Inside Enemy Territory, Volume 3

Inside Enemy Territory, Volume 3: Playing Out The String

by Russ Harrison

The 2006 CFL season is winding down. Some teams are definitely poised for a run for the Grey Cup, some seem to be in a state of limbo, and others are playing out the string. At least those in the latter category are hoping it's a string and not an unlit fuse leading to an off season blow-up!

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats fall into the string-playing set, finishing their failed campaign with two contests against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and BC Lions in successive weeks before a final bye week to conclude the year.

Yes, the insanity that is the current CFL season schedule -- in part because of the Renegades' demise -- does have a silver lining: the bleeding tiger gets to stop its gushing a week earlier than the other non-playoff team, whichever that club will be.

The Marcel Desjardins era has to date seen a number of notable pronouncements about the future direction that Desjardins foresees for the team moving forward. The Khalil Hill send-off was the one incident that particularly sticks in my mind. I am not a booster of managerial prerogatives by any means, but I can grasp the message being sent. The days of drift in the Ticat dressing room and coaching offices are dwindling as fast as the the season is ending.

Another one is today's indication by head coach Ron Lancaster that Jason Maas is going to be shut down for Saturday's game versus the Bombers and in all probability for the season finale against the Leos next week.

For the record, I had called for Maas being shut down if being physically unable to perform weeks ago on ticats.ca. He has clearly been labouring at various points of the season with a mix of shoulder and abdominal concerns. Throw in a wonky back and a lingering hip pointer early in the season and you get a sense of Maas being the pocket equivalent of a Rock'Em Sock'Em Robot with a bobblehead from a sprung spring that won't reset.

Terrible towels can be thrown in to stop the slaughter right now...

I feel Jason Maas can rebound from the travails of this season if he can regain full health and be energized with a new coaching regime and a successful offseason
recruitment campaign that fortifies the O-line and improves the receiving corps. After the failed Paopao offensive coordination experiment, it ought to be interesting to see who becomes the new OC in 2007 -- someone with experience and a clue being preferred!

I feel Maas needs to be given a chance to compete in a meaningful QB training camp competition to rebound as a starter. One thing is clear to me: if Charlie Taaffe becomes the Ticats' new head coach, there will be no more excuses from a system viewpoint. Taaffe has a solid track record from his days in Montreal as OC and head coach and will have a CFL -ready offensive system in place for the Cats if he is the man.

I can envision a healthy Jason Maas having a system to run on the field that will fit his skill set better next year than being asked to be something he is not: Kerry Joseph. That is the nub of the failed Paopao project.

I fully expect that the OC hire will be not an afterthought like the Jamie Barressi out-shuffle on Greg Marshall's watch last offseason. The next OC will be the new head coach's guy...and that informed decision will have positives for Jason Maas if he can rebound.

As I have wailed throughout the season in the Pong-like bitching fests about the offense on ticats.ca during 2006, no QB in Canada could be successful on a regular basis in the Ticat fold given the playbook gymnastics, offensive line inconsistencies/atrocities, and the turnoveritis that has plagued the team throughout all skilled positions on offense. Period.

So giving Maas the Old Yeller treatment given this is a wee bit skewed. If he were in a Calgary or BC situation and clearly being the focal point of the breakdowns, then that blame game would make sense for me. Not even Buck Pierce, the BC super backup and current QB flavour of the day among CFL armchair QBs, would be able to right the ship.

It may not be Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat," but it certainly can't be considered a Rob Hitchcock rescue vessel either...glub glub glub...

Until the coaching issue is resolved, a lot of the Rx-ing in Tigertown both in the fan forums and in the football media isn't going to mean a heck of a lot. I'm a Rich Stubler booster and would love to see him become the next Ticats head coach if available.

Practically speaking, I think the Taaffe angle makes more sense given his prior association with Desjardins and his quoted desire to coach in the CFL again in general and Hamilton in particular, but there is a process in motion. How long it takes will depend on whether Taaffe is a lock or not. Time will tell.

