HAMILTON -- The look on Brandon Banks' face as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers celebrated their touchdown in overtime was an all-too-familiar feeling for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Once again, the team was left at a loss for words as another opportunity to end the franchise's Grey Cup drought slipped through their hands after a 33-25 defeat to the Blue Bombers who have now won back-to-back titles. No one on the team knows that feeling more than Banks, who over his four trips to the Grey Cup (2013, 2014, 2019 and 2021) has come up empty with their last championship coming in 1999.
It looked like this was going to be a different ending for Hamilton as it appeared that they had the Blue Bombers right where they wanted them, up 12 points and their defence playing lights out. However, with Winnipeg playing into the wind in the fourth quarter they found a way to chip away slowly before sealing the deal for their second-straight Grey Cup title.
Tiger-Cats head coach Orlondo Steinauer summed up the heartbreak the organization felt when describing the feeling in the locker room after the game.
"For once I was kind of at a loss for words, we all just kind of sat there, to be honest with you, I sat on the floor and just kind of waited until every last person that was part of this organization trickled in," Steinauer said. "I just told them the only way these things heal is with time and you can't speed time up, you can't slow it down. There are no words that you can give them except that I was extremely proud of them."
Hamilton was dealt a tough blow early in the game as starting quarterback Dane Evans was forced to leave the game while appearing to hold the back of his neck. They were already without star defensive tackle Ted Laurent who was forced to miss the game after getting emergency surgery for appendicitis.
Thank you for all the prayers and check-ins from everyone I’ve received overnight. Praying I’ll be fine in the long run. Just want y’all to know, had a minor version of the injury going into the game but tried to cowboy up for the Hammer and it didn’t work out… all love
— Dane Evans (@daneevans9) December 13, 2021
After getting pulled from the East final, Jeremiah Masoli looked to have provided a spark as the Tiger-Cats scored 10 points in the second quarter to go into the locker room with the lead. He finished the game throwing for 185 yards, two touchdowns and an interception while adding another 35 yards on the ground.
“I’m super proud of Jeremiah,” Steinauer said about Masoli stepping in for Evans. “He had to deal with a lot mentally and physically. I feel terrible for Dane. He wanted more than anything to go out there and put his best foot forward and it didn’t happen.”
Once again, it was their defence that was giving their opponent a tough time to get anything going on offence as they went three quarters without giving up a touchdown. Zach Collaros, the CFL's Most Outstanding Player for the 2021 season, struggled to deal with the pressure from the Tiger-Cats' defensive line throwing two interceptions in the third quarter.
Unfortunately in the fourth quarter, Winnipeg regained the advantage playing into the wind and was able to keep the game within reach even with their offence struggling. In the end, it was the Blue Bombers who were able to make the plays when it mattered with Collaros regrouping in the fourth with some crucial throws including one to Nic Demski which cut the lead down to two.
After Sergio Castillo knocked in a 45-yard field goal to put Winnipeg up two points, Tim White decided to take a knee in the endzone on the ensuing kickoff to give up a single point. The Tiger-Cats decided it was more important to improve their field position by taking the ball at the 35-yard line especially since they were going against the wind.
“We did a great job of moving it against the wind to give ourselves an opportunity to win,” said Steinauer. “Obviously there’s some plays defensively where we could have maybe held them to a field goal on the one they scored a touchdown. But that’s football. I wouldn’t change anything but the score if I could.”
Even Blue Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea believed that while the decision was tough, it was ultimately the right one considering the circumstances.
“There would be people who would second guess that play if they didn’t drive that down and get that field goal. That field position they gained from that was very important," O'Shea said about the decision. "Now the plays after that dictated and showed they might have been down inside the red zone. But all those yards would have been very important for their field-goal kicker. I thought it was really smart."
The unfortunate part for Hamilton was that you could not have scripted a better narrative for the team considering they were at home playing in front of a crowd that was dominated by black and gold jerseys. Out of all the Grey Cup losses, this one will likely sting the most considering it happened in their own backyard.
"Everybody was hugging everybody, just extreme disappointment but I just wanted them to know that. You know, other people can label or do whatever they want but I'm extremely proud of just their grit, the people they became," Steinauer said. "They rallied around each other. and that's what I told them is that families lean on each other."
Over the next few days, there will be many wondering what went wrong and what happens next with some of the core players. They will also be wondering what will it take for this team to get over the hump put their Grey Cup struggles behind them just like the Blue Bombers have.