If you carve a football schedule into thirds, as coaches tend to do, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats are embarking on their middle third.
And if they emerge from this 33 per cent like they did the first 33 per cent, by the morning after Labor Day we’ll already be thinking ahead to 2023.
Beginning with Thursday night’s game against the Montreal Alouettes at Tim Hortons Field, the Ticats’ next six games are against the two teams above them in the CFL East standings. Two against the 2-3 Als and four, count ’em four, against the 3-2 Argos. That’s a quartet of QEW games in five weeks. Who was the architect of that? Deathtorivalries.com?
Still, a good roll here and Hamilton can move into the divisional driver’s seat for the stretch run. What that says about the CFL’s geography-based competitive disparity is a discussion for another day. The CFL East is the Bizarro World version of American League baseball’s powerful East.
“The record, we’re not proud of,” Bralon Addison, the all-round receiver and rusher, says of the Ticats’ 1-5 mark after last Thursday’s tough 17-12 loss in BC, the third defeat, at least, you could unequivocally describe as the type of game you must not lose.
“We have to find a way to put it all together. The race for the east starts now.”
Safety Tunde Adeleke agrees and adds, “The amount of talent we have in the room … that’s probably the most frustrating thing. Obviously, being 1-5, we’re not happy with where we’re at right now. We clearly know what we have to fix: turnovers, and creating turnovers. The good thing about the situation is that we know what to fix, we aren’t getting blown out. At the same time, you can’t be saying that for the whole season.”
No, you can’t. Not even for two-thirds of the season. One-third of the season is too much, because it’s a large enough sample size to trigger legitimate serious concerns about mistakes that have become maddeningly repetitive, although not always committed by the same players.
The team as a whole has been limp in the second halves, suffered too many critical injuries (especially to Canadians) have turned the ball over with alarmingly ill-timed regularity, have surrendered far too many quarterback sacks and have taken penalties at the most inopportune moments.
They sometimes have a one-off huge mistake — such as the fourth-quarter time-count violation that costs them a down and, arguably, the game in BC — they usually can’t score in the third quarter and get swamped in the fourth , and they always lose the turnover battles.
Dane Evans has played well the past two games, his only interception coming on what was actually a well-conceived Hail Mary at the end of the BC loss, but his offence still enters the red zone like it’s just been planted with landmines. And the play-calling strategy inside the 20 hasn’t helped.
Still, their pathway to first place, or at least a home playoff game, is open. They have the slightly easier schedule over that stretch. Besides the Ticats, the Argos play the surprising Calgary Stampeders and the due-for-a-break Redblacks, while the Alouettes have the Ticats twice and the Redblacks, Lions and a home-and-home with undefeated Winnipeg.
Head coach Orlondo Steinauer says the team is solid off the field, with no finger-pointing but on it, “It’s simple, we’re 1-and-5. That’s what we are. We’ve been in every football game, and that’s important because that’s kind of the difference between wholesale changes and tweaks.
“We have to take the ball away more, we have to not turn it over and we have to score when we have scoring opportunities and that doesn’t always include field goals.”
Addison was asked if the glaring similarities of the negative factors within the first six games, including the win over Ottawa which was pulled back from the precipice of defeat, is a concern to the players.
“Every guy can’t take a turn,” he replied honestly. “Sometimes, it’s me, sometimes it’s “X” or whoever, but everyone is taking a turn doing something we don’t want to do. I think if we put it all together, I don’t think the record will be 1-5 (in these next six games). It may not be 6-0, but if we can find a way to put it all together, I think we’ll be all right.”
Around the league, in the Hamilton locker-room, and in the broadcast booths there is a general sentiment that the Ticats are too talented for all the bad breaks, bad fumbles, bad second halves and some debatable coaching decisions to continue, that things have to even out. But sports history has shown that they don’t have to. Often, those things will even out, but not in the same season.
With most of the six games feeling so eerily alike, what is imperative for the Ticats to firmly establish in this middle third of the season is that the first third has not created a template for learning how to lose. The more it goes on, the more difficult it is to unlearn.