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CFL Season Preview: The Calgary Stampeders

So who needs the NFL? Football begins in under a month north of the border, with the CFL kicking off its 2016 season on June 23. Before then, Os Davis presents previews for each of the Canadian Football League’s nine teams right here on The Grueling Truth web site. This time out, a look at the 2015 West division runners-up and 2014 Grey Cup champions, the Calgary Stampeders.

The history: Since officially named the Stampeders in 1945 (after Calgary had hosted the team in various incarnations since 1891), the team has won seven Grey Cups in its 14 championship game appearances.Calgary also holds the twin CFL “distinctions” of having won the North division in its only year of its existence and as the sole team to have lost to a US-based franchise in the finals –all due to the bizarre expansion experiment of 1994-95…

More contemporarily, the Stampeders have bagged three Grey Cups since the turn of the millennium, the last two in 2008 and ’14 nearly bookending former head coach/GM John Hufnagel’s time with the team.

Last season: Maybe the Stamps’ West division rivals the Edmonton Eskimos truly were a “team of destiny” in 2015. Right from opening day, the defending champions were perceived to be bringing the strongest all-around roster in the CFL; by season’s end, the Stampeders stood as just one of two teams that had played the entire 18-game regular season with its week one starting quarterback. (The other was the Grey Cup-appearing Ottawa RedBlacks.)

Alas, some things are not ordained into being by the football gods, and the Eskimos stymied the Stamps repeatedly at crucial parts of the season. Despite the on-again/off-again performances turned in formerly dominant RB Jon Cornish (formerly of the University of Kansas), Calgary had run up a record of 7-2 after week 10, good for sole possession of first place in the West.

Weeks 11 and 12 saw back-to-back games scheduled against Edmonton. The first matchup, played in Calgary as a traditional Labour Day rivalry game, featured the Stampeders defense absolutely harassing Eskimos backup QB James Franklin (U. Missouri): The final score indicated a pretty ugly 16-7 Stamps win, seemingly sealing Calgary’s superiority and making for the incredible 12th consecutive win against the Eskimos – We didn’t know it at the time, but this would be the last Stampeder victory over Edmonton to date.

The following week, the Eskimos shocked their rivals with a 26-17 win, dropping Calgary to 8-3. The Stampeders would lose once more in the regular season and once again the Eskimos were the culprit, dragged down the Stampeders in an ugly 15-11 game in week 16. Tied at 14-4, Edmonton naturally won the tiebreaker and thus earned the playoff round bye. With starting quarterback Mike Reilly (Central Washington U.) reinstalled, the Stampeders season ended in a 45-31 shootout loss.

The offseason: Despite all the marquee name-signing and headline-grabbing moves made by new Saskatchewan Roughriders head coach/GM Chris Jones, the Stampeders may have quietly enjoyed the single best CFL offseason in 2016.

The biggest hole in the roster the Stampeders brain trust had to consider was the running game. After leading the CFL in rushing yardage for four consecutive seasons and earning the league’s Most Outstanding Player award in 2013, Cornish retired from professional football following his injury-riddled ’15 season. During 2015, Hufnagel addressed his team’s issues at halfback by acquiring Jerome Messam (Graceland U.) from Saskatchewan and ultimately re-signed him this offseason.

Despite the relative downplaying of the running game’s importance in the Canadian game – it’s a three-downs to get 10 yards, after all – the retention of Messam was considered crucial due to both Cornish and Messam’s statuses as Canadian citizens. (For those not in-the-know, league rules cap the number of “international”, i.e. American, players on CFL rosters; for this reason, Canadian offensive “skill players” are particularly sought after.)

Beyond Messam, the top acquisition for Calgary in 2016 has got to be LB Taylor Reed (SMU), who was good for 141 tackles and 10 sacks in two seasons with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats; the CFL’s second-stingiest defense in ’15 just got tougher. Scary.Wide receiversBakari Grant (UC Davis)and James Green (U. Calgary) were wooed over from Hamilton and Ottawa, respectively, to replace NFL aspirants Eric Rogers (Cal Lutheran, Portland Thunder) and Jeff Fuller (Texas A&M). Rogers’ shoes will be particularly hard to fill: All Rogers did for QB Bo Levi Mitchell (Eastern Washington U.) last season was lead the league in receiving yards (1,448) and TDs (10).

DL Freddie Bishop III (Western Michigan U.) has also departed for the NFL, winning a contract with the New York Jets and reportedly turning in an impressive rookie minicamp performance. His relentless pash-rushing will be missed in Calgary.

But. Perhaps most notably, GM Hufnagel went immediately to work in signing seven of his draft picks, including LB Alex Singleton (Montana State) and WR Juwan Brescacin (Northern Illinois U.), both expected to make an impact from week one. Calgary’s recent run of success has been due in no small part to its depth in Canadian talent, and these two dudes certainly look to add to this strength.

Expectations for 2016: In a change long in the making, Hufnagel relinquished coaching duties to Dave Dickinson. While Dickinson has never held a head coaching position, he’s hardly a noob. This is a former Calgary Stampeders (and NFL) player who worked his way up the Stamps ladder to ultimately become a Grey Cup-winning Offensive coordinator. Essentially, Dickinson is a perfect choice for this team.

And on the field? Sure, Cornish, Rogers and Bishop’ll be difficult to replace, but the Stampeders’ roster hardly hemorrhaged talent this offseason and arguably improved despite such key losses. This is a team that has amassed a 32-8 overall record in the past two years and should again head into the season with a “Grey Cup or Bust” outlook.

As long as they can get past Edmonton…

Next: BC Lions

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Os Davis has been a sportswriter for [redacted] years, covering and enjoying way too much pro football (American and Canadian), basketball (NBA and international), World Cup soccer and cricket in turn. Basically, if it's a ball game and Os has a forum, he'll write about it. Os is of the opinion that advanced stastical metrics are awesome, that the addition of offensive lines to fantasy football is absolutely necessary and that the Los Angeles Lakers shall rise again. He is firmly against price-gouging of fans, Americans pooh-poohing CFL football and that @#@#$@#$ing Washington football team's name. Os currently appears on way too many podcasts, co-hosting the Rouge, White & Blue Fantasy Football Podcast, The Truth About Fantasy Football Podcast, the CFL Weekly Pick 'Em Show and the L.A. Rams 2.0 Weekly Show -- plus often the NFL Weekly Pick 'Em Show.