Monday, 8 December 2014

Can the Calgary Stampeders Become a Dynasty?

No one ever questioned at any time in 2014 if the Calgary Stampeders really were the best team in the CFL. With a 15-3 regular-season record and a Grey Cup win at BC Place over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Calgary proved they truly were on a different level than any other team in the Canadian Football League in 2014. The Stamps have both the deepest roster and best coaching staff in the league, but how long can they stay at this high level of dominance in regular seasons, Grey Cup championships and All-Star nominations? The CFL have not seen a true dynasty in a very long time, but if they are looking for one, they may just be finding one in the Calgary Stampeders.

At any level of football, it all starts with the quarterback, which is a position Calgary has now solidified with Bo Levi Mitchell. In Mitchell, the Stamps have a humble and confident young man with a cannon of an arm. In his first full season as a starter, Mitchell won a Grey Cup championship and was named the games MVP, which is a heck of an accomplishment for even the most-seasoned of veterans, let alone a first-time starter. Mitchell has plenty of talent around him, but he carried most of the offensive burden in 2014, especially as star running back Jon Cornish missed half the season due to injury. Even in the Grey Cup, it was Mitchell's 334 yards that led the way, as, per Cornish's own words, the 2013 Most Outstanding Player was relegated to decoy status. Mitchell is just 24 years of age and hasn't come close to realizing his full potential. Bo already knows Grey Cups, but will he know dynasties?

As great as Mitchell has been, it would be folly to forget about Jon Cornish and the rest of the offence. The reigning three-time Most Outstanding Canadian had another great year in 2014, leading the CFL with 1,082 yards rushing in only nine games (and he was the only player to top the 1,000-yard rushing mark). Cornish is already 29 but did not take over the starting running back job until late in the 2011 season, thus his prime is likely to stretch longer than it would for a regular running back. Concussion problems may worry Stamp fans, but it shouldn't matter with the depth behind Cornish.

At receiver, the Stampeders have the type of weapons any coach would love to have in their arsenal. This season showed how much talent the Stamps have on the sidelines. Guys like Eric Rogers broke out in the playoffs, amassing 108 yards in the Grey Cup, after sitting on Calgary's practice roster for most of the season. Rogers was buried behind Marquay McDaniel, Mo Price, Jeff Fuller, Sederrick Cunningham, Nik Lewis, Joe West, Simon Charbonneau-Campeau, Brad Sinopoli and Anthony Parker, all of which are capable CFL receivers. The Stamps will be set for a long time at receiver, as the average age of this group – excluding Brad Sinopoli and Nik Lewis, who will likely not be back next season – is 26.3 years old, the age when most players are just barely entering their prime.

Up front, the Stamps' offensive line was superb, keeping Mitchell off the ground by allowing the fewest number of quarterback sacks, while also guiding Calgary's deep pool of backs to the league's best rushing attack (129.5 yards/game). The group is led by Canadian centre Brett Jones, the CFL's Most Outstanding Rookie in 2013 and the CFL's Most Outstanding Lineman this year. Jones is set to be a free agent in February, but if the Stampeders can hold Jones back from leaving for the NFL or bring him back after NFL training camp next year, they are set up for years to come on the line of scrimmage.

While photobombing the CFL on TSN panel on the field after the Grey Cup, linebacker Keon Raymond surmised that "Offense wins games; defense wins championships." The Stampeder defense, which kept an improving Ti-Cat offence to 16 points in the Grey Cup, was in the top five of every defensive category this year. As well, the defense was represented well on the Western All-Star team with three out of the four defensive backs/cornerbacks being Stampeders. The Stamps may have a future Most Outstanding Defensive Player lining up at defensive end in Shawn Lemon. I understand that statement may be pushing it, but 13 sacks, 31 tackles and an interception in 2014 is a great breakout year. If he can build off his 2014 campaign, he could end up being the league's top pass rusher before too long. The Stampeders are ageing a bit on defense, but can get a few more seasons out of their veteran corps before a new wave of defensive studs will nee to be brought in. Calgary's defense has the talent and coaching to lead them to more Grey Cups in the near future.

It's not a fluke Calgary has the most talented roster in the CFL. These players are turned from depth players on other teams to CFL All-Stars by arguably the best coaching staff in the league. Long time head coach John Hufnagel will be stepping down at the end of next season, and although offensive coordinator Dave Dickensen has large shoes to fill, the Stamps are replacing one offensive-minded players coach with another offensive minded-players coach. Both Hufnagel and Dickensen are quarterback gurus who played the position in the CFL, and as such, will have the wherewithal to help guide their young quarterback through any rough patches he may encounter. As for the vacant offensive coordinator position that will come in 2015, I'm not sure which coach wouldn't jump on the opportunity to call the plays for this talented group of players. The Stampeders organization has assembled a coaching staff as good as the players around them and it doesn't look to be diminishing any time soon.

The last real CFL dynasty was the Edmonton Eskimos of the late 1970s and early 80s. That team, as anyone who follows the CFL even remotely closely, won five straight championships from 1978-1982. We have learned over the years how difficult it is to become a dynasty in such a small league. If Calgary can find a way to bring home three more Grey Cups in the next five years, they would have achieved what no CFL team has in nearly four decades: a dynasty. The Horsemen have every piece of the puzzle set in place to win again; it is up to the other 8 eight teams to stop them. It truly looks like it will be the Calgary Stampeders versus the rest of the CFL for many years to come.

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