The Hamilton Tiger-Cats already have come a long way. A year after winning only four games -- in a season that featured a coaching change six weeks after the opener -- Hamilton is headed back to the Canadian Football League playoffs.
Then again, the ride has been rough lately for the Tiger-Cats. They have won only two of their past eight games. They changed offensive coordinators a month ago. And they draw the Baltimore Stallions in the regular-season finale for both teams tomorrow at Memorial Stadium.
The previous two weeks provide a good summary of Hamilton's 8-9 season.
Two weeks ago, the Tiger-Cats played perhaps their best game of the year as they whipped the defending Grey Cup-champion British Columbia Lions, 43-14, ending a 1-5 skid.
They promptly turned in their worst performance of 1995 last week, when they dropped a 30-9 decision to lowly Ottawa, the last-place team in the North Division. Three Hamilton turnovers stopped drives and led to 15 Ottawa points.
"We beat B.C. pretty good, and we thought we were on the road to recovery," Hamilton coach Don Sutherin said. "Then, to play like we did in Ottawa, it was very disheartening to the staff. We're going to get a real good test on Sunday."
Eight weeks ago, the Tiger-Cats failed the test against the Stallions, who hung their offense on running back Mike Pringle. Baltimore's line opened gaping holes in the Hamilton defense, allowing Pringle to rush for a season-high 201 yards and a career-high four touchdowns in a 41-14 Baltimore victory.
"We've got to be able to stop the run to have a chance," said Sutherin, who replaced John Gregory as coach in August 1994 after beginning the year as Hamilton's defensive coordinator.
Hamilton's roster is a bit more fortified, compared with its first meeting with Baltimore.
That day, seven starters were missing with injuries, including five on defense. The biggest loss was linebacker Mike O'Shea, who was second in the CFL in tackles before going down with an elbow injury the week before the Baltimore game. O'Shea is back to assist linebacker Hassan Bailey, the team's top tackler.
But if the Tiger-Cats' defensive front -- led by end Jessie Small, formerly of the Philadelphia Eagles -- does not offset the Stallions' line, O'Shea and Bailey will be in for a long day.
Offensively, Hamilton will show the Stallions a new look, as well as a new quarterback. A month ago, Dieter Brock resigned as offensive coordinator, and Sutherin brought in Mike Faragalli, who had just been fired as Toronto's head coach. Faragalli trashed the five-receiver attack Brock preferred for a more conventional two-back set.
Sutherin also has given the reins to quarterback Steve Taylor, who had spent most of the season sharing time with Anthony Calvillo, who started last month's Baltimore game. Taylor's strength is his scrambling ability, although he and Calvillo have each thrown for more than 2,000 yards, marking the first time two Hamilton passers have done that since 1988.
"If we can't block them [Baltimore], we've got to be able to run away from them," Sutherin said.
Tomorrow's game is the first of two pressing tasks for the Tiger-Cats. After playing the class of the South Division, they will head to Calgary next week in the opening round of the playoffs to face the team with the CFL's best record.
"Naturally, a win [against Baltimore] would be great. Momentum is so important this time of the year," Sutherin said. "But if we can come down there and sustain some drives, kick well and play solid defense, that would be a boost going into the playoffs."