Dave Dickenson’s preparation for his second season as a CFL head coach won’t include addressing the Calgary Stampeders’ heart-breaking end to the 2016 campaign.
After posting a dominant 15-2-1 regular-season record, the Stampeders ended their season with a bitter 39-33 upset overtime loss to Ottawa in the Grey Cup. Not only did the Redblacks earn the Canadian capital its first CFL title since 1976 but they became the first franchise to win a league championship after registering a sub .500 regular-season mark (8-9-1).
“Yeah, it was disappointing but it’s not really, to me, needing to be addressed because it’s not part of our team,” Dickenson said during a CFL conference call. “You need to move on … so we’re going to address how to make our team better and we have some ideas.
“Ultimately if you can learn from past experiences, great, but we have a new challenge, new team, exciting team.”
Calgary will start the 2017 campaign with a home-and-home series against the defending Grey Cup champions. The Stampeders will visit the Redblacks on June 23 with the two clubs returning to McMahon Stadium six days later.
“That’s a huge challenge to face the Grey Cup champs twice right away so we understand we have to be ready and I believe our guys will be,” Dickenson said.
Still, there’s no denying just how dominant Calgary was in 2016.
The 15 regular-season victories was one behind the league record set in 1989 by the Edmonton Eskimos but were the most ever by a rookie head coach. And Calgary’s 14-game win streak was a CFL single-season best.
Predictably, Calgary dominated the CFL awards banquet with five individual winners. Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell claimed the CFL’s outstanding player award with Dickenson (coach of the year), CFL rushing leader Jerome Messam (top Canadian), receiver DaVaris Daniels (rookie) and Derek Dennis (outstanding lineman) also honoured.
But in Mitchell’s mind, last year is in the rear-view mirror.
“We’ve got our eyes forward,” he said. “We’re looking forward to getting out there Game 1.
“Yeah, it’s Ottawa but even if it was a different opponent we’re going to approach it the same way.”
Calgary will be the team to beat in the West Division. That’s pretty much been the case since ‘08 when current president John Hufnagel returned as head coach to lead the Stampeders to a Grey Cup title. Calgary won again in 2014.
“We don’t get to decide who puts the target on which team,” Dickenson said. “I personally don’t feel any year I’ve been here the target hasn’t been on us so it’s nothing new for the Calgary Stampeders’ organization.
“We had a good season last year and we kept as many of the core players as we could but we understand it will be a new season. It’s important for us to understand we need to get better, we have to coach better and we have to make sure we win the same types of games we won last year.”
Mitchell will have a tough act to follow after throwing a league-high 32 TDs and finishing second in passing yards (5,385). Mitchell also boasted a tidy 68 per cent completion average with only eight interceptions and CFL-best 107.9 quarterback efficiency rating.
But the Katy, Texas native has just one goal for 2017.
“The only personal goal I ever write down is to try to play all 18 games,” said Mitchell, who started 17 regular-season games last season. “Whether it’s playing through injury or being smart and not taking the wrong hits, I just want to make sure I’m here for all 18 games and giving us a chance to get to the dance and take a run at it.”
Mitchell clearly remains the starter but the backup position will be up for grabs in training camp with veteran Drew Tate being dealt to Ottawa. Calgarian Andrew Buckley returns for a second season while the Stampeders also signed veteran Mitchell Gale and have Nick Arbuckle, spent a month on the practice roster last year.
“It’s open, we’ll have good competition there,” Dickenson said. “You’d think Andrew Buckley has a better opportunity to move into that.
“We signed Mitchell Gale, who I think will be a good addition, and we’ll have a young guy (Arbuckle) in there who’ll keep battling. It’s time for these guys to step up and I think we’ll be in good shape.”