Ticats ‘Believe’

Courtesy Hamilton Spectator:

The win notwithstanding, a team with any designs on going deep into the playoffs can’t have too many outings like the Ticats did on Friday. At times it looked like a pre-season contest with the inexplicable fumbles, dropped passes, silly penalties and a third-down attempt being stuffed at the line.

Even some of the players admit that last year or the year before that or even the year before that, an effort like Friday’s would’ve ended as a loss. When things didn’t go right, the momentum would’ve begun spinning away from them and Calgary would’ve danced out of town with the two points.

“That’s true,” says linebacker Ray Mariuz. “That’s fair. We’d just find ways to lose.”

And yet the Cats won. Despite playing much of the game in a way only Picasso could love, they found a way to pull it out.

So what’s changed? A little more than half a season into a resurgence that’s five years in the making, what’s happened that this less-than-crisp performance could end in a victory?

The obvious answer is a vastly improved defence. But, for the more subtle explanation, we turn to Marwan Hage. Having spent the past few years winning games about as often as Kanye West demonstrated class, the team’s veteran centre is now enjoying the turnaround as much as anyone.

According to him, you can chalk up the change to three things. All found between the ears.

The first is confidence in the coaching. In an assessment that falls somewhere between shockingly blunt and really shockingly blunt, he says there’s sometimes been a “disconnect” between the coaches and players over the last few years.

“In the past, when it went bad we looked at the coaches and said, ‘Your systems aren’t working,’” he admits.

That lack of confidence in the game plan destroys everything. In football, every play is scripted and requires each player to fulfil a certain task in order to work. If players start losing faith in the plan and believing it’s taking them nowhere good, it’s going to take a toll psychologically. That will eventually manifest itself on the field.

On the flip side, if the players think the coaches are putting them in position to win, they learn that if they just keep going hard and keep things close, they’ll eventually be presented with the directions to the other team’s soft spot.

Hage’s second offering is an extension of that. He says players now believe they’re going to win instead of merely hoping it’ll happen.

Consider the difference. If you’re going to jump off the roof of a building onto a pile of cardboard boxes, you’re going to leap with a much higher level of comfort if you’ve done it before so you truly believe the landing spot will hold rather than just hoping it might because you saw someone do it on TV once.

That kind of comfort level lets everyone relax. As anyone who’s ever played a sport knows, it’s much easier to play when everything’s loose and guys are having fun.

“As soon as you start winning, everyone stays relaxed,” Mariuz says. “That’s the big difference. Not being scared to lose.”

As for Hage’s third explanation, well, it combines parts of the first and the second. Coaching and belief.

Players throughout the dressing room will tell you that, since the first day of training camp, head coach Marcel Bellefeuille has been preaching a three-word mantra. The Next Play. Doesn’t matter what happened a moment ago. The next play is the most important one. Don’t dwell on a mistake, just make sure the next play is better.

“We’ve heard it so much from him it’s kind of boring,” Hage quips.

So how does that apply in a tangible way? Midway through the fourth quarter Friday, the Cats sent in third-string quarterback Adam Tafralis to fill his usual role as third-and-short guy. Except he didn’t get the couple feet he needed for a Ticat first down, which could’ve been a devastating moment in the game.

But next time the team was in the exact same situation, in goes Tafralis again. And showing no sudden lack of confidence in his pivot, the coaching staff calls for a deep pass that’s thrown perfectly to Arland Bruce for a touchdown.

It’s a microcosm of why Bellefeuille’s the leading candidate for coach of the year right now. It’s why guys have smiles in the dressing room these days. It’s why the Cats were able to knock off the Grey Cup champs despite a less-than-perfect game. And why they’ve now equalled their win total for the past two years combined.

It’s not complicated. But it’s clearly working.

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