Monday, 18 February 2013

Austin's Approach Shows These Aren't the Same Old Cats

It wasn't quiet, but it wasn't as loud as previous opening weekends of free agency.

The Ti-Cats, always in the running to make a splash come free agency, signed five free agents in the first three days players were able to sign elsewhere. But unlike in previous years, the team didn't go for the big-name, marquee signing. Instead of pursuing guys like Ricky Foley, Odell Willis or Brandon Whitaker (probably the three biggest names on the market), the Ti-Cats instead chose to sign Shomari Williams, Brian Bulcke and Evan McCollough on Friday, Deon Beasley on Saturday, and Marcellus Bowman on Sunday.

It's a shift in focus from the Bob O'Billovich era, when making a splash often meant opening the chequebook for former all-stars, which landed the team prominent players like Andy Fantuz and Avon Cobourne the last two years. Both solid signings, despite Cobourne being release after the 2011 and 2012 seasons, and ones that the team should not regret.

But bringing in big-name guys isn't what new general manager Kent Austin decided to do. Instead, the first-time general manager opted to sign quality players that fit the team's needs. Austin signed two defensive backs, two defensive lineman and a linebacker. Hamilton's biggest area of concern this off-season: the defense, especially the secondary and defensive line. In just three days, Austin brought in five starting-calibre players on a defense that needed an infusion of talent. If the mission was to improve areas of weakness, I'd say he accomplished that mission.

Adding two Canadians, Williams and Bulcke, that are capable of being starters can't be overlooked either. The Ti-Cats had ratio issues last year – remember when the team sat Markeith Knowlton because of ratio troubles last year? – and finding quality Canadian talent was a priority for the Cats. So far this month, Austin has brought in three potential starters in Williams, Bulcke and Greg Wojt (who they acquired in a trade with Edmonton). Add those three with Marwan Hage, Peter Dyakowski, Andy Fantuz, Dave Stala, Sam Giguère, Ryan Hinds and Kevin Eiben, and the Ti-Cats have some serious Canadian depth. And that list grows even longer if you add 2012 draft picks Arnaud Gascon-Nadon, Frédéric Plesius, Michael Atkinson and Courtney Stephen, and the bevy of young offensive lineman like Pascal Baillaregon, Cody Husband, Mike Filer and Jason Mederios to the mix. The Ti-Cats could be the deepest team in terms of Canadian talent in the league.

And it's not that I think what O'Billovich did during his five-year run as general manager was wrong; his plan turned the Cats from terrible to competitive. But he couldn't get them from competitive to championship-calibre because too often those big moves left the Cats vulnerable in other areas. For example, after trading for Henry Burris and signing Fantuz in 2012, the Ti-Cats had one of the best, most explosive offenses in CFL history; however, the defense was a sieve and allowed 32 points/game. The Cats finished 6-12 and missed the playoffs. So while O'Billovich got the Ti-Cats on the path to success, his philosophy wasn't the right one to get the Ti-Cats over the hump. But Austin seems to get that you don't need to "win" free agency by getting the biggest, most expensive names. You win by adding players that fit the needs of your team and that is exactly what the Ti-Cats did this weekend.

Good teams don't usually need to make big splashes in free agency because they find a way to groom their own talent. Good teams use free agency to pick up quality players who are pieces to the puzzle. The Ti-Cats haven't been known to do that, opting instead for the flashy signing. While star players are necessary, they often come at a higher cost. No one will say that Williams or Bulcke or McCollough or Beasley or Bowman are stars, but they are high-quality players that fit the needs of the team.

My preference was for the Cats to make as little noise as possible this off-season, but that got blown up when the team fired George Cortez. But aside from that and the hiring of Austin, the Ti-Cats have mostly stayed out of the spotlight, making quiet moves instead of headline-grabbing ones. The Cats took a different approach this time, and by not "winning" free agency, they may have made the moves that will make them a winner come November.

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