Hamilton mustered just four points in the second half while Toronto scored 27.

We are now 11 games into the 2022 season and the idea that the Tiger-Cats will be able to fix the issues plaguing this team is delusional at best. This is who the Ticats are: a bad football team that makes mind-bogglingly poor decisions and just does not have the talent to compete with the league’s mediocre, let alone the league’s best.

The Tabbies are now 3-8, four points back of the Argos for first in the East and two points behind the idle Montreal Alouettes for second place. Some may still believe this team can turn things around and make a playoff push but that simply does not seem possible at this point.

The 2022 Hamilton Tiger-Cats are a bad football team and if not for the even worse Ottawa Redblacks, the seats in the Hammer would be much hotter than they seem to be at this moment.

Here are more of my thoughts on the game.

Dane is done

One player does not make or break a single game or even a team’s season but when you watch Dane Evans play, you get the suspicion that he is physically and mentally broken.

Before the shoulder injury that kept him out of the last two games, it looked as if Evans had turned the corner. His turnover issues were behind him, his fumbling problem was seemingly solved, and the team was starting to look functional.

That all came crashing down against the Argos.

Evans had perhaps his worst game of the season, completely melting down in the second half and being singularly responsible for four of Hamilton’s six turnovers on Friday night.

It is not just that Evans turned the ball over; it was how egregiously bad his three interceptions and one fumble were that is cause for concern.

He threw balls into tight coverage, stared down receivers, or was careless with the ball in his hands. His four turnovers led to 17 Argos points, the exact margin of victory for the double blue.

With a functional quarterback, none of those turnovers would occur. The 28-year-old started making crucial mistakes as soon as he began to put the whole game on his shoulders.

Evans’ first-quarter fumble was a microcosm of the team’s season, as he stepped up in the pocket and simply had the ball stolen from his hands — somewhat reminiscent of his fumble against the Calgary Stampeders back in Week 2.

With Evans at the helm after Matthew Shiltz left the game with a wrist injury, the Ticats could muster just a single point over their final five drives and turned the ball over on the other four. With the game within reach — Evans re-entered the contest following his benching just after the Argos took a 20-19 lead — the Ticats made unforced errors like they were John McEnroe at the 1984 French Open against Ivan Lendl.

Evans was once thought to be the future face of the franchise and the team paid him as such this offseason. I think it is now fair to wonder if the Sanger, Texas native should even be on the field at all the rest of this season or on the roster in 2023.

Shiltz the starter

It is almost indefensible to argue otherwise at this point: Matthew Shiltz gives the Hamilton Tiger-Cats the best chance to win.

Hamilton’s offence seems more dynamic with the former Montreal Alouette behind centre and the difference in output is almost night and day.

Shiltz finished Friday’s game going 13-of-15 for 144 yards, one touchdown and zero turnovers while Evans went 19-of-30 for 244 yards, three interceptions, one fumble and zero touchdowns.

Shiltz led Hamilton’s offence to 16 of the team’s 20 points in less than two quarters of football and looked in full command of the offence. I don’t know if the Ticats would have been able to get the victory against Toronto had Shiltz stayed on the field but they likely would not have been as humiliated as they were once Evans returned.

Shiltz should be the team’s starter going forward but his ability to lead this team is complicated by the wrist injury he suffered in the third quarter.

If it is a long-term injury, Hamilton’s already sunk season sinks further. The second the product of Butler University can get back on the field, he should be handed the reins to the team for the remainder of the season.

Season-defining drive

While one drive does not win or lose a game, it can have a lasting impact that penetrates the rest of the proceedings. Such was the case with Toronto’s final first-half drive.

Up to that point in the game, the Argos were a mess. McLeod Bethel-Thompson had completed only four of his 11 pass attempts, the Boatmen had picked up just two first downs and managed to generate an incomprehensibly low 28 yards of offence.

Then the team went into Super Sayian mode, marching 70 yards in 50 seconds on six plays to score their first touchdown of the game. It was an inexcusable lapse by Hamilton’s defence and allowed the Argos to get back into a game they had been thoroughly dominated in up to that point.

It was another example of the Ticats’ inability to close out halves and games — the catalyst the double blue needed to completely embarrass the black and gold in the second half.

Season-defining play

One play does not a game make either, however, the critical drop by receiver Tim White in the third quarter shows just why the Hamilton Tiger-Cats are in the position they are in. Instead of going up 23-13 with a massive touchdown catch, the Ticats settled for a field goal.

In White’s defence, Shiltz did not make a great throw, the ball was behind and he had to adjust just to give himself a chance to catch the ball. Nevertheless, given where this team is at the moment, those types of plays need to be made.

Would it have made a difference in the long run? Maybe not, but these are the types of things that the team has failed to capitalize on all season. That’s a major reason why they find themselves five games below .500.

