Opinion: trading for Bo Levi Mitchell is Ticats’ most significant move in nearly 25 years

Photo courtesy: CFL

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats might not be playing in the Grey Cup this week but they certainly made headlines when they acquired quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell in a trade with the Calgary Stampeders on Monday.

The Ticats sent a pair of draft picks, a third-round pick in the 2023 CFL Draft and a fifth-round pick in the 2024 CFL Draft, as well as future considerations to acquire the rights to the two-time CFL Most Outstanding Player ahead of his pending free agency in February.

It’s not hyperbole to say this is the biggest quarterback acquisition, and maybe the biggest acquisition of any kind, that the franchise has made since they signed Danny McManus in free agency back in 1998.

Acquiring Mitchell is a bigger move than any of the other supposed quarterback saviours the team has brought in since McManus left Hamilton. This move is bigger than trading for Jason Maas in 2006 or Henry Burris in 2012, and it is bigger than signing Casey Printer in 2007, Kevin Glenn in 2009, and Zach Collaros in 2014. He still has to sign an extension to officially remain with the team in 2023, though this seems like a formality.

This is a potentially franchise-altering move and one that was done with one goal in mind: to win a Grey Cup for the first time in nearly a quarter-century.

The Ticats have come close in recent years, playing in and losing four Grey Cups since 2013. With the franchise hosting for the second time in three years, this off-season was shaping up to be one of the most important in franchise history.

They certainly got things off to a headline-grabbing start by bringing in a proven winner like Mitchell to start the building process for 2023.

Acquiring the 10-year CFL veteran was a savvy move that might help lure other players to Hamilton to play with the future Canadian Football Hall of Fame inductee. Perhaps some of his former Stampeders teammates who are slated to become free agents in the winter might now consider coming east and donning the black and gold to play with their old quarterback.

The move also puts the Ticats at the top of the quarterback pecking order heading into 2023. With uncertainty at the quarterback position of all three other East Division teams, getting that part of the equation taken care of this early is a good sign Hamilton has a plan to get back into the championship mix next season.

The move does not come without its negatives, however, with the most obvious one being this likely ends Dane Evans’ tenure with the team. Evans was a star on the rise following the 2019 season during which he took over for an injured Jeremiah Masoli and led the Tiger-Cats to a franchise-best 15-3 record and their first Grey Cup berth since 2014.

But Evans was never able to recapture that 2019 magic, and an inconsistent 2022 season saw him lead the league in interceptions and fumbles. He gave the team all the reasons they needed to find a new franchise quarterback.

It’s a sad end to what looked like a promising career for the 28-year-old in Steeltown but one that will now be filled with “what-ifs.” There’s always a chance Evans could get things back on track with a change of scenery next year with teams like Toronto, Montreal, and Saskatchewan potentially having openings at quarterback.

The other concern, and one that has seemingly divided Hamilton’s fan base on social media, is Bo Levi’s health. While he looked good in a relief effort against the B.C. Lions in the West Semi-Final, Mitchell has not looked like a two-time Grey Cup Most Valuable Player in quite some time — maybe not since he won the second of those awards in 2018.

The two-time Grey Cup champion’s last three seasons have to be concerning for the Tiger-Cats. He missed time due to injury in 2019 and 2021 and he was benched this past season due to poor play. His numbers have dipped considerably, throwing for 38 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in the last three seasons.

One of the reasons Evans was criticized so heavily this past season was due to his issues protecting the football. If bringing in Mitchell does not fix this problem, the team will likely find itself in the same position they were in this past season.

If the Tiger-Cats get the Bo Levi Mitchell who was clearly the best quarterback in the CFL for over a half-decade, this move will be hailed as brilliant and the franchise will have a great chance to end their Grey Cup drought.

If the Ticats get the Bo we have seen since 2019, this move could set the franchise back considerably. When the club acquired Danny McManus back in 1998 they did so while also allowing a promising young quarterback to leave town after he failed to live up to the lofty expectations.

That player was Anthony Calvillo and while the Tiger-Cats got their short-term success by winning a championship in 1999, they did so at the expense of possibly creating a longer-term dynasty with Calvillo at the helm.

After leaving Hamilton, Calvillo went on to win three Grey Cups and three Most Outstanding Player awards while also setting multiple league records during his career with the Montreal Alouettes. The Tiger-Cats went in the opposite direction, setting a single-season futility mark in 2003 with a 1-17 record. They have also not won a championship since 1999.

Rightly or wrongly, that is one of the lenses through which this move will be judged. While I don’t think Dane Evans will leave Hamilton and become the next Anthony Calvillo, it is a worry many in Tigertown will have.

Should Evans find success elsewhere and win a championship before a Bo-led Tiger-Cats team does, things will not be pretty down on Cannon Street.

This is a franchise that has been spurned by splashy signings before. Tiger-Cats fans have watched as those proclaimed to be the franchise saviour failed in their efforts to deliver the one thing local fans crave: a Grey Cup championship.

Acquiring Bo Levi Mitchell is the biggest move this team has made in nearly a quarter-century. Hopefully, for the organization and its fans, it pays off for them in the same way the McManus acquisition did all those years ago.

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.