Inside Enemy Territory
by Russ Harrison
CLOSE, BUT NO COHIBA
Last night's 29-20 loss to the Alouettes was easily the most sustained effort by the Tiger-Cats so far in the regular season. I was impressed by the overall intensity of the club as it competed hard right up to the final gun.
The play of the offense, despite some obvious problems with the O-line and some shoddy receiver play in spots, was more in keeping with a professional offense on a competitive team. This much-maligned unit showed a robust balanced attack in the second half -- Jesse Lumsden rumbled for key first downs as the bright spot -- giving fans some hope that the light is visible at the end of the tunnel.
Defensively, the team desperately needed to make key second-half adjustments as Anthony Calvillo was picking the D apart, hitting early and often against the soft vanilla coverages of defensive coordinator Ed O'Neil. As the second half progressed, the front seven pressured A.C. using a multitude of blitz and pressure packages, disrupting Calvillo's timing and keeping the Cats in the game.
Hopefully in future weeks we will see more of a mix in defensive schemes. Even with all the current reshuffling of the secondary, it is preferable to take some chances and force the offense to react more than simply allow death by chain gang through passive schemes.
Nick Setta did well again, hitting two of three field goals and punting for a high 46.5- yard average on six punts. On the field goal he missed, a questionable decision by Jason Maas to try to force a deep ball to Thyron Anderson instead of going for a safer pass to improve field position for a half-ending field goal forced a long attempt by Setta that missed. Charlie Taaffe was not very pleased with that decision. Nonetheless, the special teams are playing fairly well apart from the no yards issue which continues to be a problem.
I can take five-yard no yards penalties as long as the returner is tackled right away and the cause of the penalty is more an issue of the ball's trajectory being disrupted by wind where the cover team is hard-pressed to stay outside the five-yard restraining zone. It is the 15-yard no yards penalties caused by guys simply not stopping before the restraining zone that get my goat. Fortunately that wasn't the case last night.
The team didn't close out a winnable game with a victory, but the progression from the first two games was pretty evident to me. I can accept losses in a rebuilding context where the team plays hard and the progression in team play and in critical areas is present.
THE DYNAMIC (?) DUO
The forum fallout from this latest installment of the Maas or Chang Saga is predictably divided into two main camps, The Maas Mob and The Chang Gang. As a Chang Gang guy, I am all for Timmy Chang becoming the starter of the team given its current situation on the field.
Jason Maas had a challenging evening, facing blown O-line blocking assignments on a number of occasions and five pass drops by my count (three by Ralph alone). Nonetheless, he finally got off the schnide by hooking up with Talman Gardner on a 67-yard bomb in the second quarter.
It was easily the best effort of Maas as the Ticat starter since the Edmonton game last year at Commonwealth. That being stated, his INT in the end zone early in the fourth frame was an ill-advised, rookie-like mistake that cost the Cats points and momentum, prompting Taaffe to employ the hook on Maas and bring in Chang.
Chang does not walk on water, but when he gets time to throw, look out. His 71-yard completion to Brock Ralph electrified the IWS faithful and brought the Cats back to a 26-17 deficit in one fell swoop. However, the Als defence proved more than effective down the stretch and Chang's relief effort fell short.
In today's Spec, Steve Milton advocates even a shorter leash for Maas on Thursday when the Tabbies go into Vancouver to face the Lions. That is a perspective I can certainly live with. However, I think it is time for Chang to get a start with a similarly short leash.
The starting QB controversy will continue to rage until one of these guys demonstrates that he is the man who can lead the team to wins and separates himself on the field through results, not some semantics/cliche exercise by advocates in ticats.ca threads.
I find it laughable that people are pushing the idea that Chang will be a wilted flower if he can't win right away as a starter, as if pivots in Hamilton could ever be insulated from the venom of the denizens of Old Civic when things don't go well. My contention is that given the inconsistent state of our O-line and receiving corps that Chang can make more plays with his mobility and arm than Maas can, straight up. Maas may have the experience factor and ability to read defenses at a higher level than Chang at this point, but given his track record, it is getting harder and harder to argue that having Maas start makes a big difference in the team's chances.
