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This is the second article in our 2015 CFL team previews series, moving from west to east. Go here for a look at the B.C. Lions, and stay tuned to 55-Yard Line for more!
Although the CFL only has nine teams, repeating as the Grey Cup champion is incredibly difficult, and it usually takes a superstar quarterback. Since the CFL was officially founded in 1958, only six teams have ever won at least two championships in a row. The last team to pull that off was the Montreal Alouettes in 2009 and 2010, led by famed quarterback Anthony Calvillo. The only other team to repeat since the Edmonton Eskimos' five straight Grey Cups from 1978-1982 (helmed by Warren Moon and Tom Wilkinson) was the Doug Flutie-led Toronto Argonauts in 1996 and 1997. The other quarterbacks to do this are Winnipeg's Ken Ploen (1958, 1959, 1961, 1962) and Ottawa's Russ Jackson (1968, 1969), making this a very exclusive club indeed. Still, following a 15-3 season and a Grey Cup championship, the Calgary Stampeders are listed by Bodog.ca as the favourites to lift the trophy again this year. Can they pull it off, and will reigning Grey Cup Most Outstanding Player Bo Levi Mitchell be able to add his name to that list of pivots?
There are a lot of reasons why so few teams win back-to-back Grey Cups, and one is that winning that first Grey Cup changes your roster. All of a sudden, many of your pending free agents are even more valuable given both their championship experience and the level they played at to get you there, making it much harder to retain them. It's also harder to keep your under-contract players happy, especially those who aren't making that much. You're drafting last as well, lessening your chances of finding immediate help there. Moreover, there's a target on your back; opponents are often even more fired up to knock off the reigning champions, and many of them hold grudges from what happened the year before. The CFL's generally a parity-filled league, too, one with plenty of offseason turnover, and one where remarkable year-to-year turnarounds aren't uncommon. That adds to the difficulty of staying on top.
Looking at Calgary in particular, the free agency losses in particular may add to the challenge. The Stampeders lost two critical parts of their 2014 team (centre Brett Jones and defensive end Shawn Lemon) to the NFL, and saw a third (left tackle Stanley Bryant) leave for Winnipeg in free agency. They also lost valuable Canadian depth pieces such as linebacker/special-teamer Keenan MacDougall (Saskatchewan) and receiver Brad Sinopoli (Ottawa), and they traded veteran import receiver Maurice Price to Ottawa for linebacker Jasper Simmons and receiver Dan Buckner. The departure of veteran import receiver Nik Lewis for Montreal wasn't unexpected, given that he didn't seem to be a big part of Calgary's plans going forward, but his experience may still be missed. The Stampeders were able to keep a few key free agents, such as defensive back Brandon Smith, receiver Simon Charbonneau-Campeau and running back Matt Walter, and they added some interesting names in free agency, including DE Brandon Boudreaux and RB Keith Toston (both from Saskatchewan). On the whole, though, this roster looks weaker after free agency than it did beforehand.
However, there are reasons to think that Calgary has an excellent shot at repeating. One key element there is Mitchell, who had an impressive 2014, throwing for 3,389 yards and 22 touchdowns with a 63.6 per cent completion rate and just eight interceptions. He was particularly good in the playoffs, putting up 336 passing yards and four touchdowns against Edmonton in the West Final and throwing for another 334 yards in the Grey Cup while also rushing for a touchdown, enough to see him named the game's Most Outstanding Player (although he didn't have a touchdown pass and threw an interception). Mitchell is just 25, and he's already looking like one of the league's best quarterbacks. If he can maintain what he did last year or build on it, that may bode well for the Stampeders' chances.
Beyond Mitchell, this team still has a wide array of strengths despite their losses. Canadian running back Jon Cornish led the league in rushing for the second-straight season this past year, becoming the only CFL RB to top 1,000 yards in 2014 (he had 1,082, with five touchdowns and an insane average of 7.8 yards per carry) despite injuries causing him to miss significant time. He gives the Stampeders such a rushing threat that other teams have to alter their defensive game plans, opening up space for the passing game. Despite the departures of Lewis, Price and Sinopoli, there are still plenty of targets for Mitchell to use there, including Marquay McDaniel (Calgary's top receiver in 2014), Joe West and new addition Lemar Durant; there's reason to think that an offence that led the league with 511 points in 2014 may not drop off all that much this season. The Stampeders also have a defence that allowed just 347 points last year, second-lowest in the CFL. Yes, they've had losses, and yes, repeating will be difficult, but there are a lot of reasons not to count Calgary out, especially given how strong this roster still looks.
Prediction: 13-5, first in the West, Grey Cup victory.
Keep watching 55-Yard Line for further team-by-team previews!