Ticats suffer first Labour Day loss in a decade (and 11 other thoughts)

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

Over the years, Hamilton Tiger-Cats fans could usually count on walking out of the stadium after the Labour Day Classic with smiles on their faces regardless of how bad the team was entering the game.

In the 50 previous Labour Day Classics between the Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts, the Ticats had lost just 13 times. The most recent loss prior to Monday’s 28-8 debacle was in 2012, which saw the home side drop a 33-30 decision in the final Classic played at their iconic old home of Ivor Wynne Stadium.

Prior to Monday afternoon’s clash, Hamilton had not lost in the seven Labour Day Classic played at Tim Hortons Field, with most of the games not even being particularly close as evidenced by their 240-156 score differential in those games against their divisional arch-rival.

Hope sprung eternal heading into this season’s edition of the Classic despite the team’s 3-8 record, knowing that even when things are at their lowest — and they are low right now for the black and gold — a win on Labour Day over the Argos was all but assured.

So, uh, about that…

In one of the worst performances this team has conjured up all season, the Ticats scored one — yes, one — point on offence and amassed just 253 total yards in a 20-point defeat to the now 6-5, first-place Argonauts.

The 2022 season has been a year of downs for the franchise, but Monday’s embarrassing loss on home soil to their bitterest rival in the season’s biggest regular season game may be its nadir.

Bad Tiger-Cats teams win on Labour Day whereas the horrible ones do not. With the loss on Monday, and a bad one at that, it feels safe to assume which category this year’s team belongs in.

A Tim Hortons Field record crowd of 25,266 watched as the Ticats scored their fewest points on Labour Day since a 40-6 loss in 2006 and suffered their worst defeat since a 32-14 loss in 2007. The faint hope that maybe, just maybe, this team could claw its way back into playoff contention has all but been extinguished.

Losing like the Tabbies have been losing is one thing but to do so on Labour Day is as inexcusable as it gets for the franchise, the coaches, the players and the fans. The two-time defending East Division champions are now on life support and it might be time to pull the plug.

Here are some more thoughts.

Anemic, thy name is Hamilton

In my 40 years on the earth I have seen a lot of bad offensive football — I once watched the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Miami Dolphins 3-0 on Monday Night Football — but few things are as truly horrific to watch as bad offence in the CFL and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats gave bad offence a bad name on Monday.

What Hamilton did when they had the ball against the Argos is something that belongs in the football version of Botchamania, a popular YouTube series that chronicles cringeworthy wrestling moments. It was horrible in that can’t-look-away sense but it was so unappealing that you wished you had lost your ability to see about halfway through the game.

Some of the numbers for the Ticats are truly astounding in the worst way possible: just 184 pass yards, 33 percent conversation percentage on second down, 10 punts, six two-and-outs, and zero trips into the red zone.

Let me say that again: zero trips to the red zone.

In a league that has done everything in its power to increase offensive output, the Ticats played one of the worst offensive games of the season.

Things were bad in the first half but got worse in the second as the Ticats were outscored in the game’s final 30 minutes once again. This time, the team could not even manage a single point, getting outscored 20-0 in the second half. Getting thumped over the game’s final two quarters is nothing new for the Tiger-Cats but normally they manage to at least produce some offence. On Monday, they never even got into Argos territory in the second half until their final drive of the game.

A lot will be made of the fact the team started a rookie quarterback in Jamie Newman but we saw the Ticats just last year operate with a deficiency at the quarterback position and still win. Third-stringer David Watford started and won a pair of games for the team when both Dane Evans and Jeremiah Masoli were injured. The games weren’t pretty, but they were victories.

What we saw from the Ticats against the Argos was an unimaginative, uninspired, and seemingly uncaring game plan. They did not attempt to move the pocket, did not try to take advantage of Newman’s arm strength or mobility, and simply did not set up their rookie pivot to succeed. In a year full of poor game planning, what we saw on Monday afternoon may have been the worst yet.

Hey, Newman

Newman, who once had NFL draft buzz after a decent collegiate career at Wake Forest University, played about as well as you would expect a 24-year-old making his first career CFL start to play.

He showed off some of his athleticism by running the ball six times for 24 yards, while also displaying some competency passing the ball, going 14-of-25 for 171 yards and one interception. He made some “wow” plays with his arm, such as a pair of deep passes to receivers Tim White and Kiondre Smith, but as was the case for most of Monday’s game, they come with the caveat that they both fell incomplete.

While the six-foot-four, 230-pounder was not the catalyst for victory some may have hoped he would be, he was not as out of sorts as you would expect from a first-time starter. If the Ticats are looking to evaluate players ahead of a crucial 2023 season, giving Newman more reps as the season winds down would not be the worst idea in the world. This team is going nowhere and finding out if they have something in the former Demon Deacon should be high on the team’s list of priorities over their final six games of the season.

The phenomenal one

Labour Day brings about some surprising heroes and while he might not be the main reason the Argos took him their first Labour Day Classic victory since 2012, running back A.J. Ouellette was definitely one of the biggest bright spots for the double blue.

His rushing totals were rather pedestrian, just 46 yards on 11 carries, but the Covington, Ohio native was a load to bring down, constantly bouncing off the first tackler, and aided in the Argos extending a few drives.

The five-foot-nine, 207-pound bulldozer also added value in the passing game, catching five passes for 70 yards. He was a menace for the Boatmen, bringing up comparisons to another stout, truck-like back from Toronto’s past, Chad Kackert.

