Tuesday 23 December 2014

No Excuses for Calgary Not to Repeat

With the Grey Cup in the rear-view mirror, the offseason is now in full swing. Every team faces different challenges, and over the course of the next nine days we will look at each team individually and what they need to do prior to the start of next season. Today, we look at the Calgary Stampeders.

From Week 1 all the way to the Grey Cup, the 2014 season was the "Year of the Horse". The Calgary Stampeders passed, rushed, tackled and defended their way to a 15-3 regular-season record and, ultimately, a Grey Cup championship. They displayed great coaching, great depth, great starters and great class: the formula for a world class sport organization.

Looking at their roster, the Stampeders are expected to repeat. That's easier said than done, as general manager and head coach John Hufnagel will have to be very active in the offseason, re-signing and bringing in new players to shape the roster the way he wants it. The biggest problem for most championship-winning teams is big-name players leaving for a large pay-raise after winning a Grey Cup. Going into the offseason, the Stamps had 13 free agents to re-sign. Only in Calgary does that number not seem as bad, as behind those departing starters are capable replacements. Now all Hufnagel needs to do is bring in new depth players, which Calgary relied on to bring them to the 102nd Grey Cup, and the team will be poised to make a run once again.

That said, not all starters are immediately replaceable. Free agent defensive end Shawn Lemon was more than a starter, he was a star. Lemon registered 13 sacks, also known as "Lemon Drops", in his second season with the horseshoe on his shoulder. If the philosophy is true that the secondary benefits from the defensive line and vice-versa, then Lemon must be re-signed.

Without a doubt, Calgary had the best pool of running backs in the league. Three out of the five – Martell Mallett, Hugh Charles and Jon Cornish – rushed for over 100 yards in a game. Although Matt Walter was not one of the three to rush for 100 yards in a game, despite getting far more touches than Charles, he will likely get re-signed over Charles due to his passport. Any team would love to have two national running backs dressed at a time, so Calgary will find a way to keep the born-and-bred Calgarian in the fold.

Calgary would not have been the No. 1.-ranked rushing team without their offensive line. Anchoring that line is Most Outstanding Lineman Brett Jones, who also won Most Outstanding Rookie last season. Jones is likely to head to the NFL this year yet Calgary will have no trouble replacing Jones, as 2014 first-overall pick Pierre Lavertu from Laval is expected to follow in Jones' footsteps. Stanley Bryant, a back-to-back Western All-Star, played a huge role in the Stamps allowing a league-low 26 sacks in 2014 and must be re-signed. The Stamps likely won't have to sign any lineman in free agency, but I wouldn't be surprised if they drafted another one in the first round this year.

The Stampeders are arguably even deeper at receiver than they are at running back, and since they are traditionally a run-first team, they can afford to let go of some of their free agent pass catchers. University-quarterback-turned-receiver Brad Sinopoli will likely be let go so he can pursue a larger role somewhere else, likely in Ottawa. Veteran slotback and entertainer Nik Lewis may have played his last game as Stamp, as "Thick Nik" is not the same player he used to be after suffering a torn Achilles last year. Calgary's Grey Cup win may influence Lewis to retire, as many players dream of ending their career on such a high note.

Calgary has no excuse not to repeat again in 2014. No matter what happens during the offseason, there will not be a team that is better constructed from a roster standpoint come June. On top of that, the Stamps have one of the best coaching staffs in the CFL to develop their depth players and, once again, be prepared for any injuries that come. The Stampeders can win any way they want, but even if they have an undefeated regular season but no championship, the 2015 season will be a bust. The expectations are sky-high in Calgary, but there will be no acceptable excuses for Hufnagel's group to not lift the Grey Cup in back-to-back years.

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