Continuing on with our Zeroth Down series of CFL previews, here's a look at the Calgary Stampeders. The Stampeders put up a league-best 13-5 record in 2010, but fell in their only playoff game with a 20-16 West Final loss to the Saskatchewan Roughriders. They'll belooking to maintain a solid regular-season performance while improving on their post-season showing, but will they be able to do it despite their offseason losses?
Back To The Future: Import running back Willie Burden joined the Stampeders in 1974 after a solid career with the North Carolina State Wolfpack, where he finished as the school's seventh-leading rusher despite only playing for three seasons and was named the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year in 1973. He was drafted by both the NFL's Detroit Lions (139th overall, in the sixth round) and the upstart World Football League's Portland Storm, but opted to head north of the border and join up with Calgary. It proved to be a great move for Burden, as he picked up 541 yards on 94 carries in his inaugural season, but it was only a taste of better things to come.
In 1974, Burden set a CFL rushing record with 332 carries for 1896 yards, including a team-record tying 238 against Winnipeg on November 2. He was selected as a league all-star and was named the CFL's most outstanding player. Burden wouldn't quite hit those heights again, but he was perennially a solid contributor for the Stampeders until his retirement in 1981, and left as the team's third-leading rusher of all time (he has since been passed by Kelvin Anderson and current running back Joffrey Reynolds). Unfortunately, the rest of the team wasn't all that good during Burden's tenure; they finished fourth or fifth in the West every year from 1974 through 1977, only made it to the West Final twice and lost both times, leaving him without even a Grey Cup appearance. He was still recognized for his career of success, though, with his #10 jersey retired in 1982, his name added to the Wall of Honour in 1992 and his Hall of Fame bust coming in 2001.
Burden is relevant to the modern-day Stampeders, as they're also a team with an excellent rushing attack. One of their running backs, Joffrey Reynolds, has already passed Burden on the team's career rushing list, and he doesn't seem to be slowing down much. The 31-year-old Reynolds picked up 1,200 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on 217 carries, and added 286 yards on 36 receptions. His averages of 5.5 (rushing) and 7.7 (receiving) yards per touch were down from his career numbers (5.9 and 9.1 yards per touch respectively), but those are still impressive numbers. Beyond Reynolds, the Stampeders have arguably the best backup running back in the league in Canadian Jon Cornish, a product of the Kansas Jayhawks who generally spelled Reynolds on every third series in 2010. Cornish collected 618 yards on just 85 carries last year for an average of 7.3 yards per carry, and added 226 more yards on 14 receptions (16.1 yards per pass). He was also named Duane Forde's top Canadian player this week. Between him, Reynolds and mobile quarterback Henry Burris (who added 491 rushing yards on 70 carries last year, for an average of 7.0 yards per carry), the Stampeders had by far the best ground attack in the CFL last season, and one that would make Burden proud. They've also used a running back by committee strategy that's very popular in the NFL and NCAA, but hasn't seen much play north of the border. If they can keep their ground game success, it could be a good year out in Calgary.
Offence: As mentioned above, the rushing game should be solid. However, there is one thing that might be a source for concern; the departure of left tackle Ben Archibald, who was named the CFL's most outstanding lineman last season and left for the B.C. Lions in free agency. On opening day Archibald will be replaced as Burris' blind-side protector at the start of the year by Gerald Cadogan, the former Penn State star who's had a few cups of coffee in the NFL but only joined the Stampeders' practice squad towards the end of last season. Right tackle Stanley Bryant and right guard J'Michael Deane are also new additions; East Carolina product Bryant started three games down the stretch last year, while Deane's a rookie who was still at Michigan State last season, but will be filling in for the injured Dmitri Tsoumpas for the time being. How the new offensive line gels may wind up being a crucial factor in the success of the running game.
The passing game will also be impacted by the changes on the offensive line, but there's a lot to like about it still. Burris (pictured at the top of the post in Calgary's first preseason game against B.C.) was named the league's most outstanding player last season after throwing for 4,945 yards and 38 touchdowns and completing 66.2 per cent of his passes, and he still has some of the league's top receivers in Nik Lewis, Romby Bryant and Ken-Yon Rambo. Burris' 20 interceptions in 2010 are a little worrying, as his game does involve some risk and reward, and it's going to be interesting to see how he adapts to the changes in his blockers. With that said, though, Calgary put up a league-high 626 points last season, and Montreal (521) was the only other team to even crack 500. They have some personnel losses, especially up front, but this should still be a tremendous offence.
Rating: Five "Friday" parodies.
Defence: The defence is a bit more of a concern. The 459 points they conceded in 2010 weren't bad (third-best in the league, actually), but they lost a couple of crucial pieces in the offseason. League all-star cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Dwight Anderson (the league's top trash-talker, pictured at right) both left (for the Seattle Seahawks and Montreal Alouettes respectively), and the Stamps' secondary looked awfully thin after them last year. Veteran safety Wes Lysack also left for Toronto, so it's going to be a rather new cast at the back. Geoff Tisdale, who Calgary picked up from Hamilton this offseason, could be a capable fill-in, but the rest of the cast is a bit of a work in process.
In the linebacking corps, middle linebacker Juwan Simpson had a great year last season, racking up 71 tackles, seven sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception and earning a league all-star nod in the process. He's looking to do even more this coming season, though. The other spots are less sure: Malik Jackson should be the main option on the weak side, and he's been good at times, but the strong side saw a training-camp competition between three players and hasn't been entirely settled. The line also will look quite different, thanks to Tom Johnson's departure for the NFL and Mike Labinjo's release. (DeVone Claybrooks is a proven veteran, though, and he should have another good year.) This isn't a bad defence, but it carries plenty of question marks.
Rating: Three lingerie photos.
Special teams: Special teams should be an area of reasonable strength for the Stampeders. They have arguably the best punter in the league in Burke Dales (who averaged a league-high 45.6 yards per punt last year), and Guelph product Rob Maver had a tremendous first year as a kicker, leading all kickers with 185 points. Granted, 70 of those points came on converts thanks to the Stampeders' superb offence, but Maver (pictured warming up last year at right) did all right on field goals, hitting 78.7 per cent of his attempts on the year and improving consistently as time went on. Long-snapper Randy Chevrier is one of the CFL's best, and Larry Taylor (acquired from Montreal) should definitely help the return game. Overall, there are a few issues on the special teams units, but they should be pretty solid overall.
Rating: Four public service announcements.
Totals: 12 points (out of 15)
Greatest strength: The ground game. If they can get their offensive line to gel, the Stamps have the league's best one-two punch in Reynolds and Cornish.
Potential weakness: The secondary. It's been discussed above, but Calgary's loss of both Browner and Anderson might be the most catastrophic positional swing in the entire league. The Stampeders didn't have a lot of depth in the secondary behind them last year, and the secondary may have turned from one of their strengths into a weakness.
Season prediction: The Stampeders should be very good again, but I'm a bit worried about how their secondary will look without Browner and Anderson, and I wasn't completely sold on their defence even before those losses. I think they'll take a small step back to an 11-7 record, but that should still be good enough to claim first place in the tightly-contested West Division. However, I think they'll fall in the West Final for the second-straight year. The West is close enough that anything could happen, but I'm just not sure the Stampeders have the defensive depth to make a Grey Cup run.
Remember to stop by 55-Yard Line at noon Eastern Thursday for our CFL preview chat with some special guests!