June 25, 2011
Continuing our Zeroth Down preview series, here's a look at the Hamilton Tiger-Cats' preparations for the season. Hamilton lost their first pre-season game 31-12 to Toronto, but thumped Montreal 57-20 in the fog Wednesday night at Ivor Wynne Stadium in the game pictured above. They'll kick off their regular-season campaign on Canada Day against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. It's going to be interesting to see if their aggressive approach and dedication to knocking off the Alouettes pays off this year.
Back To The Future: Paul Osbaldiston remains one of the more unusual players in CFL history. After all, there aren't many guys born in England who have CFL careers, much less count as non-imports. There also aren't many players who can handle both punting and kicking very successfully for the same franchise for close to two decades, especially after playing for three different teams in their rookie season. Osbaldiston won Grey Cups with the Tiger-Cats in both 1986 and 1999, and his 1986 Grey Cup performance was particularly impressive; as a rookie who'd been dumped by both B.C. and Winnipeg that year before catching on with Hamilton, he nailed a record-tying six field goals and was named the Most Valuable Canadian in the Tiger-Cats' 39-15 victory over the Edmonton Eskimos.
Osbaldiston's story matters to the current Tiger-Cats for a couple of reasons. First, this team's desperate for the kind of kicking consistency he brought. They thought they had found the answer in 2010 with the big free-agent signing of non-import Sandro DeAngelis, the CFL's all-time leader in career field goal percentage, but DeAngelis hit a career-low 76.2 per cent of his field goals in 2010 and was released in May. Second, the two men who vied to replace DeAngelis throughout training camp and the pre-season schedule are actually closer to Osbaldiston, as while both Justin Medlock and Eric Wilbur are imports who came up through the NCAA ranks (at UCLA and Florida respectively) instead of following Osbaldiston's path through Canadian junior football, both of them are capable of handling field goals, punts and kickoffs the way Osbaldiston did.
Medlock (pictured at below right in 2009 with Toronto) and Wilbur didn't make a decision between them easy for Hamilton head coach Marcel Bellefeuille and general manager Bob O'Billovich, as their competition stayed heated to the end. The first game only saw one field-goal attempt, which Medlock hit, but Wilbur out-punted him. That split was the case again Wednesday, with Medlock going four-for-four on field goals and Wilbur going three-for-four, but Wilbur averaged 46 yards per punt against Medlock's 44.5. That prompted the Ticats' administration to leave both kickers on the roster through early cuts and elect to wait until the last minute Saturday to choose between them (as of 11:30 a.m. Eastern Saturday, it looked like they were going to go with Medlock, but that wasn't confirmed).
The Tiger-Cats will be hoping their selection brings some of Osbaldiston's consistency. They'd probably settle for an improvement on DeAngelis' showing last year, though. Kicking battles aren't always the most publicized, but they do take on extra importance in a three-down league, and enough CFL games are close that field goals often make a big difference (as do punts, kickoffs and the resulting swings in field position). An improvement in those areas can easily lead to an improvement in the standings, and that's what Hamilton will be shooting for.
Offence: The Tiger-Cats' offence was one of their strengths in 2010; the 481 points they put up were fourth in the league, behind only Calgary, Montreal and Saskatchewan. Most of the offensive cast returns, with famed former CFL quarterback Khari Jones taking over the reins as offensive coordinator. Quarterback Kevin Glenn had a very underrated year last season, finishing second to only Darian Durant with 5,102 passing yards and putting up good TD/INT ratios (33 to 17) and completion percentages (64.5 per cent). There is room for Glenn to improve, particularly from an efficiency standpoint, but the passing game isn't a huge concern for Hamilton; they've got a talented quarterback and a great cast of receivers, including Arland Bruce III, Maurice Mann and Dave Stala.
The Tiger-Cats' off-season moves also have hopefully addressed one of their chief offensive shortcomings, an inability to run the ball consistently. Departed back DeAndra Cobb had his moments, finishing with 1,173 rushing yards on the season in 2010 (fourth in the league), but was often a boom-or-bust option. His replacement, former Montreal Alouette Avon Cobourne, wasn't actually all that different from a statistical point of view last season (both averaged 5.2 yards per carry, Cobb had more rushing yards, Cobourne had more receiving yards), but did tend to be a bit more consistent.
