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Inside the CFL: All or nothing

Ted Michaels, CFL Editor

Hamilton, ON (Sports Network) - It's a quote that can come back and bite you.

"The (Hamilton) Tiger-Cats are on the threshold of being the type of team to win the Grey Cup."

Those words came from Hamilton general manager Bob O'Billovich at a news conference Tuesday to unveil the biggest free-agent signing in the CFL offseason. The Tiger-Cats, who made it to the Eastern Final in Winnipeg last season, went halfway around the world to get the player they wanted.

Last Friday, they announced the signing of slotback Andy Fantuz to a four-year deal worth a reported $180,000-plus per year.

Fantuz established himself as one of the league's top receivers during his six seasons (2006-11) with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. In 77 regular-season games, he has 289 receptions for 4,311 yards and 23 touchdowns.

Fantuz, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound native of Chatham, Ontario, was on vacation in Tanzania when new coach George Cortez made the initial call at the start of the free agency window.

Fantuz admitted it was a tough decision to leave Saskatchewan.

"You never know if the grass is greener on the other side or not," he said. "Having something that was very stable made it tough to leave. But, I've always wanted to come back home and play here in Southwestern Ontario."

He also seemed surprised that some Riders fans, and some members of the media, wondered why he'd leave the continent during the start of the free agent process.

"It was just an opportunity where I could get away for a few weeks," he explained. "The timing didn't have to do with the free agent deadline. I wanted to maximize my trip there. When you're going halfway across the world, it happened to be at the same time. I spoke with my agent about it, and he said it's OK, it's not a big deal, and we'll be able to get it done. We'll have a phone, we'll have e-mail. I was next to my phone the entire time."

The 2010 season was Fantuz's most productive. He was named the CFL's Most Outstanding Canadian that season, after catching 87 passes for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns.

In 2011, Fantuz played in four games with the Riders after attending training camp with the NFL's Chicago Bears.

Fantuz helped the Roughriders reach three Grey Cup finals in the first five years of his career and was named Most Valuable Canadian in Saskatchewan's 2007 championship win over Winnipeg, catching four passes for 70 yards and one touchdown.

The 28-year-old was selected by the Riders with the third overall pick in the 2006 CFL Canadian Draft after a record-setting CIS career at Western. He was the recipient of the Hec Crighton award as the top player in CIS football in 2005.

He said he can't wait for the season to start.

"I definitely feel this team has a shot at the Grey Cup. I know Saskatchewan is rebuilding, and I'd love to meet them in the Grey Cup to be honest with you." he said with a laugh. "But, this team has a lot of good pieces, and they've been strong for a few years, but just couldn't get over the hump."

On Jan. 3, the Tabbies picked up quarterback Henry Burris from Calgary in a trade, sending quarterback Kevin Glenn, offensive lineman Mark DeWit and a conditional draft pick.

Burris and Cortez have worked together previously, most recently between 2007-2009 when Cortez served as offensive coordinator and associate head coach of the Calgary Stampeders.

The Stampeders offense had a banner year under Cortez in 2008, with Burris earning the West Division Most Outstanding Player award after throwing for 5,094 yards and 39 touchdowns. Burris also was named the Grey Cup MVP after totaling 443 yards of offence in Calgary's championship win over the Montreal Alouettes.

One day later, the Tiger-Cats announced the signing of three more free agents, non-import linebacker Kevin Eiben, import defensive end Greg Peach and non- import offensive lineman Tim O'Neill.

Eiben, a 6-1, 216-pounder, joins the Tiger-Cats after 11 seasons with the Toronto Argonauts. He's been an East Division All-Star four times and a CFL All-Star three times, and was named the East Division's Most Outstanding Canadian in 2004.

Peach, a 6-3, 255-pound native of Vancouver, Wash., had 94 defensive stops and 13 quarterback sacks in the previous three seasons with the Edmonton Eskimos. The Eastern Washington graduate and 2008 Buck Buchanan Award winner, played in 12 games with the Eskimos last season, making 21 defensive tackles and three sacks in 12 regular-season games before adding six tackles and two sacks in two playoff games.

O'Neill, a 6-3, 305-pound native of Victoria, British Columbia, spent the last four years with the Calgary Stampeders, suiting up in 68 games as a guard and center. Last season, he dressed in all 18 regular-season games, starting 15 at center.

A 2005 third-round selection of the Edmonton Eskimos, O'Neill captured a Grey Cup championship with the Stampeders in 2008.

With a new coaching staff, and new players added to the lineup, the feeling around the CFL is the Tiger-Cats may have done more than any other team to bolster their lineup in the offseason.

The question now is ... will it be good enough?

SCHEDULE NOTES

The CFL has released its 2012 schedule. In an ironic twist, the Tiger-Cats open up the regular season, on Friday, June 29, when they host Fantuz's former team, Saskatchewan at Ivor Wynne Stadium.

Because Ivor Wynne Stadium is being torn down and renovated at the end of the 2012 season, don't be surprised if the Labour Day Classic between the Argos and Tiger-Cats is played at the Rogers Center in Toronto in 2013.

Ted Michaels is the host of the Fifth Quarter, on AM 900 CHML.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Ted Michaels at ted@900chml.com.

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