Despite a recent resurgence, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats team that people became accustomed to seeing over the first two-thirds of the 2022 CFL season came roaring back on Sunday afternoon in Montreal.
Gone was the team that protected the quarterback, limited turnovers, and featured a balanced offensive attack. In its place was a team that could do none of those things well. It was a squad that fans were all-too-familiar with from the summer.
The Ticats even added some new wrinkles to their ineptness, coupling curious coaching decisions with a defence that could not find a way to get off the field when the team needed it most.
Add it all up and it equals a 28-17 Alouettes victory, with Montreal heading off to Toronto to play the Argonauts with a berth in the Grey Cup on the line, while the Tiger-Cats once again wonder when the misery will end.
It’s the same place the club has found themselves every year since 1999: the season ending with another loss and once again sans Grey Cup championship.
Maybe more so than “Oskee Wee Wee” or “Argos Suck,” we will once again hear perhaps the most familiar refrain you can hear in Hamilton: there is always next year.
Here are more of my thoughts on Hamilton’s season coming to an end.
Five slices of Swiss cheese
One of the reasons people had come around on the Tabbies during their late-season resurgence was due in no small part to the improved play of their offensive line. Hamilton limited the number of sacks and pressures its quarterbacks faced while also opening holes for an improved run game and helped them win five of their final six regular season games.
All that disappeared against Montreal.
The Als’ defensive front obliterated the Ticats offensive line, picking up six sacks and countless pressures. The once vaunted run game was nowhere to be found, as the Tabbies ran the ball just nine times for 37 yards, with Wes Hills carrying the ball just five times.
You win in the trenches and you lose in the trenches. Last season, the Ticats bullied the Als in the East Semi-Final to the tune of six sacks and won that game en route to another Grey Cup berth. On Sunday, the Alouettes turned the tables and now they, not the black and gold, will play for a division title and Grey Cup berth.
Dane and Matt’s turnover adventure
Another reason the Tiger-Cats seemed to have turn a corner was the play of their quarterbacks down the stretch, namely their lack of turnovers that had sunk them earlier in the season.
As if a cruel curse that had been lifted once again returned, the Ticats’ quarterbacks reverted back into the turnover-prone mess they were back in the early stages of the season.
Dane Evans threw a first-half interception and had one fumble, though it was recovered by a teammate, while Matthew Shiltz threw a backbreaking pick of his own in the fourth quarter with the Ticats down by eight. He also lost a fumble that sealed the victory for the Alouettes.
Neither quarterback played particularly well but they also weren’t given much with which to work. A lot will be made of the switch the team made in the third quarter but the temporary dividends it paid did not end up making much of a difference. Had the team stuck with Evans, I doubt the outcome would have been much different.
Quarterbacks get too much credit and too much blame, and while they did not play well and deserve some share of the loss, they were but a small part of the team’s defeat on Sunday.
One of the hallmarks of Hamilton’s losses this year was giving up double-digit leads but on Sunday the Ticats tried something different: giving up a lot of points early.
The Alouettes scored touchdowns on three of their first four drives and took a 22-6 lead into halftime. Montreal only managed to score six more points the rest of the game, including a field goal with 16 seconds left. It was a hot start for the home side and a slow final 40 minutes that could have gone sideways had the Ticats’ offence ever really woken up.
One way the Als were able to keep the Ticats at bay despite their inability to score points in the second half was by controlling the clock with a dominating run game.
Running backs Walter Fletcher and William Stanback combined to rush 17 times for 143 yards and a touchdown, an impressive total given they were going up against the league’s top rush defence.
Montreal’s recipe for success is simple. Run the ball well, which they did; get a clean game from Trevor Harris, which they did as Harris completed nearly 80 percent of his passes; and shorten games by winning the time of possession battle, which they did by holding onto the ball for nearly six minutes longer than Hamilton.
If the Alouettes get a similar performance a week from now, they may very well be playing for their first championship since 2010.
Kick or go
I want to start by saying I still think Orlondo Steinauer is a good coach and any calls to fire him are foolish at this point. He has guided this team to three straight playoff appearances and two Grey Cup games, so the idea that he should be on the hot seat is asinine.
With that said, he isn’t above criticism and one of the areas in which he deserves criticism is his conservative nature. Steinauer twice opted to kick field goals in lieu of gambling on third down.
The first came on Hamilton’s first drive after the Als opened the game with a touchdown drive of their own. The Tabbies made it to Montreal’s 40-yard line in four plays and instead of going for it to try and keep the drive alive, they kicked a 47-yard Seth Small field goal.
Early in the fourth quarter, with the Ticats down 25-14, a promising drive stalled at the Alouettes’ 29. The Ticats needed two scores to tie but it seemed unlikely that they would find themselves that deep in Als’ territory again. That turned out to be true as they never got beyond Montreal’s 40 for the rest of the game.
The debate between being aggressive and “taking the points” is one that will probably rage in football forever but in opting to kick two field goals instead of keeping his offence on the field, Steinauer chose the predictable, conservative path. The West Semi-Final showed how gambling can pay off (B.C.) or burn a team (Calgary) but there’s still an argument to be made for aggressiveness.