I don't think Maas has the arm endurance to make all the throws he has to through an entire game. He simply doesn't have the opposing defences in dread of the deep ball if he seems to only hit one every three games or so. Teams have to respect Chang's arm and gunslinger style even if he is a somewhat-unknown commodity here in Canadian ball.
I say "somewhat" because Chang's NCAA days prepared him well for the CFL's wide-open passing attacks while learning under June Jones and his run-and-shoot attack in Hawaii. The way some fans write about Chang, you would think he was mired in some eight-pass-per-game running school a la Tom Osborne's Nebraska circa 1983.
What is evolving here is that the Taaffe experience in Montreal is repeating itself somewhat now. The Ham-Calvillo tandem, albeit with a much more established and successful program in Montreal, saw a gradual changing of the guard as Calvillo emerged as the team's eventual starter under Taaffe. Ham remained a key player in the partnership because he was a top-flight CFL QB with a lot left in the tank and the Als could ride him as the starter as long as was necessary until Calvillo's transformation under Taaffe was complete.
In 2007 Steeltown, things aren't that rosy by any stretch. The team's inability to score a sufficient amount of points to remain competitive in most of its games has even the biggest Maas supporter in apologist mode far too often.
Even in the darkest days of the Cats during the long decline of Danny Mac at the tail end of his career, Danny had enough in the tank to remain a competitive starter. The 1-17 season in 2003 was one where the Cats were only out of a few games in blowout fashion, but lost a multitude of close games. He still had enough spark in his arm that teams had to respect the deep ball.
Even when I see Maas have a relatively successful effort like last night, it's like watching Sisyphus rolling rubble all night long. "Boulderdash," you might say.
I still contend that Chang will be the starter as soon as he's able to pull a game out of the fire. I defer to Taaffe's judgement as to when that happens. I concur with his decisions so far this year to put Chang in there and give the kid a chance to develop. My feeling is that the transition to Timmy being the starter will be swifter -- sooner than later -- simply because the starter isn't in a position given his controllable issues and matters outside his control on the offense to separate his level of play from that of his backup. It's that simple.
The issue of who gives the Cats the best chance to win at QB is a debatable point given the current situation. Time is on Chang's side.
I've expressed myself on the no yards issues re the special teams, but it's the other mental mistakes out on the field that is driving me nuts watching the Cats play.
How Brock Ralph can be FOUR YARDS OFFSIDE on a pass attempt boggles what's left of my mind. In his entire CFL career, if Rocky DiPietro were offside more than 10 times, I would be very surprised. Ralph is doing this weekly, costing his team field position and momentum time and again.
Not only that, but his unwillingness to turn the ball upfield when he has blocks and space to do so, opting for the easy scurry out of bounds, is really galling. I watched Darren Flutie season after season turn the ball inside and hit people with at least a gear less than Ralph has. In just that respect, you can appreciate greatness through effort even more. Unlike Flutie, Ralph appears lost, if not invisible in whole stretches of games when he isn't dropping passes. I do not like taking any player to task, but Ralph had better thank his lucky stars for Timmy Chang's great pass to him that salvaged a total waste of an evening.
People make Kamau "Incompleterson" jokes in contrast, yet Kamau does come up with circus catches that impress. All I get from watching Ralph most of the time is wonderment that the circus is still in town.
One more bane to my football enjoyment: never go offside on a kickoff. Dwight Anderson did last night, and even though he was able to produce a fumble recovery last night off a kick, his flag killed the play. It gets back to keeping one's head in the game.
I hope Charlie Taaffe institutes fines for flagrant penalties arising from mental errors. This team's margin for error is not good, so if the culture surrounding mental focus and preparation is to progress, players have to be fully accountable, up to and including being cut for being penalty liabilities.
That is it for this week's installment. This week is a short week, so my next IET will be posted either Friday or Saturday, I expect.
Oski Wee Wee,