Cobourne's receiving abilities could also help from a deception point of view, as he's a dangerous weapon on pitches and short screen passes. Hamilton will also be hoping that Cobourne brings passion (if his Twitter controversies are any indication, that shouldn't be a problem) and leadership to their dressing room, but on the field, his addition looks like a search for consistency in the ground game. Add in the presence of speedster Marcus Thigpen and some of the new backs the Tiger-Cats have been working out, and their rushing attack looks quite dangerous. Combine that with their passing game, and the offence looks to be in good shape.
Rating: Five stadium renovations.
Defence: This side of the ball carries a few more questions. Hamilton's defence was quite solid last year, as the 450 points they allowed were the second-lowest in the league (behind only Toronto), but they've undergone a notable shift in defensive philosophy with the departure of Greg Marshall (to take the head job in Saskatchewan) and the addition of Corey Chamblin. Marshall's defence tended to operate on bend-but-don't-break principles, and was very successful in doing so. Chamblin has promised a more aggressive approach, and while that could work out quite well with more sacks and interceptions, it also might leave Hamilton vulnerable to big plays.
One of the perils of playing an aggressive defence in the CFL, particularly one that involves a lot of blitzes, is that this is an eight-team league with a huge amount of veteran quarterbacks who have seen most of the twists you can throw at them. Guys like Montreal pivot Anthony Calvillo are so good at their reads that they'll often identify the blitz almost instantly and hit whichever one of their receivers is left open. The other peril of a blitz-oriented strategy is that it requires great linebackers and defensive backs; the Tiger-Cats have a terrific linebacking corps with defensive player of the year Markeith Knowlton, Jamall Johnson and new addition Renauld Williams, but the secondary has many more question marks, especially with the departure of one of their top DBs (Geoff Tisdale) for Calgary. Depending on how Chamblin's strategy pays off, Hamilton's defence could be great again or they could have significant problems. It's not easy to predict which way it will go.
Rating: Four UFC sponsorships.
Special teams: As referenced above, this may be the biggest question mark for Hamilton. The return game was great last year with Marcus Thigpen, but the Tiger-Cats had issues just about everywhere else on special teams, especially on field goals. Some of that might be down to the wind and the tough kicking conditions often prevalent at Ivor Wynne Stadium, but a team that only converts 76 per cent of its field goal attempts certainly needs improvement. Medlock may yet prove to be an upgrade from DeAngelis, but that's far from a sure thing; he's bounced around the CFL plenty in the last few years, so there are a lot of teams that aren't particularly sold on him. There's upside here, but this unit isn't terribly proven heading into the season.
Rating: Three steroids arrests.
Totals: 12 points out of 15.
Greatest strength: The passing game. Glenn's a very underrated quarterback with plenty of experience, and he's got one of the best receiving corps in the CFL. Bruce remains one of the league's top individual receivers and one of the guys most likely to have a massive game, but if you focus too much defensive attention on him, you'll get beaten by the likes of Mann and Stala (pictured at right in a game against Saskatchewan last year).
Potential weakness: Getting too aggressive on defence. As mentioned above, there's a real appetite in Hamilton to go away from Marshall's bend-but-don't-break ideas. Aggressiveness isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it carries substantial risks, and I'm not sure the Tiger-Cats have the personnel in the secondary to mitigate against them.
Season prediction: One of the big storylines of this offseason has been how Hamilton expects to challenge Montreal for the top spot in the East. In my mind, they are in a better position to do that than either Toronto or Winnipeg, and I do think they have improved from last year, where they went 9-9 and lost at home in the first round of the playoffs. Although anything can happen in this league, I'm not sure they've improved enough to get to Montreal's level just yet, though. My prediction has Hamilton going 9-9, finishing second in the East, winning a playoff game but losing to the Alouettes in the East Final.
Remember to stop by 55-Yard Line at noon Eastern on Thursday, June 30 for a season preview chat with some special guests!
Correction: I copied and pasted the wrong column from my predictions spreadsheet, so this piece originally had Hamilton at 10-8, which screwed up the necessary 72-win totals. The real prediction is 9-9.