CALGARY — Dave Dickenson is on the coaching fast-track in the Canadian Football League less than two seasons after the quarterback retired from playing.
In the absence of an offensive co-ordinator in Calgary, it’s Dickenson’s voice Stampeder quarterback Henry Burris hears in his helmet.
Plotting Calgary’s offensive strategy during the week is by committee, led by head coach and general manager John Hufnagel. On game day, Dickenson the quarterbacks coach calls plays for the team currently ranked first in West Division at 6-1.
“I’ve been happy and blessed in that Huf has been kind of letting me run with it and lets me make my own mistakes and let me learn, instead of feeling a bit handcuffed,” Dickenson said Monday.
“I’ve been surprised he’s let me have as much leeway as I have. It just shows he trusts me and my decisions. We still talk over the game play. He has an idea what I’m going to call.”
The off-season departure of offensive co-ordinator George Cortez to become quarterbacks coach of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills created an opening in Calgary. Dickenson was Calgary’s running backs coach last season.
He announced his retirement Feb. 4, 2009.
Hufnagel didn’t hire an offensive co-ordinator to replace Cortez, or give himself that job, although Hufnagel is more involved with offensive strategy now during the week.
Instead, he’s given Dickenson greater responsibility, but also eased him into it. That suggests a careful grooming of the former player for perhaps the title of offensive co-ordinator, or other coaching jobs in the future.
“It might have been a hair early even,” Dickenson said of his larger role. “There’s no doubt I have stuff to learn, but learning on the job is not a bad thing either and we’re winning. That’s important. I don’t really care about the title. With responsibility and title, you get a pay raise and I’m not against that.”
Calgary ranks No. 2 in the CFL in ball possession behind Saskatchewan heading into Friday’s game in Vancouver against the B.C. Lions.
Hufnagel and or receivers coach Pete Costanza, who oversees games from up high in the boxes, may suggest plays during the game, but Dickenson is generally left to his own judgement.
“You have to more or less let the playcaller go to work when the game presents itself,” Hufnagel explained. “I always make suggestions. Very few times have I forced George Cortez or Dave to call a play. Don’t plan on doing it.
“Just like every quarterback brings his own personality to the play book, Dave brings his personality to calling a game. I think he does an excellent job. He’s still learning his strengths. I’m very pleased with his development.”
Dickenson, 37, holds CFL records for the highest pass completion in a career (67.5 per cent) and a season (74). The latter was in 2005 with the B.C Lions when he was also named MVP of the Lions’ Grey Cup victory. His passing efficiency rating of 110.4 over his 11-year CFL career is also No. 1 in the record books.
The Great Falls, Mont., native was named the CFL’s most outstanding player in 2000 after leading the Stampeders to a 12-5-1 record with 36 touchdown passes and 4,636 passing yards.
He ended his career a Stampeder in 2008 as Burris’s backup. Post-concussion symptoms sidelined him that season, but Dickenson used the time on the sidelines to get a head start on his coaching career working unofficially as a quarterbacks consultant.
Coaching running backs last season was odd for a former quarterback, but Dickenson sees the benefit of that experience now. The Lions offered him a job as quarterbacks coach this off-season, but Dickenson, who is married with two young children, opted to remain in Calgary.
“I do respect (B.C. coach) Wally Buono and I loved my time in B.C.,” Dickenson said. “I really didn’t want to move if the job was similar and it was.”
Dickenson felt a combination of excitement, apprehension and confidence calling plays for the first time on July 1. This happened to be the season the CFL introduced wireless headsets allowing coaches to communicate directly with their quarterbacks on the field.
“I was a little bit more concerned with the head phones and how it was going to work that way,” he said. “It’s been a big help for me not having to signal. I’m a big communicator, like to hear myself talk, so this has been good for me.”
It’s not been long since Burris and Dickenson were teammates, and combatants before that, on the field. They have an understanding that sometimes doesn’t require conversation. Burris says Dickenson can tell if he’s uncomfortable running a play simply by Burris’s body language.
“He thinks like quarterback. I love it,” Burris said. “I’ll come in some days and say ’Dave, you know what . . . ’ and he’ll say ’Before you say that, I looked at that play last night on film and I don’t like it.’ and I was about to tell him that. We’re on the same page. That’s a good thing.”
While coaching doesn’t give him the same rush as playing did, Dickenson says his reward now is calling a play that works like a charm. He continues to draw on the experience of Hufnagel and has occasionally speaks with Cortez as well.
“Honestly, I’ve just tried to keep a good thing going,” Dickenson said.