Inside Enemy Territory, vol. 2, no. 4 (August 14)

INSIDE ENEMY TERRITORY, vol. 2, no. 4

August 14, 2007
by Russ Harrison

Since it is a bye week in the East, I've decided to a more relaxed approach in this installment. To that end, I culled some of my posts in ticats.ca over the last several days and patched together a column.

I amplify on some of these points. It is a vital point in the club's season, so some of the assessments here do need a bullhorn of sorts.

COACHES CORNERED: A seven-game assessment

For positives, I think one can look at the overall play of the secondary (particularly at CB where there has been steady improvement). I think Butler is doing a fine job at getting them ready to play.

Our return coverage on kicks and punts has been very good in general. Where we clearly need work is our blocking on returns. Easley is a big upgrade over Erdman and I think the bye week ought to help Setta get some more juice back into his kicks.

The overall front seven/defensive coordination has been not up to my standards overall in terms of schemes. We are too predictable in our blitz looks and soft zones (i.e. three-man rushes on second-and-long). It is a little too Kavis Reedish for my liking. I am a Sudsy mark and believe that you build your defence around the front four with combination zones and delayed blitzing from the LBs and secondary. THE KEY IS DISGUISE AND WE AREN'T FOOLING ANYONE, IMHO. O'Neil has to find a formula that works, bottle it, and keep changing the flipping label. LOL

The LBs are playing well and NML is a beast, pure and simple. We need to find a matching bookend on the other side. I hope an NFL castoff, SMS casualty from elsewhere in the league, or Jermaine Reid being moved to the opposite end can provide that second front of pressure. For the line, it is more a personnel shuffle issue than a coaching one. The unit needs to find an identity and that will take time.

The Bauman drops aside, the receiving corps over the last few weeks is finally starting to look like a professional unit. Walker, Curry, and Gardner have shown sparks at times but they will have to continue to step up. Ralph is Ralph -- oscillating between brilliant and bewilderingly bad (read offsidetitus). Dennis Goldman needs to continue to work this group hard to cut down on mental errors. I have seen improvement since the season began, so a decent job overall.

The O-line has been great overall re run blocking for Jesse. Gagne-Marcoux is a manimal when loosed into the secondary. The pass protection has been spotty. Woodard and Davis have been primarily inconsistent. Bleamer has a lot of work to do to get the unit to have balanced proficiency.

Working and Taaffe's playcalling has puzzled at times, to be blunt. The last Bauman play where they went back to the same area of attack on a third and short was ill advised, IMO. Not just because Bauman had dropped a ball immediately previous to that, but that tipping the Esks to what the next play was going to be with a similar look didn't fool anyone.

THERE IS NO EFFECTIVE NO-HUDDLE OFFENSE! This is inexcusable in week seven! I can see an offense breaking down because of execution: blowing it because you can't get two plays called at the line and huddling every fricking time is bush league, frankly. You CAN go back to plays easier if you are in a hurry-up mode. As it is, the Cats are totally inefficient in the "three minute drill" and that has to be a major concern.

The fact the team has no hurry-up offense in place (i.e. no-huddle) is absolutely jawdropping. I was stunned by this.

Good thing we have a bye week to get THAT together if anything else.

Running Jesse Lumsden EIGHT TIMES is a problem. Using a hurry-up and running him during the whole game as a change of pace could have caused problems for the Esks. Again, there is little cunning happening here.

The non-use of Corey Holmes as a RB for swing passes, motioning into the slot, or lining up as a slotback: don't get me started. A lot of TALK about having a "Corey package," no action. We are almost halfway into the season. Bizarre.

Is it an overall improvement from last year's debacle? Yes. The team is competitive. However, there is a lot of work to be done. This team must learn to dictate the pace of the game, particularly when it is late and it is on the line. Keystone Kops 2000 doesn't cut it in '07.

Quarterbacking? Maas is a better Maas to only add to the vagueness. He has a few weeks to salvage the season in a postseason push sense, IMHO. His decision-making has been better overall and he seems to have a better grasp of the offense. If we can't get back into the thick of it (read third place and dealing with a crossover), then working Chang into the mix has to become an issue in the second half of the season. No way around it.

Heads don't need to roll. They need a shake. The penalty issue means a fining system has to be enforced. The bye week is to get everyone on the same page. The season is not a loss yet, but for there to be a breakthrough, this team has to make an imprint in every facet of its play.

JASON'S ARM (not to be confused with a horror film...I think)

For well over a year, the speculation over the condition of Jason Maas's throwing arm has been a hotly discussed topic. For weeks last year, I got the distinct impression that TSN commentators were untilizing their ruminations as punctuation at times. Like this:

TALKING HEAD: Jason Maas is struggling out there. I think he's playing hurt. There is Ron Lancaster. You've got to feel for him. Jason looks frustrated. I think he's hurt. Wendy's Kick for a Million continues next week. There is something up with his shoulder I think.

