It was just one quarter, but if it was at all a harbinger of things to come in 2012, fans in Hamilton are in for an entertaining aerial show this season.
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats put their revamped passing game on display in a 29-24 preseason loss to the Toronto Argonauts on Wednesday. The Ticats were East Division finalists in 2011 and believe the changes they made on offence over the off-season could get them over the hump.
“It’s the CFL – you gotta be able to pass,” said receiver Andy Fantuz. “The weapons we have are going to be tough to stop.”
The new offence is centered on an array of impressive receivers led by Fantuz, their prize offseason-acquisition. Fantuz left the Saskatchewan Roughriders to sign a four-year deal with the Ticats, making him the highest paid non-quarterback in the league.
“Andy is driven, wants to be successful and wants the ball thrown to him, which is really important for a receiver,” new Ticats head coach George Cortez said. “We’re looking for big things from the position.”
Those big expectations grew even more when the Ticats signed 2008 draft pick Sam Giguere after he decided to give up on the NFL. Giguere, who was drafted eighth overall in ‘08, spent three seasons in the NFL on the practice rosters of the Indianapolis Colts and New York Giants.
Add Fantuz and Giguere to former Most Outstanding Canadian nominee Dave Stala and suddenly the Ticats have their own Royal Canadian Air Force. And as if that wasn’t enough options for new quarterback Henry Burris, the Tiger-Cats also boast Chris Williams, a 1,000-yard receiver in 2011 and the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie.
Fantuz was a member of what was dubbed the “Royal Canadian Air Force” while with the Roughriders from 2009-2010. Along with Rob Bagg, Chris Getzlaf, and Jason Clermont, they were an impressive group of all-Canadian receivers on teams that went to back-to-back Grey Cups.
On paper at least, this group in Hamilton is just as good.
“We have a lot of talent across the board, a lot of assets, a lot of different skill sets,” Fantuz said. “It’s going to be tough to stop us. But it’s too early for comparisons (to the Saskatchewan pass-catching crew).”
The X-factor may be Giguere. He hasn’t played Canadian football since he starred in the CIS at Sherbrooke in 2007. And because he bounced around NFL practice rosters he said he hasn’t played in a “real” football game in almost two years.
But when he’s eventually up to speed, he could be a major threat.
“My speed is my No.1 asset. I can stretch the field, stretch defences,” he said. “There’s not a lot of people in this league that can cover me on a go route.”
The Tiger-Cats were fifth in the league last year in passing yards per game, but Williams and Stala were the only players in the top 25 in receiving. That’s likely to change in 2012 with so many options – though the new problem may be getting them all enough touches and keeping them all happy.
“You never keep them all happy,” Cortez said. “They have to understand that sometimes they get the ball, sometimes they don’t get the ball. They have to trust that they’ll get it enough to be an important part of the team. There’s only one ball.”
“As long as we’re winning no one’s going to complain,” Fantuz added. “The better we do the more drives we have, the more plays we have, the more touches everybody gets. We’re all on the same page.”
The reliance on the passing game may be even more pronounced in 2012 given the questions around the Ticats’ running game. Another key offseason acquisition, running back Martell Mallett, tore his Achilles during training camp and is expected to miss the entire season. The Ticats – last in the league in rushing in 2011 – re-signed Avon Cobourne on June 9 to try to fill the void. Cobourne, their leading rusher in 2011, was working as an insurance salesman in Florida when he got the call.
Though Cobourne is likely to take over as the No. 1 running back – and rookies Chevon Walker and James Berezik both looked good against the Argos – there will be added pressure to put the ball in the air.
“It’s a passing league. If you can’t throw the ball you can’t win,” Cortez said.
The task of putting it in the air will fall to Burris, who was acquired from the Calgary Stampeders in a January trade. Burris became expendable to the Stamps thanks to the emergence of Drew Tate. Burris, 37, is generally thought to be on the back-nine of his career but seeks rejuvenation and redemption in Hamilton.
“This is the fastest wide receiving core that I’ve ever played it,” Burris said. It showed in his Ticats’debut. Burris played the second quarter and threw for 214 yards on seven-of-15 passing. He connected with Williams on a 75-yard touchdown and Giguere on a 52-yard hookup
“With my arm strength I look forward to taking full advantage of it.”