Stampeders open season with more questions than answers
'It's going to be a process this year,' says head coach Dave Dickenson
Uncertainty is uncharacteristic of the CFL's winningest team of the last decade, but the Calgary Stampeders are in transition to start the 2018 season.
The Stampeders, who won a Grey Cup in 2014 and appeared in the last two finals, open the regular season at home against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Saturday.
Just days before the opener, Calgary head coach Dave Dickenson acknowledged he wasn't sure how his team was going to look with so many jobs not yet locked down.
The running and return game, a short-yardage specialist and some defensive backfield starting positions were still in flux as training camp wound down.
"That was going to happen with the off-season we had, with all the people retiring and people moving on," the coach said. "It's going to be a process this year. We're going to have to build it.
"Whether we come out strong or not, it's going to be a process. There are a lot of players on our team who are fairly new and we have to make sure that we grow and get better each and every week."
Defensive halfback Brandon Smith, the longest-serving Stampeder (10 years) after the off-season retirement of Rob Cote, characterizes Calgary's state as one of renewal.
"There is some movement. A lot of new young guys out there. That's what sparks up competition," Smith said. "At the end of the day, the top guy will shine through and that's what you want on a football team."
What hasn't changed is that Calgary's fortunes rise and fall on the durability and continued consistency of quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, who barring injury will blow past 20,000 career passing yards in his fifth season as starter.
Muscle tears in his throwing arm that hampered the 28-year-old for much of last season now healed, Mitchell wants to return to the zip and accuracy that produced 32 touchdowns, more than 5,000 passing yards and a league MVP award in 2016.
"For every team out there, it is a process in the beginning, especially having some new guys and trying to find our identity and me trying to find that body motion I had over the last couple years as a starter, as opposed to last year trying to make up for things I didn't have," Mitchell said.
Calgary's quarterback is excited about his receiving corps, particularly now that all-star wideout Eric Rogers is back after an NFL stint.
"I'm salivating a little bit," Mitchell said. "It's one of those special groups that to me, in my eyes, it's the best group of receivers I've ever had."
Calgary's .730 winning percentage over the last decade was due in large part to the continuity of coaching and player leadership.
A steady succession of veterans held newcomers to a winning standard. Dickenson is waiting for that stewardship group to emerge again
"Who is going to hold who accountable?" he said. "That's what I'm trying to find. It needs to happen soon."
HEAD COACH: Dave Dickenson, entering third season.
2017: Finished first in West at 13-4-1; beat Edmonton 32-18 in West final before losing 27-24 to the Toronto Argonauts in Grey Cup.
NEW ADDITIONS: Derek Dennis, the CFL's offensive lineman of the year when he was a Stampeder in 2016, returns after a season with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Receiver Eric Rogers, a 2015 CFL all-star, returns from the NFL. Running back Don Jackson will shore up the ground and return game following the departure of tailback Jerome Messam for the Roughriders and the absence of Roy Finch due to legal issues in the U.S.
DEPARTED: Sack-master Charleston Hughes was traded to ease salary-cap pressure. Fullback Rob Cote retired after 11 seasons in the red and white. Messam signed with Saskatchewan as a free agent. Canadian quarterback Andrew Buckley, so effective in short-yardage plays, retired. Other notable moves were safety Josh Bell retiring to become Calgary's defensive backs coach, cornerback Tommie Campbell signing with Montreal and linebacker Shaquille Richardson heading to the NFL.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: A third straight appearance in the Grey Cup game rides largely on the arm of Bo Levi Mitchell, who is entering the final year of his contract. Tailback Terry Williams has big shoes to fill with the departure of Messam and the continued absence of Finch. The same goes at fullback where Canadians Charlie Power and William Langlais must compensate for the loss of Cote's experience. Is quarterback Ricky Stanzi ready to step in should Mitchell get injured? The Stampeders need another monster season from middle linebacker Alex Singleton, the CFL's defensive player of the year in 2017.