And on. And on. And, you know.

The Lancaster speculation on whether Maas's arm condition last year pointed to a shortened career is well-documented. My Spockian eyebrow was engaged, while others on ticats.ca seemed to want to pile the limb on the wished-for bonfire and purify all things Cat.

Offseason bicep surgery (not the shoulder!) was deemed a success by Maas and the Tabbies cognescenti. A dispassionate observer of Maas this season can detect that Maas's arm strength has improved game to game.

The issue is not whether Jason can throw a deep ball with loft...the question is whether he can consistently throw passes in the 15-25 yard range and hit guys on a flat plane (preferably on the dead run). There is the nub of Jason's problem, two years into the experiment.

How much gas is in your arm and how tight are your spirals are the two related concerns in getting the ball into those areas. Long balls are more involved with placement and depth.

He might have as much of a 30-yard-plus deep ball as Dave Dickenson with time to throw, for example, but DD makes those intermediate strikes (15-25 yds) to his slots in flight. Jason isn't hitting those windows, and in a WCO-styled offense, that IS an issue.

CHANG vs. MAAS (to be settled by a best-of-three falls match with thumb wrestlers)

So, what do we do with this Chang guy? Or to be more pertinent, when is the QB of the future the QB of the present?

For me, it always depends on THE GUY, not the perceived "formula of success." Chang's NCAA experiences under June Jones is worth two CFL seasons in the bullet department. Not an option QB (read Couch), but a TRUE gunslinger.

People point to Aikman re the "baptism by fire" approach. Terry Bradshaw would also qualify. There WILL be bumps along the road. It takes three years for most QBs to master a WCO-style offense in the NFL (most prolific exponent of this theory = Steve Young). It would serve the Ticats well to ease Chang into the mix if(?) Maas should falter in the next quartet of games. If the team should be out of the playoff picture, Maas should be similarly from the starter's post, to be blunt.

The time line for the transition should be results-based. At a certain point, the win-loss quotient, redzone TD percentage, and overall game management elements paint a picture that makes the next step clear. We are either weeks away from the transition or there will be a gradual process based on the competitiveness of the club game-to-game.

Chang needs to out-practice Maas at a given point and pull a game out of the fire to accelerate the process. Otherwise, it is wishful thinking that Timmy is going to be the man before the end of September, IMHO.

Time will tell.

FORGING AN IDENTITY

Over the last few years, I've been harping on the need for this club to develop an identity in every phase of play.

This is not some esoteric exercise. Simply put, it is trying to create a blueprint of success. One where people can talk about the Cats in the future and readily know what the club is about in each area.

We can get into that even more minutely when discussing NFL teams: "The Packer Sweep," "Martyball," "Air Coryell," "The Walsh Coaching Tree," "Blitzburgh," etc. etc.

As Ticat fans, we rightly show our pride at the great defensive play over the decades that accented successful Cat teams -- the braid from Scott to Barrow to Henley to Zambiasi to Montford. We cherish snot dislodging as a rite of gridiron combat. I don't think that emphasis will ever change.

Having stated that, the Taaffe era brings the search for that elixir. The idea that teams come against a team with definable approaches that opponents must reckon with.

In short: THIS IS WHAT WE DO. TRY TO STOP US.

It is more than developing a swagger or a five-man exercise bike end zone celebration. It is getting a core of players to buy into a system, hone it through practice and focussed effort, and execute it game after game. Owning it, in short.

Taaffebell (to reconjure that image) is going to need time to deal with the turbulence of assembling a winning roster to have enough hoverability to wave his wonderwand at some juncture. It's not a magic act as much as it's getting that CLICK sound to replicate throughout the roster.

I thought we may have had that moment in the return game versus Winnipeg. The last effort against the Eskimos may have taken the lustre from the fuzzy glow of winning one big, but I sense the team now has a definable group in every unit that buys into the project.

Over the next several weeks, the ongoing assembly of the "rebuilding foundation" will continue. NFL cuts, the CFL waiver wire, and other sources will test the Ticat scouting department to be sure.

The hiring of Dan Rambo is HUGE. I believe that the long-term viability of the football development area will be assured. The transition from the nickel-and-diming of Grant/MacDonald in the scouting area to a fully-fledged CFL-ready player evaluation system is in train.

For people to expect instant miracles is to be counter-intuitive to what a usual rebuilding process is about. For the first time in years, I can confidently suggest that the organizational learning curve to become a yearly contender is no longer a chicane.

That's all for this entry. Time to recharge the ol' viewing batteries and hope for a Steeltown roll starting August 25th in Montreal!

Oski Wee Wee!

