John Hufnagel and the Calgary Stampeders will have a tough act to follow in 2009.
In his first year as head coach and GM, Hufnagel led the Stamps to a stellar 13-5 regular-season record and the 2008 Grey Cup championship.
Now, Calgary faces the daunting task of not only trying to repeat as the CFL champion, but also doing it at home. This year’s Grey Cup game will be played Nov. 29 at McMahon Stadium.
Only four teams since 1960 have managed to repeat as Grey Cup champions, the last being the Toronto Argonauts in 1996-’97. And not since 1994 has the home team captured a CFL title when the B.C. Lions edged Baltimore 27-24 at B.C. Place.
None of which is lost on Hufnagel.
“Each year it’s anyone’s ballgame,” he said. “Due to the competition and parity within the league it’s very very difficult.
“Our approach this year is we’re not thinking about anything differently than what we thought at this time last year.”
Calgary opens its season Wednesday night (TSN, 8 p.m.), hosting the Montreal Alouettes in a Grey Cup rematch. The season officially kicks off earlier in the night with the Toronto Argonauts visiting the arch-rival Hamilton Tiger-Cats (TSN, 5 p.m.).
A big key to Calgary’s success will again be quarterback Henry Burris, who signed a four-year contract extension last week.
The former Temple star posted career highs in passing yards (5,039) and touchdowns (39) and capped his season by being named the Grey Cup MVP in Calgary’s 22-14 win over the Als at Olympic Stadium.
Once again, Burris’s supporting cast will be a stellar one. A solid receiving corps will again be anchored by Ken-Yon Rambo (100 catches, league-high 1,473 yards, eight TDs) while the ground game is capably manned by CFL rushing leader Joffrey Reynolds (1,310 yards, 5.8-yard average) and Burris (595 yards, 6.8-yard average). But it all starts with Burris and offensive co-ordinator George Cortez, who is generally regarded as one of the CFL’s top football minds.
“This will now be Henry’s third year with George . . . and I believe, hope and expect an improvement this year,” Hufnagel said. “Being in the system one year longer, having another year of experience with George and the communication between the two can only help.
“And then there’s (Burris’s) ability to play on the field and make the decisions that are necessary to make.”
CFL referees will have one less decision to make this season with the league adopting a command centre at its head office to review coaching challenges. Instead of an on-field official going under the hood to review a play, a replay official in Toronto will make the final call based on video review using high-definition technology.
CFL commissioner Mark Cohon said the new process is designed to be quicker. A replay official at the command centre can immediately start reviewing a play from various angles instead of fans and teams having to wait for the on-field referee to reach a video booth on the sideline before examining the replay.
The lead replay official at the command centre will be Jake Ireland, who retired last year after working 30 years — 557 games and 15 Grey Cups — as a CFL referee.
“I’m excited about it because I think it does a couple of different things,” Cohon said. “It speeds up the game, which I think is very important.
“It also gives our officials access to a higher quality view of the field, which they really didn’t have when they were under the hood. Anything that improves the product on the field is the right thing for the game and league.”
The CFL enters the ’09 season without any major problems domestically as talks continue in its quest to return to Ottawa.
Cohon also said the league is looking at possibly staging a regular-season game in Moncton in the future as it continues to grow its product nationwide.
Again this year, the CFL will have to deal with the issue of the NFL in Canada. In December, the Buffalo Bills will host the New York Jets at Rogers Centre, the third of eight games the club will play in Toronto (five regular season, three exhibition) through the 2012 season.
But on Sunday, Bills owner Ralph Wilson said he’d prefer to wait “two or three years,” before deciding whether to play more regular-season contests in southern Ontario.
“The important message we’ve been delivering and consistent with is we have to build our league,” Cohon said. “We can’t focus on things we can’t control.
“There’s a lot of speculation in the media about will there be more games and I think because Mr. Wilson has indicated he’s going to wait and see, that sort of says everyone should calm down. What we’re here to do is build CFL football and that’s what we’re doing.”
Once the season begins, one CFL head coach will be looking to make league history.
Wally Buono, the B.C. Lions’ head coach and GM, needs just five regular-season victories to surpass the CFL record of 231 held by Don Matthews. Buono, 59, is entering his 20th season and seventh with the Lions.
“The record matters, it’s very prestigious,” Buono said. “But right not it’s not relevant.
“What’s more important in my mind is putting together a good football team that’s capable of winning the Grey Cup in Calgary in November.”