The Amazing, Disappearing Don

Hamilton running back Don Jackson has shown in the past that he can be a difference maker on offence, whether during his time in Calgary or his late-season insertion into the Ticats’ lineup last year.

His talents are being wasted this season and, maybe worst of all, he is being completely left out of the game plan for long stretches.

He had perhaps his most productive game of the season against the Argos, accumulating 86 yards from scrimmage — 34 rushing and 52 receiving — on 16 touches. Most of his damage came in the first half when he was used liberally in both the run and pass game, but he saw scant little attention in the game’s final 30 minutes.

After halftime, Jackson touched the ball just three times and was targeted on two other pass attempts that fell incomplete. If the Tabbies are going to use a playmaker of Jackson’s calibre so infrequently, it begs the question as to why the team even brought him back this off-season.

The Ticats are a much more dynamic offence when Jackson is involved throughout a full game and that has yet to happen this year. The Tiger-Cats are wasting the prime years of a tailback who could help take some of the offensive load off the shoulders of their embattled quarterback.

No Small feat

If you are looking for a silver lining on the 2022 Hamilton Tiger-Cats, the emergence of rookie Seth Small as a legitimately great CFL kicker is one of them.

Small was not perfect against the Argos but he went four-of-five on his field goal attempts, including kicking a franchise record 58-yarder on the final play of the second quarter.

On the season, Small has hit 18 of his 21 field goal attempts and his 85.7 percent success rate ranks behind just perennial all-stars Rene Parades, Sean Whyte and Brett Lauther.

It is definitely scraping the bottom of the barrel for positives when you bring up the placekicker but given the state of the team’s kicking game since Lirim Hajurullahu left to give the NFL a shot, finding their possible long-term solution at that spot is not something to ignore.

Head in the McLeod

The Ticats were not the only team to enter Friday’s contest with quarterbacking questions as the team opposite them is also dealing with their own.

Argos’ QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson might be the most polarizing quarterback in the Canadian Football League this season. While he has his detractors, he also has his fervent defenders and it seems as if no one is allowed to be middle of the road when it comes to the Argos’ signal caller.

Let me be that man in the middle. While I do not think MBT is anywhere close to an elite-level player, I also do not think he is as bad as some make him out to be.

TSN spent the entirety of Friday’s game going back and forth on their opinions of Toronto’s pivot. At one point, his job was in jeopardy. Then they pivoted to show how he’s passed Doug Flutie on the team’s all-time passing yards list — though that might be an indictment of the quarterbacking history of the Argos rather than an endorsement of Bethel-Thompson’s greatness.

Against the Ticats, the San Francisco, California native was his usual unremarkable, albeit mostly competent, self. He started slowly but picked up his play as the game went along, finishing with 258 yards on 19-of-32 passing for three touchdowns and one interception. He was aided by an Argos’ defence that forced six Tiger-Cats’ turnovers but he made the plays he needed to make when he needed to make them.

The five-year veteran was not helped by his receiving corps as they dropped numerous passes and he has failed to find any sort of rhythm with free agent acquisition Brandon Banks. He won’t be the reason the Argos make or potentially even win the Grey Cup this year but he probably won’t be the reason they don’t either.

McLeod Bethel-Thompson is an average quarterback who can look above average with a good surrounding cast. The Argos have a decent enough one around him that he could find himself as a Grey Cup champion by season’s end.

Junk shot

Football can be a dirty game. We have seen late hits, low hits, high hits, and everything in between, but few things are as dirty as punching another man in the nether regions.

It is not something we see often but Toronto defensive back Eric Sutton was ejected from Friday’s game after hauling off and punching Hamilton receiver Kiondre Smith right in the grapefruits following a second-quarter punt return.

TSN showed the replay and I am not sure I have seen a more egregious “junk punch” in all my years of watching football.

The incident was partly funny — honestly, any time someone gets hit in the genitals, it is at least a little bit funny — and partly horrifying. Sutton will likely get fined for his nut punch and it gave us a memorable moment in what was mostly an unmemorable contest.

Lemar Durant finally joins the chat

Friday’s game saw prized free agent acquisition Lemar Durant score his first touchdown in black and gold. Durant had unquestionably his best game since signing with the Ticats last winter, hauling in three passes for 39 yards and the aforementioned touchdown.

It is a sad state of affairs when a 39-yard output is being looked at as a breakout performance but you grasp at any straws you can in a game like this.

Durant is 12th — yes, twelfth — on the team in receiving yards with 62 yards on six catches, four yards behind American rookie Anthony Johnson, who caught two passes in just one game this year. Given his lack of production, is it fair to say that Durant’s signing was one of the biggest errors of the off-season and that he has been one of the biggest free agent busts in recent team history?

