IT WOULD have been the perfect season if not for one man – Dustin Martin. Leading the Grand Final by 22 points, were Cats were upstaged by the Tigers' champion in a brutal end to a fantastic season.
Few sides embraced life on the road as much as the Cats and unlike previous seasons, they peaked at the right time with Gary Ablett back from quarantine and Joel Selwood returning from a knee injury in time for finals.
The youngsters took a leap in form, B-graders became A-graders and the veterans produced more than expected. But the fire will be burning all summer over what could have been.
The Cats' possession-style game plan had them toying with opposition sides at stages throughout 2020. And combined with quicker ball movement closer to goal, Tom Hawkins enjoyed the most dominant season of any key forward. Midfielders Sam Menegola and Cam Guthrie (maiden AFL All-Australian) took the leap, while a host of youngsters shone through. Using defender Mark Blicavs as a wing/ruck paid off for much of the season and the call to rest Joel Selwood for four games in the back end of the season was wise.
Tom Hawkins produced his career-best season. The 32-year-old landed his maiden Coleman Medal and became the oldest winner since Tony Lockett in 1998. Claiming back-to-back All-Australian blazers, Hawkins also finished the season as No.1 in the competition for score involvements. His six-goal outing against Port Adelaide in round 12 that included seven contested marks was the best individual game of any player in 2020.
Brandan Parfitt identified the opportunity for more midfield minutes without Tim Kelly and took it with both hands. The 22-year-old was one of the Cats' most consistent performers and managed career-high averages in tackles and clearances despite the shortened game time. He burst out of the blocks in the season restart against Hawthorn with 19 touches, 10 tackles and eight clearances and enjoyed a strong finals campaign before a hand injury in the Grand Final.
The Cats could do no wrong in their semi-final annihilation of Collingwood. They looked the most irresistible team in the competition with their slick ball movement culminating in a combined eight goals for Tom Hawkins and Patrick Dangerfield. They also held the Pies to one goal to three-quarter time and just 200 disposals for the entire evening.
Outside of the second half of the Grand Final, the round three loss to Carlton at GMHBA Stadium was egg-on-face stuff. Blues co-captain Patrick Cripps (24 disposals, two goals) ran riot to set up a 35-point three-quarter time lead. The Cats almost stole victory but fell short in their single worst performance of the year.
How should they approach list management?
The Cats will secure a major coup in 2019 Coleman medallist Jeremy Cameron after brilliantly managing their salary cap. But the acquisition of other senior players shouldn't come at the cost of younger talent. Shaun Higgins will cross from North Melbourne on a two-year deal and start 2021 at 33 but the Cats can't lose Lachie Fogarty (21) and Quinton Narkle (22) as a result. They've inquired about Hawk Isaac Smith but shouldn't lose sight on pumping games into 20-year-old speedster Jordan Clark.
Early call for 2021
Jeremy Cameron and Tom Hawkins will form the most feared forward combination in the game, and it should allow Patrick Dangerfield to play more key minutes in the midfield. Provided youngsters like Brandan Parfitt, Gryan Miers and Sam Simpson continue to grow, the Cats will be contending again.
Making a Grand Final gives them an A, but this team wasn't built for losing deciders.