HAMILTON — The soap opera that is the Hamilton Tiger-Cats keeps getting more interesting.
As if an 0-6 record, including a 60-1 loss to Calgary, and a fight between frustrated players in practice wasn’t enough, the team made moves this week that added turmoil to its coaching ranks and defensive backfield.
Despite all the noise, the Ticats believe they can turn their season around with a win Saturday over the visiting Winnipeg Blue Bombers (4-2). And they’re not wrong.
Thanks to mediocrity of the CFL East, Hamilton will enter Saturday’s game no more than six points out of a playoff spot, assuming a cross-over team from the West takes third spot in the East. A confidence-building win over the Bombers could set up the Ticats for a nice run, as their next four games are against beatable East opponents (Ottawa twice and Toronto) and Saskatchewan, currently in the West Division basement.
"One of the things I remember from my time in Toronto and my time in Ottawa is that you can be in the position this team is and still win the Grey Cup," new Ticats assistant head coach June Jones told reporters this week, noting that the Ottawa Redblacks won the CFL championship last season after posting an 8-10 regular-season record. "You can’t say that in the NFL, and you can’t say that in college."
But the Ticats are in a state of flux entering Saturday’s game, with multiple changes to the coaching staff to contend with as well as the surprise release of defensive back Will Hill.
After adding Jones — a 34-year coaching veteran at the NFL, CFL and NCAA levels — as his assistant last week, Hamilton head coach and vice-president of football operations Kent Austin replaced Jeff Reinebold as defensive co-ordinator with Phillip Lolley, formerly the linebacker coach.
"Obviously we want to be better defensively," Austin told reporters. "I’ve got a great deal of respect for Jeff … and I think he’s an outstanding coach. But we needed to get better and make some changes."
Hamilton had allowed the most points in the league (234) as of Friday, and was next-to-last in sacks (10) and forced fumbles (four). They will look to improve those numbers without Hill, a steady presence in the backfield with a history of discipline problems.
Hill started five games for Hamilton and registered 25 defensive tackles, second on the team, and a sack. But was suspended for a game earlier this season after making contact with an official.
"We did it because we felt it was best for the football team," Austin said Wednesday of Hill’s release. "We want guys that understand what it means to be a teammate, and to play in a team sport. That’s all I’ll say."
Hill, a former defensive back in the NFL with the New York Giants and Baltimore, has run into trouble before, including a six-game ban in 2014 for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
The Blue Bombers come into Saturday’s game in much better shape than their opponents with back-to-back wins over Montreal and Ottawa, but they sit fourth in the competitive West Division behind Edmonton, Calgary and B.C.
The Bombers are still comfortably in a playoff spot right now because of the cross-over, which allows the fourth-place team in one division to take the third playoff seed in the other division if it has a better record than that division’s third-place team. But a win in Hamilton would allow them to move into a tie on points with third-place B.C. in the West, and so they are not taking the Ticats lightly.
"They’ve got some very talented players," Winnipeg coach Mike O’Shea told reporters in Winnipeg, singling out mobile Hamilton quarterback Zach Collaros as "very tough to play against."
O’Shea said the Blue Bombers defence will be tasked with keeping Collaros in the pocket.
"Better than letting him run wild," he said. "As we’ve seen over his career, he’s certainly able to create some magic. Even when you’re right around him, he seems to escape pretty well."