Ever since Lawrence Woods was injured in August, the Ticats’ return game has been inconsistent at best. When the Tabbies needed a spark in the past you could expect something from special teams to provide it. It has been a while since that happened.
Woods was trending to be a nominee for special teams player of the year before his injury but it seems as if his explosiveness and field vision were lost after he missed time. On Sunday, he failed to produce in any measurable way, averaging a paltry 14.8 yards per kickoff return on five attempts. The Ticats started with the ball past their own 50 just three times with seven drives beginning deeper than their own 40.
The coverage units were not much better, allowing East Division top special teamer Chandler Worthy to take his lone kickoff return 49 yards while also averaging nearly 16 yards per return on punts.
When Hamilton needed one of their special teams units to make some type of play by either breaking a big return to limiting one by the opposition, they were unable to do so.
If there is one player on the Ticats who knows he did all he could, it is Tim White, the team’s nominee for M.O.P.
White was the Tiger-Cats’ offence on Sunday, accounting for 142 of the team’s 250 receiving yards and his eight catches were more than any other two players combined.
In the first half, White and running back Wes Hills were the only two Ticats players to catch a pass and once the Alouettes started keying in on the 28-year-old speedster, the offence ground to a halt.
Steven Dunbar Jr., the supposed Robin to White’s Batman, finished the game with 52 yards and the team’s lone touchdown, while rookie Anthony Johnson was the only other receiver to catch more than one pass, hauling in four for 33 yards.
The Tiger-Cats’ receiving corps was simply not reliable enough over the season for this team to reach the heights it hoped to reach. This feels like one of the areas the team will need to address in the off-season.
The 2022 CFL season saw a number of Tiger-Cats streaks snapped. The regular season saw the franchise lose its first Labour Day Classic in a decade and the first at Tim Hortons Field.
The postseason also saw some streaks come to an end. The Ticats failed to host a playoff game in a playoff year for the first time since 2011. They did not make the postseason in 2012 or 2017 but had otherwise played at least one game at home in the playoffs in every other year.
The loss on Sunday also brought an end to the team’s streak of East Final appearances. The last time the Ticats failed to play for the Grey Cup berth was 2017. The loss also ended Tunde Adeleke’s streak of Grey Cup appearances. Adeleke, who was a member of the Calgary Stampeders prior to signing with the Ticats in 2019, had played in the previous four Grey Cups, winning it all with the Stamps in 2018.
Lastly, Sunday marked the first time the Ticats fell to the Als in the playoffs since 1996 and was just the team’s second playoff loss to Montreal since the team returned that same year. The Ticats had won the previous seven playoff matchups between the two clubs.
Season of change
With the Tiger-Cats’ season now over, we can all begin looking ahead to next season and I think we can expect some changes coming.
The team is going to have to look long and hard at the quarterback position. Given that there are going to be some veteran pivots available including Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell, the Ticats are going to have to figure out if Dane Evans is the guy for them going forward.
They will also have to figure out what to do with Matthew Shiltz, who is slated to become a free agent in February.
There are also questions about the coaching staff and as the season wore on, the calls to replace both offensive coordinator Tommy Condell and defensive coordinator Mark Washington grew louder. A Grey Cup title might have saved their jobs, but a one-and-done appearance in the postseason might have sealed their fate.
There is also the matter of what to do with some veteran players, like franchise stalwart Simoni Lawrence and future Canadian Football Hall of Fame inductee Chris Van Zeyl. Both dealt with injuries and one has to wonder if we have seen the last of each in a Tiger-Cats uniform. The same can be asked of Bralon Addison, who tore his Achilles earlier this year.
This is going to be a pivotal off-season for the franchise as they hope to get back into title contention for a year in which they once again host the Grey Cup. Given that 2023 will be the second time in three years that Hamilton hosts the league’s premier event, I don’t expect the weeklong extravaganza to be around these parts for quite some time once it’s done.
With Jeremiah Masoli and Brandon Banks having already left before this started, it feels like 2023 could be the end of an era for this generation of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
This off-season will truly be one of the most important in the 153-year history of the franchise.
Tip o’ the cap
I would like to end my final Tiger-Cats column of 2022 by thanking everyone who followed along this year. I tried my best to give you the best Tiger-Cats coverage you could find.
There were a lot of things I did that I am proud of and things I would change in the future. If I am fortunate enough to be able to keep doing this into the future, I will take the lessons I learned this season and hopefully provide even better insight into the team for you all next year.
I truly believe a more knowledgeable fan base is a better fan base and I hope I enlightened, educated and entertained you during a trying season for the Ticats.
But do not fret, there will be plenty of Tiger-Cats content for you to enjoy during the off-season as we will have a lot to discuss, debate and dissect as the team makes moves to hopefully get back into the winner’s circle in 2023.
I might even try to get a Tiger-Cats fans guide to the 109th Grey Cup piece greenlit so you all know who to cheer for in the first championship game in four years without your beloved black and gold.
Thanks again to everyone who followed along this season, and hopefully we will see you all back here again next season.