Russ Harrison
Verdun, QC

Russ, that was another excellent blog entry/post. With all the good points that were made in it, I would not know where to start in discussing it. I have not had much time to read the posts here lately, and so I suppose I have not read many of your posts. So if this was put together from other posts you have put up here, then I certainly am glad you did this. It gives us a place where we can read your overall assessment of the team, which, as always, was very well written.

Once again Russ, your post is well written and very thought provoking, I have to agree with alot of points in there, but I am happy to see the Maas piece. In recent games he has steadily improved in both his decision making as well as his physical attributes.

If the Cats are able to get back to the days when teams feared our defence and hated to come to IWS because of the punishment doled out and not the hot water, then I beleive this team will improve in the standings. We NEED to get back to smashmouth football, it is what were have been known for!!

Awesome read Russ, I look forward to the next edition!!

Good stuff Russ.
A few points though. We may look better than last year but....its just not enough. I think we will be hard-pressed right now to get the 4 wins we got last year. The other teams are also improving this year and they have a head start on us in many areas eg: QB, O-line and receivers.
Also the "identity" thing. Its hard to create that in the first year of re-building especially when the airlift continues. We could end up with many more new faces on the field before October. I would hope that by early next season that some sort of character has emerged. As you said very well, the other teams need to know who we are.
You have pinpointed this team's on-field problem areas very well. I would add that of all the problems that you have analysed the QB thing remains an enigma to me. I think we have snookered ourselves by allowing a situation to arise where our starting QB is only marginal and still shows many of his previous inadequacies...and the #2 guy is not ready yet.
I read a story in the Globe and Mail yesterday about how the Argos are surprised and happy about the job Rocky Butler is doing for them. All I could do was groan and think...."there goes another one we should have kept". I know hindsight is a wonderful thing but it does highlight a gaping hole in our offensive plan for this year. We need a proven QB next year even if Chang does shine when (if) he finally gets some playing time this season.
My prediction: it will take two more seasons before there are signs this team (including the coaching staff) can settle down and reach the standards you have set. When that happens, we will finally have a championship-calibre team.

I agree with most of the post.
As for forging an identity....I think part of the problem is that we do have an identity. One which we need to "un-forge".

In order to establish a new identity we first need to establish confidence in ourselves and this starts with coaching. Jesse has been turning heads around the league, yet our coaches seem to show a lack of confidence (8 carries) in him. They should be daring the other team to try to stop him. They should be hoping for such a challenge.
I am not advocating a coaching change by any stretch, but they have to improve. Play calling has been suspect-- time management atrocious -- personnel decisions perplexing at times.
Penalty solutions have been discussed by the coaches --- running, fining, yelling and ignoring have all been tried without success. There is another element to avoiding penalties--preparation. Many of our penalties (offside by SB's, no yards)can be at least partially avoided with better practise and preparation.
As for Maas---well, regardless of the side of the QB debate you are on, one thing is certain. He had surgery on his throwing arm this year. Anyone who has had surgery on any body part from the pinky finger on up knows that "good as new" is just never true.
Is he "good enough" or strong enough--that is the question and no, it has not yet been answered. Does he still ice his shoulder before games? I don't know.
Debating the merits or concerns about starting Chang really are moot points. If Maas cannot get things done physically and on the scoreboard (actually winning some games) then we should move to our alternative. At present, that is Chang.
As the ole saying goes....you can lose with anybody.

Great summary of our season to this point, Russ.

While I agree that we are more competitive this year, I feel a general sense of unease about a number of things Ticat this year.
Among them are the following:

  1. Why don't we use Corey Holmes?

  2. Our O-line seems to be better run blockers than pass blockers, why don't we run more?

  3. What exactly are we protecting Timmy Chang from?

  4. Why did we keep Richie Williams over Rocky Butler if we're never going to give him a chance?

  5. In general, Moreno and the defense are doing an excellent job and are surrendering very few points considering the amount of time that they're on the field. But why are we changing so many players each week on the defense?

  6. As much as I like McKay, why do we always rush only 3 men?

  7. Why did a team with so many new players, and so badly in need of some veteran leadership, rush out Morreale and Hitchcock?

  8. What did we do to deserve the imbalance in judgment calls from officials this season and what can be done about it without making it worse?

See y'all in Montreal.

Thanks folks!

Re TommyBoy's assessment of the Chang-Maas issue, II don't think we are far apart at all. Maas has basically the Montreal game and the two Toronto tilts to save his starting job, IMHO. If the Cats fall out of the hunt, it will be Chang Time.

Oski Wee Wee,

Good post as usual,Russ.

I would add another priority: the team needs to get Chang, Lumsden, and Setta sign for 2 more years.It would make the rebuilding much more stable.

They would also be on my re-signing shortlist. Lumsden might be a hard sell because if he has an excellent finish to the season, the NFL people will be knocking on HIS door this time.

Oski Wee Wee,