Hamilton entered 2011 coming off two straight 9-9 regular seasons and first-round playoff exits. For the longest time it looked like they were going to make it three-for-three, before the Tiger-Cats finished 8-10 and beat the Montreal Alouettes in the East Division semi-final. It wasn’t enough however, as Hamilton fell in the East Final to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, leading to massive off-season changes.
|Hamilton's biggest off-season addition was a toss-up between Fantuz and Burris, the two new faces of the team.
Where to begin?
Hamilton’s skill positions underwent a near-complete overhaul in the off-season, while a couple familiar faces on defence won’t be around next season. Even the special teams couldn’t escape losses over the winter. Combined with a brand new coaching staff and the 2012 Tiger-Cats bear little resemblance to last year’s 8-10 squad.
The Tiger-Cats biggest off-season acquisition was a toss-up between QB Henry Burris and WR Andy Fantuz.
Burris arrived from Calgary after losing his starting job mid-way through last season. But Hamilton thinks the veteran QB, who has two Grey Cup wins and a Most Outstanding Player award under his belt, still has some gas left in the tank.
Fantuz, arguably the biggest free agent acquisition this off-season, was pried from the Roughriders. Fantuz didn’t play much last season– he arrived late after trying his luck down south with the Chicago Bears and battled injuries late in the season – but the former Most Outstanding Canadian has put together a very impressive body of work over the six years he spent in Saskatchewan.
And that wasn’t the only good fortune for Hamilton’s receiving corps in the off-season; 2008 first-round draft pick Samuel Giguere finally returned north of the border and signed with the Ticats. The annual waiting game Ticats fans endured for Giguere ended in early May after the Sherbrooke product expired NFL opportunities with the Indianapolis Colts and New York Giants.
Hamilton will have some continuity at the running back position, but that wasn’t by design. The Cats signed 2009 Most Outstanding Rookie Martell Mallett after two years on NFL practice rosters, but the 26-year-old suffered a season-ending ankle injury in training camp.
That led to Hamilton re-signing last off-season’s big acquisition, Avon Cobourne, whom they released after the Mallett signing. It wasn’t Hamilton’s Plan A, but the trash-talking Cobourne gives the team a veteran running back and proven winner. It also means one of the league’s most colourful players returns for at least one more season. #slapdickery
The off-season departures were as drastic as the additions; no other team was hit harder by the NFL’s annual roster poaching than the Tiger-Cats. Hamilton lost explosive return man and receiver Marcus Thigpen, CFL All-Star and the league’s co-sack leader Justin Hickman, and East Division All-Star kicker Justin Medlock to opportunities south of the border.
Other notable departures include RG Simeon Rottier, who signed with Edmonton, and veteran Stevie Baggs, whom the team cut ties with.
And the new roster, with all its changes, will be led by a new head coach. The Ticats fired head coach Marcel Bellefeuille and managed to entice George Cortez from the NFL as his replacement. Cortez has never been a head coach, but has extensive experience as an offensive coordinator in the league and was the Buffalo Bills’ quarterback coach the past two seasons.
After several years languishing in the basement of the league standings, the Tiger-Cats – under head coach Bellefeuille – climbed all the way up to respectable the past three years. Three straight years of making the playoffs – and even the team’s first playoff win in several years last season – looked good for a team that struggled so much in the mid-2000s. But middling results were no longer good enough for the Ticats brass.
|Grant is one piece of what looks to be a very explosive receiving corps in Hamilton.
They were tired of not getting over the hump and wanted more, hence the sweeping changes in the off-season. And if preseason excitement translates to regular season success, the Ticats will be in good shape.
Hamilton’s offence could be very explosive in 2012. Yes, Burris lost his starting job in Calgary last season and just turned 37-years-old, but the optimist would counter with the fact he’s only a year removed from being named the league’s Most Outstanding Player and his 2011 numbers were far from awful. Another plus is Burris’ familiarity with Cortez’s system. With Cortez serving as OC, the two won a Grey Cup together in Calgary in 2008.
And just like in Calgary, Burris will have no shortage of receivers to throw to.
With Fantuz coming home from Saskatchewan as a free agent, Giguere finally signing north of the border, and Dave Stala coming off yet another strong year in black and gold, the Ticats have arguably the best non-import receiving corps in the league.
Add that to the promising group of American receivers the team possesses, a group that includes last year’s Most Outstanding Rookie Chris Williams and promising youngster Bakari Grant, and the biggest concern Burris could have is keeping everyone happy.
Switching over to the defensive side of the ball, by now every team is aware of the Ticats’ hard-hitting linebacking corps, and it may have gotten even better this off-season with the addition of longtime Toronto Argonaut Kevin Eiben. Jamall Johnson and Rey Williams were named East Division All-Stars and Markeith Knowlton is just a year removed from being named the league’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player. Eiben, who arrived in the Hammer with something to prove after the Argos let him walk in free agency, may take Knowlton’s starting spot to help with the ratio.
If there are question marks for the Tiger-Cats, they come in the trenches. Both lines will have some changeover from last year. On the offensive side, Rottier left for Edmonton while C Marwan Hage, who tore his ACL on Labour Day last season, is a health concern heading into the season. On the d-line, Hickman is trying his luck in the NFL and the team is moving on from Baggs at the other end spot.
Players like veteran guard Peter Dyakowski and second-year DT Robert Rose will be relied upon to help navigate through any bumps that go along with adding new players to the lineup, and keep the team upright in the trenches.
It’s the final season of historic Ivor Wynne Stadium, and by the looks of it, the Tiger-Cats plan to go out with a bang. No longer satisfied with their “also ran” status, Hamilton went out and made a lot of moves, creating lots of off-season buzz. It’s the next step towards becoming Grey Cup contenders, so long as the off-season excitement equals wins when the games start to count.
||DB C. Stephen
||LB Frederic Plesius
||OL Carson Rockhill
||DL A. Gascon-Nadon
||DL Michael Atkinson
||WR S. Charbonneau-Campeau
||SB Daronn Palmer
A year after making predominately futures selections, the Tiger-Cats followed that same trend with their first pick in the draft, taking Northern Illinois DB Courtney Stephen with the eighth-overall pick. Hamilton actually had the third pick in the draft but traded it to Winnipeg to stockpile more selections further down the board.
The Cats thought they had a player who could contribute right away with their second pick (10th overall) Frederic Plesius, but the Laval linebacker decided to return to school after the draft.
Only one pick from their 2012 draft class – fourth-rounder Simon Charbonneau-Campeau, a receiver from Sherbrooke – attended training camp this year for the Cats.