Orlondo Steinauer will let the Hamilton Tiger-Cats quarterback situation sort itself out in training camp.
Hamilton has two bona fide starters under contract after re-signing veteran Jeremiah Masoli to a one-year deal Dec. 31. He’ll battle backup Dane Evans, who led the Ticats to a franchise-best 15-3 record and East Division title after Masoli suffered a season-ending knee injury in July.
“Right now, I’d say I don’t know, that’s the honest answer, and I’m comfortable with that,” Steinauer said while at the CFL winter meetings in Collingwood, Ont., which ended Thursday. “I’m excited that Jeremiah is back and that he wanted to be back because he was likely to have some options [in free agency].
“The goal for us as an organization is to create competition at every position. I believe [Masoli and Evans] will decide who starts and then the coaches will support that.”
After being named the East Division’s outstanding player in 2018, Masoli led Hamilton to four wins in its first five games before being injured in a 23-15 win over Winnipeg on July 26. But the Ticats barely skipped a beat with sophomore Evans, who went 9-2 in 11 starts while completing 298-of-413 passes (72.2 per cent) for 3,754 yards with 21 TDs and 13 interceptions.
Evans threw for 386 yards with a TD and interception in his first CFL playoff game, a 36-16 win over Edmonton in the East Division final. However, the following week in the Grey Cup, Hamilton’s high-powered offence struggled in a 33-12 loss to Winnipeg as Evans finished 16-of-27 passing for 203 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions while the Ticats committed eight turnovers (two picks, three fumbles, three on downs) and allowed six sacks.
It was a bitter ending to an otherwise brilliant campaign for Hamilton. The Ticats established a club record for regular-season wins while Steinauer tied Calgary’s Dave Dickenson for most victories by a first-year head coach and was named the CFL’s top coach.
“Well, I think the only way anybody gets better is to win a championship,” Steinauer said. “Is it a jagged pill to swallow losing the championship? Absolutely. Was it disappointing? Absolutely.
“But I will say this, being 16-4 isn’t hateful. We know there’s one goal but listen, three teams won’t make the playoffs this year and there’s somebody who’ll probably win five games. There isn’t a person here who you’re going to interview who’s going to say it’s going to be them.”
Having two proven quarterbacks under contract is no longer a luxury in the CFL. No starter played all 18 regular-season games last season and the Grey Cup-champion Bombers had three different players (Matt Nichols, Chris Streveler and Zach Collaros) under centre.
Hamilton will also be buoyed by the return of special-teams co-ordinator Jeff Reinebold, offensive co-ordinator Tommy Condell and defensive co-ordinator Mark Washington.
“They’re all terrific coaches but also terrific men and being able to retain them is exciting,” Steinauer said. “It also gives us a leg up internally just on the little things that nobody sees like only having to maybe tweak the playbook rather than revamp it.
“I couldn’t be happier having them all back. I’m so excited we can keep that continuity.”
Last season was Steinauer’s first as a head coach and it was definitely a learning experience.
“It was more joy and more work than I could’ve ever imagined,” he said. “Things stuck with me longer than they ever had before, good and bad.
“But again, that’s why I say it was more joy and more work than I would’ve ever guessed. At the end of the day, it’s your name on it and it’s your product and it’s your being held accountable. Until you’re in this seat, it’s hard [to understand that].”
However, Hamilton certainly has holes to fill. This off-season, the Ticats released receiver Bralon Addison (95 catches, 1,236 yards, seven TDs) and Canadian punter/kicker Lirim Hajrullahu to pursue NFL opportunities.
And among Hamilton’s pending free agents are defensive linemen Dylan Wynn, Adrian Tracy and Ja’Gared Davis, centre Mike Filer, defensive backs Frankie Williams (CFL’s top special-teams player), Richard Leonard and Tunde Adeleke, receiver Luke Tasker, running backs Terrell Sutton and Anthony Coombs and linebacker Justin Tuggle.
Canadian defensive tackle Ted Laurent, who would’ve become a free agent next month, re-signed Thursday. The Ticats also have Masoli and Canadian defensive back Mike Daly — who were pending free agents — both under contract.
As successful as 2019 was for Hamilton, Steinauer isn’t about to rest on those laurels.
“Every year stands on its own,” Steinauer said. “First, we want to be 1-0 and go from there.
“Our goal is a sustainable model that always has an opportunity to win a championship. That’s why you’ll always hear me talk about making the playoffs first. Get an X by your name [clinching playoff berth], then you can go get Y.”