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Dave Naylor

TSN Football Insider

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There was a time when it didn’t look like the Hamilton Tiger-Cats would get a chance to try and snap the CFL’s longest Grey Cup drought on their home field this December.

Not back in August, when the team started the season 0-2 as No. 1 quarterback Jeremiah Masoli struggled out of the gate, and then was hurt. Or when his backup, Dane Evans, also went down, leaving the offence in the hands of journeyman David Watford.

Not when the early season injured list also included names such as Chris Van Zeyl, Speedy Banks and Bralon Addison, players who make up the heart and soul of the Tiger-Cats.

Even in a shortened 14-game schedule, 0-2 wasn’t the end of the world. But it sent a message to the other teams in the division that the East was up for grabs.

That’s not the way it was back in 2019, when Hamilton put up a franchise best 15-win regular season and headed to the Grey Cup as prohibitive favourites over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

The shocking 33-12 defeat left the Hamilton players stunned. Just as they were undoubtedly shaking their heads at this season’s poor start, which included the league’s highest-scoring team from 2019 putting up a total of just 14 points over two games.  

But since that time, the Tiger-Cats have slowly evolved back into a legitimate Grey Cup contender, even if their record (7-5) doesn’t show it.

Since that 0-2 start, the Tiger-Cats have dropped just three games by a combined total of five points – a pair of one-point losses to Toronto and a field-goal loss to Montreal in overtime. That’s it.

They’ve been resilient enough that when both Masoli and Evans went down, the Ticats went 2-0 with Watford at quarterback, managing wins over Calgary and Ottawa.

Meanwhile, the defence has also managed to pick up its game. Hamilton has given up the second-fewest points in the league, behind only Winnipeg. The Hamilton defence doesn’t blanket teams the way Winnipeg’s has this season, but they are consistent enough that defence is never the reason Hamilton loses. The Tiger-Cats have surrendered 30 points just once this season, in a Week 2 loss to Saskatchewan.

Hamilton’s steady climb has earned the team a chance to still win the East if they can defeat the Toronto Argonauts at BMO Field Friday night.

Hamilton is a statistically superior team to Toronto in most ways, but the Argos have been better at winning close games this season.

While not every Hamilton player was part of that Grey Cup embarrassment two years ago, they’ve all experienced the one-point losses to Toronto this season, which are the reason they are still chasing first place. A win tonight would give Hamilton the first-place tiebreaker and a chance to host the Eastern Final on Dec. 5.

In recent history, Argos versus Ticats has been more a rivalry in spirit than in competition on the field, as so rarely have both teams been competitive at the same time.

But this year is one of those, with a resurgent, if unpredictable, Toronto team trying to keep their rivals at bay.

It’s been a long journey from the way things ended nearly two years ago, but suddenly a return trip to the Grey Cup doesn’t seem that far off. Unlike two years ago when the Tiger-Cats were the hunted, this team has been hiding in plain sight in the middle of the standings all season.

Head coach Orlondo Steinauer has made it clear that this season isn’t about avenging what happened in 2019, that this is a new year with new players and a team with its own story.

The challenge for this team is to try and write a better ending than one Hamilton has experienced for every season since they last won it all in 1999.

The Blue Bombers have looked like the CFL’s best team this season and are favourites to become the league’s first back-to-back Grey Cup champions since Montreal in 2009 and 2010.

A win tonight by Hamilton would bring a Grey Cup rematch much more closely into view.

Angelo Mosca passes at age 84

Unlike a lot of people who’ve covered the CFL for a long time, I didn’t know Angelo Mosca well. A friendly smile or a hello upon seeing him at a game or practice in Hamilton was the extent of my relationship with him.

Upon his passing, it was easy to understand why his shadow loomed so large over his team and the CFL in general.

Mosca was a great player, having participated in nine Grey Cup games and won five.

He had a personality as large as his talent on the field, one he took with him when he moved his career to the wrestling ring.

He was an American who made Canada his home, a fixture around Hamilton who, through his connection the Tiger-Cats, was one of the city’s most recognized faces.

It’s been said and thought a lot in the last week: The CFL could use a few more Angelo Moscas.

Duck’s debut

Devlin ‘Duck’ Hodges started his first game for Ottawa last week, becoming the latest quarterback to start a game in the CFL after having done so in the NFL. 

Hodges, who started six games for the Steelers in relief of Ben Roethlisberger in 2020, was good on just eight of 22 passes for 90 yards against Toronto in a 23-20 loss. 

The transition from starting at quarterback in the NFL to doing so in the CFL has not been a smooth one of late.

In fact, a quick review of former NFL quarterbacks who come north over the past decade or so tells the story, a list that includes Johnny Manziel, Ryan Lindley, Cleo Lemon, Mike McMahon, John Beck, and Troy Smith.

Others, such as Vince Young, Josh Freeman and Quincy Carter – who between them passed for more than 29,000 yards in the NFL – couldn’t make it out of CFL training camp.

Go back a little further and it’s the same story.

Why do players at the sport’s most important position, selected and groomed by the best talent evaluators and coaches in the world, struggle so badly when they come to the CFL?

Other than Doug Flutie, (who is the exception to all kinds of rules in pro football), the CFL is mostly a graveyard for former NFL quarterbacks trying to resurrect or extend their careers.

It’s worth noting that every former NFL quarterback who comes to the CFL is here because of a lack of success in the four-down league. There are no exceptions.

It usually takes quarterbacks two or three seasons before the CFL truly clicks for them. How many former NFL quarterbacks have willing to put in that kind of time to position themselves for success in Canada? Not many.

Hodges may be an exception, given that he’s still just 25 and signed a three-year contract with Ottawa.

Also, despite starting six NFL games already in his young career, he came to Pittsburgh as an undrafted free agent from Samford University, so it’s not as if he’s been spoiled with a silver spoon to this point.

Hodges will get a chance to compete for playing time and to learn the CFL game as Ottawa tries to become competitive in 2022.

Elks’ all-time road trip

It has been 80 years since a professional football team in Canada played three road games in seven days.

And at least when the 1941 Winnipeg Blue Bombers faced that task, two of the games were played in Vancouver.

Thanks to a COVID-19 postponement in August, the Elks must play road games in Saskatchewan, Toronto, and B.C. over the course of seven days, beginning with this Saturday’s game at Saskatchewan.

From there, the Elks will have a day of treatment and meetings on Sunday before flying to Toronto on Monday for Tuesday night’s game at BMO Field against the Argonauts.

A Wednesday flight to Vancouver sets up another day of meetings and treatment on Thursday before the Elks close out their season against the Lions on Friday night.

The Elks and their opponents will be allowed to dress 50 players for each game instead of the standard 45. But given that Edmonton enters this week with a long list of injured players and those held out of practice for minor injuries, there’s a real possibility of roster attrition over this span.

Many are going to wonder about the safety of this end-of-season schedule for Edmonton. The matter of whether to play the rescheduled game was ultimately put to the players, who had to choose between playing the game or not getting paid.

It’s the strangest ending to one of the strangest seasons for a CFL team in some time.