Upon Further Review: Hamilton Tiger-Cats
The most balanced run game in recent CFL memory, a crushing ACL tear, an undefeated record at home, relentless passing attack and an all too common ending.
The 2019 Hamilton Tiger-Cats were a team built to take a run at the Grey Cup but getting there went anything other than according to plan.
After a 2018 season that saw the Black and Gold offence come to life with June Jones and Jeremiah Masoli, the two prepared themselves for another explosive campaign in 2019 with an emerging national back in Sean Thomas-Erlington and Brandon Banks set to challenge his personal bests in production.
Before the season could begin it was quickly announced Jones would be stepping aside to offensive coordinator while Orlondo Steinauer would become the next Ticats’ head coach.
A move long in the making but still surprising when the trigger was pulled so close to kick-off.
Jones moved on to another opportunity altogether soon after, opening the door for Tommy Condell to assume the controls.
All Condell produced was an MOP receiver, a flexible and creative running game and two quarterbacks who finished top 10 in many league categories — despite cutting into each other’s reps.
There was a close victory over Saskatchewan in the season opener, the message sending blow-out victory in Toronto, the first home win against Calgary in ages and a pair of great battles with a suddenly resurgent Alouettes team in Montreal.
All of that preceded the game of the year — to that point — when the then-undefeated Bombers came to town. Hamilton won again, fuelled by defence, special teams and timely offence. But in the second quarter, Jeremiah Masoli rolled out, realized he was contained, threw on the brakes and felt a pop.
Just like that, his season was over, and with it, the Ticats’ hopes of hoisting the Grey Cup come November in Calgary — or so it seemed.
In stepped Dane Evans who, despite the learning bumps of a new full-time CFL starter, grew into the role and continued Hamilton’s success at home and above-average road winning percentage away from Tim Horton’s Field.
What made this mid-season forced evolution so incredible was Condell’s ability to accept the realities handed to him and find solutions through stylistic and schematic changes. While the home-run shots and efficient underneath passing game remained, there was less emphasis on the intermediate passing depths. It appeared — from the outside looking in — that Condell was massaging the weekly approach to fit Evans’ strengths in order to find success.
A quick-release, smooth side-arm throws on quick game passes and pinpoint accuracy on bubble screens quickly became the staples of Evans’ work as everyone in the offensive huddle adjusted to their stand-in signal caller.
The growing pains were most obvious early on with Evans and Banks. An understandable learning period as Banks is anything but your normal target and route runner. With his somewhat untraditional approach and elite ability to separate from defenders, Banks could’ve become frustrated and punished Evans for simply not being Masoli. Instead, he was patient and grew to compliment his new methods of pigskin delivery.
While the passing game evolved, the more remarkable aspect of the Ticats ability to survive and stack together wins at a rate never done in franchise history was arguably on the ground, where no less than eight players took a meaningful amount of carries.
For the second year in a row, Sean Thomas-Erlington led the Ticats in positive play percentage which is a mark of how often a target gains three-plus yards on first down, a first down on either down or a touchdown. After being injured on a pass play in week four against Montreal, the Ticats’ running game became more rotation than marquee, which led to this unique display of how systems can override skill set.
As always in Hamilton, the National depth was replenished by Sean Burke, Drew Allemang and the football operations staff. In 2019, all of their first three picks saw meaningful snaps with Jesse Gibbon and Nikola Kalinic becoming young staples of an offence that went through numerous ebbs and flows.
For as great a season as Hamilton had, the ending felt all too familiar. New levels of regular-season excellence were reached — against many odds — and the team should be appreciated for many moments of resiliency they put on display. But crashing out in the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw created a painful scar to many Black and Gold die-hards that can only be healed by a championship.
Steinauer knows that. Masoli knows that and Evans quickly learned that.
The 2020 Ticats won’t be a re-creation of last year’s exceptional win total. They’ll set a course all their own and that’s okay, because at this point, all Tiger-Cats fans care about is how the final game ends