Absent from the Grey Cup for the first time since 2018, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats still might be the biggest story of championship week.
Just eight days removed from their first-round playoff exit, the two-time CFL runner-ups dropped a bombshell on Monday, trading a pair of mid-round draft picks and future considerations to the Calgary Stampeders for the right to negotiate with pending free agent quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell.
Given recent league history, the move all but guarantees that the 32-year-old Mitchell will be the Ticats’ starter in 2023. Just one year after handing the keys to the franchise to Dane Evans, all signs point to an unsatisfied organization moving on from a player who struggled to lead them to a postseason berth and then fell flat once they got there.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, that narrative doesn’t sit quite right with head coach and president of football operations Orlondo Steinauer, who refused to address Evans’ future while flouting optimism regarding the acquisition of Mitchell.
“Right now, Dane’s our quarterback. All we’ve done is acquire the rights to negotiate with Bo,” the former CFL Coach of the Year told the media following the trade.
“I think our quarterback room has been strong in the past. I think we’ve proven that with the Jeremiah [Masoli] and Dane thing, but right now, Dane’s a Hamilton Tiger-Cat and Dane’s done a lot of great things for this organization.”
How long that continues to be true remains to be seen, as no team expends draft capital on a player without the serious inkling that a deal can be ironed out. Indeed, while the Ticats are comfortable with the potential losses if talks with Mitchell fall apart, optimism is high that he will be in black and gold next season.
“We’re not acquiring the rights without a confidence factor that we could get this done,” Steinauer said.
From the perspective of Mitchell and his camp, that deal will not take place without assurances that he will be the team’s starter, accompanied by the financial investment to prove it. With Evans scheduled to make approximately $455,000 in 2023, the two could not co-exist under the current paradigm
The Ticats had high hopes for Evans’ future after he spent two years as part of a formidable quarterbacking tandem with Jeremiah Masoli, playing a critical role in two playoff runs. However, the 28-year-old floundered in his first season as the undisputed starter, throwing for 3,883 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions while leading the league in fumbles.
Evans’ poor play led to an increased role for backup Matthew Shiltz and consistent calls for a quarterback change, but Steinauer denies that Hamilton ever discussed upgrading the position prior to their loss in the East Semi-Final. When a decision was reached, he insists that it had very little to do with Evans at all.
“We weren’t good enough as a football team; that’s the truth. It just so happens this is a high-profile position but we need to be more consistent in a lot of different phases,” Steinauer stressed. “This isn’t a finger-pointing thing at all. We do feel like we weren’t good enough collectively and we’ve got to get better overall.”
A sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer, Mitchell brought Calgary two Grey Cup championships and was twice named the league’s Most Outstanding Player during a decade of dominance. He became Calgary’s all-time leading passer earlier this year and has thrown for 32,541 yards, 188 touchdowns, and 89 interceptions.
However, Mitchell was replaced by Jake Maier as the Stampeders’ starter midway through the year, finishing with 2,010 yards, nine touchdowns and six interceptions in nine starts. Injuries have plagued him dating back to the 2019 season, leaving fans to wonder how many years the legend has left.
For many, that question was answered when Mitchell came off the bench in the fourth quarter of the West Semi-Final, going 8-of-11 for 147 yards and throwing several dimes in a desperate comeback attempt. Hamilton did far more due diligence than just watching that game, but the organization believes it is an indication of what he can be for them.
“I don’t know what he was being asked to do, the reasons why he didn’t continue to be the main guy in Calgary; we didn’t try to figure that out,” Steinauer said. “What we did do is turn on the tape and watch him throw the football around and we feel like he still can make all the throws on the field.”
“I feel like he has a lot of gas left in the tank and when we turn on the tape and we watch that, that’s something that we all felt collectively was pretty much a no-brainer.”
And yet, the leader of the Ticats’ brain trust continues to play coy on how Evans falls into the plans of an organization now poised to move on. Steinauer wouldn’t refute the idea that he’d be happy to accept trade calls for the Sanger, Texas native but also wouldn’t rule out a contract renegotiation to keep him in Steeltown, acknowledging that a number of conversations would need to happen before going down that path.
“Everything’s on the table, but we’re just controlling what we can control right now,” the coach admitted.
The first of those discussions may have already happened, as Steinauer said he called Evans to inform him of the Mitchell trade prior to the announcement. Though unwilling to share the nature of that conversation, he didn’t shy away from reality.
“To sit there and think that Dane would be super excited about news like this, that would be misleading,” Steinauer said. “Dane is a competitor. He’s never backed down from competition, be it Jeremiah or him. When it was an open competition there before, he’s always put his best foot forward.”
“Dane may very well view this as a challenge but again, Bo isn’t signed right now.”
Regardless of Evans’ feelings, the sales job has already begun to ensure he will no longer be the guy in Hamilton. Should he reach the open market, Mitchell would have plenty of suitors, prompting the Ticats to move as decisively as they have.
As for sealing the deal, Steinauer need only point to his team’s recent success in the East Division to lure in a player hungry to redefine his legacy.
“I think Hamilton sells itself,” he smiled.