- FREE AGENCY
Those of you who read my work consistently know what I like.
Stats, facts, figures.
Anything tangible to sink your teeth into and give reasoning for how a game or a season unfolded: I LOVE that stuff. I think it’s the type of analysis that CFL fans deserve in order to better understand what our great game is all about.
With that being said, something struck me while calling the Ticats’ Eastern Final victory on Sunday afternoon at Tim Hortons field for TSN1150 Hamilton: just how much the human side of the game matters.
We treat these players like robots who are trained machines with the directive of executing the game plan or being in the right place at the right time. But in Hamilton’s first Eastern Final at home since 2014, the human angle, the people involved and how they got to this crucial moment struck me more than any stat ever could.
Head coach Orlondo Steinauer has a saying that was heard over and over again at the practice field in Hamilton since day one of training camp this season.
“You don’t have to, you get to.”
Translated from ‘coach speak,’ what Steinauer is re-iterating every day to his players is the chance given to each of them every practice, meeting and game to be great.
It seems small but that line of messaging reinforced through wins and a culture capable of winning Hamilton’s first Grey Cup since 1999 is an essential part of the Ticats 2019 story.
Steinauer coaches with passion and precision, but his greatest strength in a record-tying rookie season has been his ability to relate to his players yet push them to a place many have never been before.
In conjunction with the Tiger-Cats front office staff – Shawn Burke and Drew Allemang chief amongst them – the Ticats built a roster full of talent, but more importantly based on people and how they interact with each other.
As a result the team has been able to absorb the loss of their top defensive back Delvin Breaux for a large chunk of the season and turned it into a learning opportunity for multitasking Frankie Williams and shutdown corner Jumal Rolle.
They lost defensive end Adrian Tracy for the season in a bizarre pre-game warmup injury and turned it into a dominant Eastern Final performance from his replacement Julian Howsare.
And then there is that little story about their starting quarterback falling to the turf without a hand being laid on him, grabbing his knee and when asked ‘Soli are you okay?!’ Simply responding ‘no’ into a CFL on TSN live mic. All that came from that incident was a backup quarterback who quickly gained the trust of teammates and fans alike on his way to shredding multiple defences at a league pacing rate.
The Ticats have evolved, some of it natural, other pieces forced. Through it all they have found a way and embraced every opportunity not because they have to, but because they get to.
So it should serve as no surprise that on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in perfect passing conditions, facing a quarterback who completed 90+ per cent of his passes for 350+ yards in each of his last two games against East Division playoff opponents, that Hamilton’s defence would embrace the opportunity and do more than survive, they thrived.
By halftime Trevor Harris had as many incompletions as he had all game the previous week in Montreal. Hamilton got an early interception from Richard Leonard, followed by relentless pressure from the front seven.
First year Hamilton defensive coordinator Mark Washington heard all week about the inability of teams to reach Harris before his quick release ended their chance to disrupt the delivery.
He mixed and matched, built personnel packages and schemes, but what he and Steinauer did as much as anything Sunday was motivate. They knew they had the talent to stop the Esks attack. They also knew they had the system to do it. What they needed in order to access both was for every Ticats defenders to understand what they were being asked to do and take care of their role on every given play.
They did, through a trust built over months of growing together, learning each other and finding solutions to challenges only the grind of a CFL season can present.
As a result they are in the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw next Sunday with a chance to become legendary in Hamilton. They’ll wake up tomorrow and go watch the film, begin to prepare for the Bombers and ready their minds for the greatest challenge any of them will face this year.
They’ll do it all with a smile and a gratitude uncommon in the cut throat business of professional football. Not because they have to, because they get to.