Upon Further Review: The 2019 Ticats
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 best production marks.
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 kickoff.
Jones would move on to another opportunity altogether soon after which opened the door for former Ticats OC Tommy Condell to assume the controls.
All Condell would produce is an MOP receiver, a flexible and creative running game and two quarterbacks who finished top-10 in many league categories despite cutting into each others reps.
There was the season opener squeaky close win over Saskatchewan, 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 Bombers came to town undefeated. Hamilton would again win, this time 23-15 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 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 and 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 sidearm 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 huddle leader.
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 route-running approach and elite ability to separate from defenders, Banks could have 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 pass 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 in the ground game 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 3+ 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 system 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 Gibbon and 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 Grey Cup 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. Evans quickly learned that.
The 2020 Ticats won’t be a re-creation of last years 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
Marshall Ferguson is a former U SPORTS Quarterback, now serving as TSN 1150 Hamilton morning show host, voice of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and CFL.ca analyst.