The Hamilton Tiger-Cats made the most surprising move of this CFL offseason so far Tuesday, firing head coach George Cortez after just one season. The team appears to be going for a complete housecleaning on the football operations side, as they'll be looking for a new general manager as well; general manager Bob O'Billovich won't return in that role, but has been offered a consultant's position. There's no dispute that Cortez's tenure was far from perfect; Hamilton went 6-12 and missed the playoffs, and he was directly responsible for numerous mistakes (including missed challenges) while overseeing others (such as the continued employment of defensive coordinator Casey Creehan despite the defence's league-worst showing). However, given Cortez's long and pricey contract and the Tiger-Cats' upcoming financial challenges, it seemed unlikely they'd make a coaching change. Their willingness to do shows that they're quite concerned about the on-field product (president Scott Mitchell said "we have determined that a change in direction is needed"), but it also illustrates the growing lack of patience in this league.
We've seen it plenty of times over the last few seasons; when a team does worse than expected, the quick and easy response is to fire the coach. That doesn't always fix everything, though. Consider the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who fired Paul LaPolice midway through this year despite him leading them to the Grey Cup game in 2011; that didn't exactly work out, as the team was just as bad under replacement Tim Burke, finished 6-12 and still missed the playoffs. Consider the Saskatchewan Roughriders, who axed Greg Marshall after just eight games in 2011; they got marginally better, but still finished last in the league that season with a 5-13 record. Coaching changes didn't exactly turn those bad situations into great ones overnight.
Whenever a coach's team struggles, the rumours start to circulate, but the most successful teams of the last few years have stuck with their guys through thick and thin. There were rumours the Argonauts were going to part ways with then-coach and GM Jim Barker following last year's 6-12 campaign, but Barker stayed on as GM and put together a Grey Cup-winning team despite rumblings throughout the year that he might not be back. In 2011, Wally Buono's B.C. Lions got off to an 0-5 start, and any other coach might have been fired right then and there; there was even a little talk about the Lions making a change, but they stuck with Buono and he brought them a Grey Cup. That's not to say that every team will magically improve by standing pat, but rather that a small sample size of losses doesn't always make a bad coach. Many teams seem to be disregarding that, and Hamilton may be the latest example.
Was Cortez's first year as a coach impressive? On many fronts, no. He presided over the worst defence in the league and refused to do anything to fix it, he frequently messed up challenges, he made plenty of questionable game-management decisions and he led an extremely talented team to a 6-12 record. However, there were plenty of bright spots; Cortez's offence scored a league-high 538 points, and he coaxed arguably a career-best year out of 37-year-old quarterback Henry Burris (who told TSN's Farhan Lalji he was shocked by the move, saying "Are you kidding me? Wow."). The Tiger-Cats had a strong running game with Chevon Walker and Avon Cobourne and outstanding special teams thanks to Chris Williams. Moreover, considering the talent they still have on defence, this team really didn't seem all that far away, and it's quite possible Cortez (who'd never been a high-level head coach before this year) would have improved in that role with time.
Would Cortez have been the man to lead the Tiger-Cats forward? We'll never know now. A second year of struggles might have proven that he was in fact the wrong coach for this job, but axing him after a single season suggests that the team's rendered a verdict before all the evidence came in. Winning in the CFL isn't about individual seasons, but about building for the long term; this move would seem to go against that. Sometimes, all you need is just a little patience.
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