Ouellette is only seeing the field because prized free agent acquisition Andrew Harris is out for the rest of the year with a torn pectoral muscle, but the bruising back is making the most of his opportunity and perhaps auditioning himself for a starting role, either with the Argos or someone else, next season.

Sting like a (speedy) bee

A lot is going to be made of Brandon Banks returning to Hamilton on Labour Day and torching his former team for two touchdowns, both in the fourth quarter to win and then ice the game. This will bring about the familiar cadre of voices saying the team never should have let him go.

Banks has had a modest season in Toronto, he is just 24th in the league in receiving yards and fourth on the Argos, and even his heart-ripping performance on Monday was more of an aberration than a continuation of a bounce-back season.

Banks had just two catches in the game and three touches overall but he made the most of them and got the last laugh as his new team plunged what feels like the final nail in his old team’s coffin.

Hot rod

One of the few good things to come out of Monday’s loss was the continued great play of defensive back Rodney Randle Jr. as the former Montreal Alouette notched his second interception in as many games as a member of the Tiger-Cats.

Randle’s release from Montreal was curious at the time, but he has slid nicely into Ciante Evans’ field corner position and the team has not missed a beat with No. 32 filling in for No. 7.

It is definitely a small consolation but in a game that did not see very much in the way of positive play, the performance by Randle was noteworthy.

Turn and face the strain

While the team will never say it, it certainly feels like the Ticats have turned the page on the 2022 season. The recent acquisition of David Beard is a prime example of the team making moves with an eye toward the 2023 season now that the 2022 season is two-thirds of the way through.

Other changes could also be in the offing, with the Ticats now sliding down the standings and sharing the basement with the also-terrible Ottawa Redblacks (Ottawa is currently in third place due to having played one fewer game than Hamilton).

We have already seen the Edmonton Elks start their fire sale — trading Beard to Hamilton was just one of several moves the green and gold have made in recent weeks — and one has to wonder if Hamilton dealing some aging players might not soon be in the offing.

This team is not going to be playoff bound this season and giving real, valuable game time to some of the younger players could give the team a chance to get a jump on their planning for the 2023 season.

Like HBO, there are no playmakers to be found here

There have been a lot of areas where the team misdiagnosed what they had but nowhere is that more evident than in the team’s pass catchers. A year after Tim White and Steven Dunbar Jr. looked poised to become the next great Tiger-Cats receivers, both, regardless of their yearly totals, look like second options at best.

Against the Argos, with a rookie quarterback starting his first game, Hamilton needed their playmakers to, well, make plays. Time and time again they failed.

White, who TSN was pumping up last week, had just six catches for 56 yards. Dunbar, who had five touchdowns in the first seven games, has not found the end zone since the team’s July 28 game against the Alouettes and allowed a pass to carom off his chest and into the waiting arms of Argos’ defensive back Jamal Peters.

The Ticats desperately needed one of their offensive weapons to help their young quarterback out and no one stepped up.

Just curious, but does anyone know what Jaelon Acklin is up to? Asking for a friend.

Jamal Peters, tiger king

If Jamal Peter only played the Hamilton Tiger-Cats he would set the single-season interception record by midseason. Peters had another two picks on Labour Day, upping his total to six on the season, five of which have come against the Ticats in the last two games.

Jamal Peters not only owns the team but he is going to make the divisional all-star team just off what he has done against Hamilton. When Peters gets that bonus for being named an East Division all-star in November he will have to give a special shoutout to the Tiger-Cats for making it possible.

Too many cooks in the kitchen

A lot was made of Hamilton’s brain trust entering the season, with highly-regarded names such as Ed Hervey and Spencer Zimmerman joining the team’s front office and Casey Creehan joining the coaching staff. The organization added even more experience when they hired Khari Jones as a front office consultant after his unceremonious departure from the Montreal Alouettes in July.

Despite all that experience, the team is mired in its worst stretch since 2017 and one has to wonder if perhaps there are too many voices looking to be heard. Death by committee has hurt other teams in the past — remember Ottawa’s ill-fated offence by committee approach in 2019? — and despite how experienced or how smart the people on staff are there is such a thing as too many cooks in the kitchen.

While Steinauer remains the voice at the top, there are numerous people within the organization who have been successful in the league in other stops. It is entirely possible that some of Hamilton’s problems this season stem from the fact that there are simply too many people being heard.

Playoff-like atmosphere

There was not a lot to take away positively from Monday’s shameful display but the atmosphere in and around Tim Hortons Field was electric, at least at the start of the game.

I have been to almost every Tiger-Cats game played at the stadium and outside of maybe the 2014 and 2019 East Finals, I cannot remember a crowd as amped up as the one that attended this year’s Labour Day Classic.

The home side did not give the faithful in attendance much to get excited about but for at least the first three quarters, with the game still in doubt, the crowd brought the noise.

With the Tabbies unlikely to be playing playoff football in 2022, it was nice to experience at least one rowdy crowd during what has been an extremely disappointing season from the men in black and gold.

Up next

The Ticats enter their second bye week of the season looking no better than when they headed into their first. The team is once again mired in a losing streak — three games this time instead of four — and are still left searching for answers to get this season on some sort of track.

Oh, and Hamilton’s next game is against the two-time defending Grey Cup champions who also happen to be 11-1 this year. There is not a point spread large enough that won’t have me picking Winnipeg in two weeks’ time.

The Tiger-Cats might be the worst team in football right now and their prospects of ridding themselves of that title grow smaller with every additional loss.

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.