That brings me to The Don's departure in Montreal. Any Don Matthews departure that didn't have a suspense-novel feel to it would be surprising. The whole episode has raised more questions than answers.

Bob McCown on The Fan 590 has been pumping the idea that Matthews will resurface in Hamilton as head coach for 2007 if he is somehow not done and if the Ticats brass basically have the sanity to act in such an eventuality.

Having watched Matthews as a fan based in Montreal for the last couple of years, I have sensed that he is not doing too well physically -- the golf cart at practice being one indication that his mobility and general energy level isn't what it once was. The man is 67, after all.

That being said -- in a Joe Pa meets Methuselah at Penn State world -- if Matthews was game and willing to be carted around in a cart not unlike Commander Pike in the original Star Trek series...I would be tempted to give him the reins in a heartbeat.

Of course three lit red lights would indicate that The Don wanted the team to fake a punt in such a scenario, but I digress!

Seriously, given the man's contribution to the CFL, I wish him all the best. I am more informed by what his impact and rapport were with his players than whatever media scribe's ranting against against Matthews's well-known hardass stance against many in the press. As a true character whose personality has had such an effect on the Canadian game for 30 years now, he will be missed.

As for the rest of the season, I find it pretty hard to go against the Lions as the pick to win the Grail come November. Geroy Simon ate the Stamps wideouts' collective lunch last weekend. He can do his superhero poses in the endzone whatever way he likes because he gets it done more than any other receiver in the country.

The key will be whether Dave Dickenson and/or Buck Pierce will be healthy enough at crunch time to deliver the ball to Simon and his cohorts. If the Lions have a healthy QB of the two, that and the great play of the Lions defence will likely combine to put Vancouver over the top come Grey Cup time.

A collapse this year will be the biggest yet for the Leos. Right now they are positioned to win it all.

That is all for now. Next week I hope to have some positives to share from the upcoming Ticats-Bombers tilt at Old Civic on Sunday at 1 p.m. EDT.

Oski Wee Wee,

Russ Harrison,
Montreal QC

Russ, thank you for the editorial.

Way to go Russ! :thup:

Might I add how I really enjoy your insight and experience in contributions like this Russ?

THANKS!

Excellent summary, Russ, as usual.
Let me nitpick two points, strictly based on personal opinion.
Re Rich Stubler, I fell that Defensive Coaches do not generally make great Head Coaches. I know there are exceptions, some of which will be pointed out to me. I will reply with Don Sutherin, but again, personal opinion.
Now as to Don Matthews. I think his situation is entirely related to age and health problems. Take it from one who is quite a bit older than Don, when age and health conspire against you, time is up. He does not need to start over, face 16 to 18 hour days for seven months, to prove what? His record needs no further reinforcement. THe lily has already been gilded.

Thanks everyone for the kind comments.

As for your points, Wilf, I'll go over them one by one.

  1. Defensive coaches do not generally make great head coaches

My point: offensive coaches generally become GOOD coaches more than defensive ones. I think the overall math would point to that. However, here is a quick, short list of GREAT head coaches with a defensive pedigree off the top of my head:

CFL
Don Matthews (1st in career wins)
Wally Buono (2nd)
Ralph Sazio (the greatest Tiger-Cats HC ever)

NFL
Don Shula (1st)
Tom Landry (3rd)
Bill Belichick -- the current The Man in the NFL
Bill Cowher -- the coach of the NFL champ Steelers

Some may argue with me about the following claim, but the greatest offensive playcaller in the NFL in my lifetime -- Bill Walsh -- also had the privilege of being a defensive coordinator under Marv Levy at Cal (1960-1963), although Cal was not successful during that era.

Walsh, Shula, Landry, and Belichick all have been renowned for their grasp of both sides of the ball. Landry and Walsh were more hands-on re playcalling than Shula and Belichick, but all had an uncanny knack for almost having an ESP feel in their gameplanning at times to neutralize all but the best opposing lineups and coaches.

