November 18, 2011
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote that "In conflict, straightforward actions generally lead to engagement, surprising actions generally lead to victory." That's good news for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on a couple of fronts, as Thursday evening's news that they plan to bring in former Winnipeg receiver Terrence Jeffers-Harris certainly is surprising, but it could also provide them with ways to surprise the Blue Bombers in Sunday's East Final. Jeffers-Harris won't be taking part in that game on the field, but that doesn't mean he won't have an impact, and that impact could be strategic, psychological or both.
What makes the Jeffers-Harris move so intriguing is the timing involved. The Blue Bombers released him Thursday, just three days before they were set to face Hamilton in the East Final. It's very unusual to see these kinds of changes so late in the season. The only somewhat similar one that comes to mind is Montreal's decision to axe returner Larry Taylor just before last year's East Final, but Taylor had only recently rejoined the Alouettes, and head coach Marc Trestman decided he'd rather stick with a known factor in Tim Maypray. (That worked out quite well, incidentally, as Maypray had a kick return for a touchdown in Montreal's 48-17 thrashing of Toronto).
By contrast, Jeffers-Harris is a talented, young, 23-year-old slotback who had 48 catches for 547 yards in his CFL debut in 2010 with Winnipeg. His numbers were down this year, as he only caught 29 balls for 347 yards, but still, you don't often see teams ditching promising young slotbacks who are just starting to find their feet in the CFL. You especially don't often see that right before a crucial playoff game.
It's unclear what prompted Winnipeg's decision to release Jeffers-Harris (seen at top firing a cannon to celebrate a touchdown in 2010), but it might come back to haunt them. As Sportsnet's Arash Madani reports, Jeffers-Harris won't be eligible to play for Hamilton for the rest of the postseason, but he could join their practice squad and give them insider information on the Blue Bombers. That can be quite crucial in any arena; having the element of surprise on your side's always a good thing, as it's generally considered to be both the fifth one and the only one Chuck Norris believes in.
To quote Sun Tzu again, "Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril." Football's an intensely strategic game, and knowing what your opponent plans to do in terms of plays, route concepts, preparation for specific players and more can be invaluable. Jeffers-Harris may well prove to be an important on-field piece for Hamilton in years to come and could even make his old squad look silly for discarding him (see Bruce, Arland, Kornegay, Tad, and Messam, Jerome for examples), but he could also make a vital impact this weekend without setting foot on the gridiron.
Of course, there's also a psychological dimension here. Hamilton may know some of Winnipeg's ideas as a result of bringing in Jeffers-Harris, but the Bombers know that they know, and the Tiger-Cats know that they know that they know (and so on ad infinitum). Winnipeg could change many of their plans to make Jeffers-Harris' information outdated, but Hamilton could guess that they're doing that, or Winnipeg could guess that Hamilton would guess that and keep things the same.
The most likely scenario is that the Blue Bombers change at least some things as a result of the Jeffers-Harris move, though, and that's probably a win for the Tiger-Cats. You can bring in new plays or schemes on short notice or tweak existing ones, but your players aren't as used to them and don't get much practice time with them, which can pose its own issues. Moreover, changing a play or two isn't all that hard, but altering your whole playbook, your route concepts and how you plan to deal with opposing players in just a couple of days? That's a tall task. Essentially, adapting to this kind of information forces you to fight on the enemy's ground, and that's always problematic.
It's notable that this ties right into the long, sometimes-strained relations between the two clubs that have sometimes had a rather cloak-and-dagger feel to them. They've usually been more on the amateurish side, though, with poorly-executed SpyGate schemes and apparent BlogGate impersonations that could have come right out of a Get Smart script. By contrast, this seems to have much more potential to be effective, whether that's in the information actually passed on or just the fear that information has been passed on; it's a plot full of double agents and potential misinformation that could fit in a serious spy narrative like Deus Ex or The Cardinal Of The Kremlin. The advantage this gives Hamilton is probably a reasonably small one, all things considered, but in a league this full of parity, even small edges can matter. We'll see if this one does Sunday.