The Hamilton Tiger-Cats absolutely had to win Thursday night. Yes, their once-promising year with its preseason dreams of an East Division championship had deteriorated into a 6-11 nightmare. Yes, even a victory over the hated Toronto Argonauts wouldn't clinch a playoff spot for them, as they still needed help elsewhere. However, against an Argos' squad that had nothing to play for, was sitting starting quarterback Ricky Ray completely and was only playing primary backup Jarious Jackson briefly, a victory seemed like the bare minimum for this to not be a completely disastrous season.The Tiger-Cats failed to achieve that, though, falling behind early and never quite making up the ground. Even their late surge to tie the game at 40 wasn't enough, as Hamilton left over a minute on the clock, and Argonauts' fourth-stringer Zach Collaros was able to drive the team into field-goal range, where Swayze Waters nailed a 51-yarder with no time left to give Toronto a 43-40 win and ensure that a West Division team will grab the third-place playoff berth in the East. This inexcusable loss should provide the impetus for at least some change in Hamilton, but what will be interesting is to see just how far the change goes.
This was a disastrous effort all around by the Tiger-Cats, but as it has all year, the chief brunt of the blame rests on the defence. Before this game, Hamilton's defence was dead last in 11 of the 25 team statistical categories tracked by the CFL, including such critical ones as first downs, touchdowns and points allowed, and they played like a bottom-of-the-barrel outfit again Thursday. The Tiger-Cats couldn't stop the run at all, as Gerald Riggs Jr. racked up 112 yards and a touchdown on just 15 carries (7.5 yards per carry), and they weren't much better against the pass; Jackson, Collaros and third-stringer Trevor Harris combined to complete 18 of 30 passing attempts (60 per cent) for 270 yards and two touchdowns. Remove Harris' mediocre seven-for-14 showing and the result is a 68.8 per cent completion rate for two touchdowns, 193 yards and no interceptions.
If this was just one game, fair enough, but the Hamilton defence has been this bad all year. Defensive coordinator Casey Creehan simply has to go at this point (oddly enough, that may not work out so badly for him, as he's a hot candidate in Winnipeg despite his struggles in Hamilton). He had tons of talent to work with, but made less than nothing out of it. The Tiger-Cats will have to make a change at that position or once again be the laughingstock of the CFL on the defensive side of the ball.
What's going to be interesting to watch is if the changes will stop there, though. On most teams, a head coach who went 6-12 and missed the playoffs with a team that looked like a contender for the division title in the preseason and substantially underachieved with regards to its talent level would be a logical firing, but there are special circumstances with George Cortez. For one, this is his first year with the team, and that usually gets coaches a bit of a longer leash. For another, his speciality, the offence, ran just fine; the Tiger-Cats were second in the league in points per game and first in passing touchdowns heading into this week. Perhaps most importantly, he was lured away from the NFL for significant dollars and signed a four-year deal that gave him substantial control. Buying him out would not be an insignificant cost, especially considering how the Tiger-Cats are set to spend next season on the road at yet-to-be-determined locations thanks to construction of their new stadium. Thus, although many teams might fire a typical coach in this situation, Hamilton may not make the same decision with Cortez.
Regardless of which changes are actually made, there's a clear sense change is required. This was not simply a case of bad luck for the Tiger-Cats; in fact, their loss Thursday showcased the problems that have plagued this team all year long. Their defence was a tire fire from beginning to end, while their offence was effective in spurts but utterly absent at other times. There's a good reason this team finished 6-12 and out of the playoffs, and they were only in contention to this point because the East was so bad. In a way, though, this is a fitting way to end it for them. Much like their season as a whole, the great expectations heading into Thursday's game were soon dashed on the rocks of realism. The only question left is who will still be standing when the final reckoning is made.