I support Rich Stubler because of his Hamilton connection (with the mid-eighties Cup contending teams in particular) and his knowledge of the CFL today. His defensive system is second to none in terms of stinginess and genreal adaptability to any opponent. Putting Stub in at HC would be the easiest road to getting a defensive approach that would restore the roar and be a mainstay for our team for years to come.

People make a big deal down south about the Tampa 2 of Dungy and Kiffin, the 3-4 Blitzburgh zone blitz schemes of Dick LeBeau, the 4-6 defence of Jim Johnson and Buddy Ryan, and the New England 3-4 successes under Belichick and Crennel. I would posit that the match coverage defence of Rich Stubler is as important an innovation in CFL terms as these NFL achievements south of the border. Stats don't lie.

Don Sutherin's teams were not fundamentally sound offensively -- consistently bad in the turnover ratio and time of possession. They had a pretty high scoring output, but the defence was often left defending short fields because of the offensive liabilities. As Darren Flutie has pointed out, when he and Danny Mac arrived in 1998, they knew they had a great core of defensive players and a system under Sudsy that would work with the right upgrades on the offensive side of the ball. The fact Sudsy was brought back by Ron in 1998 as DC is testament to that.

Had Dunigan not been concussed into retirement and been able to excel as Ticat QB for a few years, who knows? That is a point I always think about when considering Sudsy's legacy. Dunigan was that good in the brief time he played with the Cats. Football can sure be cruel...

  1. Don Matthews

Be clear, I believe he is done. I raised the McCown reference because of the murkiness of The Don's exit. And IF...and it's a big if, Don were to be available, then I think it would be nuts for the Cats to not at least explore the prospect, particularly if a coordinator were to join him here as an imminent successor a few years down the road. From my perspective as an outsider, my gut is that Matthews's health is the overriding reason he's gone.

Would Don come back if he felt he could physically do it again? He does have nothing to prove. But money can talk if there is an ambiguity. And McCown is right: what a signal it would be to Cats fans than the team was serious in its playoff quest for 2007 to bring in the most successful coach in CFL history.

My feeling from reading my tea leaves and giving my head a shake is that it's Taaffe's job unless he wants to stick as OC at Pitt.

Oski Wee Wee,

Excellent job Triple "O" a very good read... look forward to the next edition keep 'em coming!!

Good stuff Russ. Lots of insight and food for thought.
I wouldn’t put too much stock in anything Bob McCown says though. He’s mostly hot air. Too many words and not enough substance.
I agree that this will be an off-season to watch. I look forward to seeing how Marcel Desjardins sets the tone for the future with his choice of a new head Coach. I hope its an early decision so the two of them can get to work on a QB and players as soon as possible.
I don’t expect any miracles in 2007 but I will be happy as long as there are indications that the onfield product has some purpose and can improve over the next couple of seasons without having to start from scratch each year.

Another very well-written column, Russ. My favourite line was "...others are playing out the string. At least those in the latter category are hoping it's a string and not an unlit fuse leading to an off season blow-up!"

And I do have to agree on a number of points you make. I do think that Don Matthews has coached his last CFL game, and that think the B.C. lions are the team to beat right now. And I do think Maas can succeed with better receivers, a better offensive line, and better playcalling. The offensive line seems to be improving, and let's hope it continues to do so, as Maas seems to rely on them. And as I CBC or TSN commentator pointed out, sometimes the receivers need to make the quarterback look good.

Anyway, I look forward to reading more from you in the future. And I hope to hear some positives form next game, and hope not to see the volume XIII of the "burn the witches" thread.

:)

Great column Russ!

I have a question regarding Charlie Taffe. I believe he is the interim oc at Pitt. However, having said that, I also believe that their o is having a great season. Russ, if Pitt wants to have him back as oc, can the Cats compete salarywise?

That would be a fly in the ointment. Pitt could make it difficult for the Cats re a bidding war. It would also depend on how much of the "challenge factor" would pique Taaffe's interest. Taaffe's prowess is sure to generate more interest in him Stateside.

The Als could also be another suitor, so that has to be factored into the mix. Taaffe in Tigertown is no sure bet. That makes the next few months so fascinating for me.

Buckle up!

Oski Wee Wee,