The Darby dilemma

Another free agent signing looking highly questionable is the team’s decision to steal Alden Darby Jr. away from the Ottawa Redblacks.

Darby has played in just one game since Cariel Brooks returned from injury and, after a decent showing against the Alouettes a week ago, was once again relegated to the bench against the Argonauts.

Darby started the season slowly but had picked up his game in the weeks leading up to his initial benching. He then got into the lineup against Montreal and was one of the team’s better defensive backs but found himself on the outside looking in after the Ticats’ brain trust decided to roster Desmond Lawrence over him.

I genuinely believe that the two-time Grey Cup champion is a more versatile player, a better special teams contributor — even if Lawrence did have a very nice tackle on Brandon Banks following a second-quarter punt — and the type of leader this team desperately needs right now. Continuing to sit him seems like the wrong decision.

When numbers lie

During Friday’s game, TSN made a point to highlight the “great” season that Ticats’ second-year receiver Tim White is having. I put great in quotation marks because while the numbers may show he is the team’s best receiver, he has been far from that for most of the season.

White did have his third 100-yard game of the year against Toronto but his season has not been as good as his total numbers indicate.

The 28-year-old Arizona State University product is fifth in the league in receiving yards and tied for the league lead in receptions, both of which are buttressed by his three best games. They have accounted for exactly half of his season total in receptions and just over half of his season total in receiving yards.

White has admittedly turned a corner in the last couple of weeks, becoming a much larger part of the team’s passing attack and making the most of the added opportunities that have come his way. He has been targeted an incredible 25 times in the last two games but to distill his season down to just the numbers ignores the struggles he was having to start the year.

Jay-Z once said, “Men lie, women lie, numbers don’t,” but the third greatest rapper of all time had never seen Tim White’s 2022 stats when he said that.

A quiet place

The last time these two teams met at BMO Field, some waves were made regarding the possibility of crowd noise being piped in at the stadium. This allegation did not sit well with Argos fans, who have a need to inflate their worth as a fan base — though I will give credit to the person who came up with the “loudest fans per capita” hashtag because that is legitimately funny.

There were no allegations made last night and probably for good reason: the stadium seemed awfully quiet for long stretches. Despite an attendance figure better than the previous game, the stadium felt more akin to a funeral gathering than a hotly contested football game between two of the league’s fiercest rivals.

Maybe the lack of ferocity was due to Hamilton’s general second-half ineptitude or maybe fans from both sides have grown tired of this matchup, as the teams have played three times over the previous four weeks. Regardless, the stadium that jokingly claims to be the loudest in the country was deadly quiet on Friday night.

Road No-arriors

There are many reasons why the Ticats are 3-8 but one of the under-reported ones is this team’s horrendous record on the road this season. A year after going 3-4 and two seasons removed from finishing 6-3 as the visitors, Hamilton is currently winless in six road contests in 2022.

This is the worst road start for the Tiger-Cats since 2014 when the team began the season with five straight road defeats. The last time the Ticats did not win a single road game was back in 2007.

Hamilton has not been particularly competitive in road contests this year, losing by a combined score of 173-105, and all but two of their road losses have come by 14 or more points.

With three more road games left for the Tabbies — at Montreal on September 23, at Calgary on October 14 and at Ottawa on October 29 — there is the very real chance this team will go winless on the road for the first time in 15 years.

Up next

Mercifully, the Ticats-Argos series of 2022 comes to an end in what is usually the main event of the season: the Labour Day Classic.

If there was one game where you could count on the Ticats coming to play, even in their darkest times, it was on the first Monday of September.

The black and gold have won the last seven Labour Day Classics and have yet to lose to the Argos on the holiday since opening Tim Hortons Field back in 2014.

The last time the Argos won the Labour Day Classic was in 2012, the last one held at Ivor Wynne Stadium. The Argos won that game 33-30 behind a pair of excellent performances from quarterback Ricky Ray and receiver Chad Owens.

For the first time since that scorching hot day a decade ago, it feels like the Ticats could actually lose this one. Even when the team wasn’t necessarily great — the 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2018 teams were varying degrees of mediocre to awful — the unease being felt right now was not there.

When Hamilton had bad seasons, the one reprieve was getting the satisfaction of defeating their most hated rival on Labour Day. Some truly awful Tiger-Cats team accomplished that feat — the 1991 game is one worth looking up — but Labour Day washed it all away.

During the dark times, 2003-2008, the Ticats won just once on Labour Day, a 33-30 victory in 2005. They tied in an instant classic in 2004 but otherwise were outclassed by the double blue on Hamilton football’s most hallowed day.

Given where this team is at right now and how they’ve managed to get to this point, there is a real sense that this Tiger-Cats team will also wear that shame.

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.