Defending Grey Cup champion Stampeders retain great expectations
CALGARY — Winning last year’s Grey Cup after losing to underdog teams two straight years was a pressure valve release for the Calgary Stampeders.
In mountaineering terms, the Stampeders planted their flag on the summit of Mount Everest after twice stalling at the Hillary Step.
The Stampeders downed the Ottawa Redblacks 27-16 in Edmonton to hoist the trophy.
Calgary opens its 2019 campaign at home Saturday against the Redblacks.
So now what’s going to inspire and drive the team with the most CFL wins over the last decade?
"Grey Cup is in Calgary this year," veteran halfback Brandon Smith pointed out. "You don’t like to look too far ahead, but that’s what we play this game for.
"That’s our ultimate goal so we’re hungry for it."
Keeping Grey Cup MVP Bo Levi Mitchell, also the CFL’s most outstanding player in 2018, for another four years cost the Stampeders almost $3 million.
The league’s premier quarterback returning for an eighth season makes Calgary an automatic contender, but Mitchell’s price tag meant other veterans on both sides of the ball signed elsewhere in the off-season.
"We haven’t had this much turnover in many, many years," head coach Dave Dickenson acknowledged.
"We’re very happy to have Bo in the fold. I think we’ve got one of the best if not the best so that’s a plus no doubt about it.
"What’s interesting, though, when you have a guy like that obviously you aren’t able to have as many pieces around him, so it’s really a balance for your team and your general manager.
"It’s about wins and losses. We’ve also got to find those complementary pieces that will make us win."
Mitchell no longer has receivers DaVaris Daniels, Lemar Durant, Bakari Grant, Chris Matthews or Marken Michel as targets.
Eric Rogers, if he can stay healthy, is a key piece of the offensive puzzle while Markeith Ambles, Reggie Begelton and Juwan Brescasin are seasoned catchers.
If Kamar Jorden plays this year, it won’t be until later in the season. He underwent season-ending knee surgery last September.
Mitchell has faith players will rise to the occasion executing systems and schemes that have bred success over time.
"It doesn’t matter who comes in as starters, backups, practice roster guys, we attack it as we’re going to put the best guys on the field, we’re going to run our system the way it’s supposed to be run and that’s going to get us a lot of wins," the quarterback said.
"If we trust in that and we trust the guys are going to make plays, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be at the top."
Calgary’s defence that’s been the stingiest in the CFL the last four years was hard-hit by free agency.
Seven starters from the Grey Cup game and three other depth defensive players departed, as did defensive co-ordinator DeVone Claybrooks to become head coach of the B.C. Lions.
Replacing Alex Singleton at middle linebacker, as well as Micah Johnson and Ja’Gared Davis on the defensive line, are tall orders for new DC Brent Monson.
"I don’t think anyone didn’t lose a bunch of guys," Dickenson said. "Maybe other teams added more vets than we did.
"We just feel like the expectations are the same. We need to go out there and compete. We’re not much better or worse than anybody.
"We’ve got to find a way to win and we have to take care of the details. If a team is going to beat us, make them earn it."
HEAD COACH:Dave Dickenson, fourth season
LAST YEAR:13-5, Grey Cup champions
KEY PLAYERS: Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell was both the CFL’s most outstanding player and the Grey Cup MVP; Receiver Eric Rogers is a big, fast, athletic target for Mitchell if Rogers can stay healthy; Corey Greenwood of Kingston, Ont., will start at middle linebacker following the departure of all-star Alex Singleton for the NFL.
THE BIG QUESTION: Free agency drained Calgary’s defence of experience, so will Mitchell and the offence have compensate with big scores?