The quarterback culture that has transformed the Calgary Stampeders into the CFL’s model franchise started with the old head coach, John Hufnagel.
Among his many accomplishments, Hufnagel spent the 2003 season as the quarterbacks coach for the NFL champion New England Patriots, working with Tom Brady, that year’s Super Bowl MVP. Prior to that, he was a quarterback star at Penn State and then played 12 CFL seasons.
The culture endures under Hufnagel’s hand-picked successor, Dave Dickenson, who stepped in as head coach this season after two years as assistant head coach. On the field, Dickenson quarterbacked the Montana Grizzlies to the 1995 NCAA Division 1 national title, and then starred in 10 CFL seasons.
When Hufnagel stepped down this year to concentrate on his general manager’s portfolio, Dickenson was elevated to the top spot. Under Dickenson, the Stampeders won the CFL’s Western Division final convincingly on Sunday, clobbering the league’s second-best regular-season team, the B.C. Lions, 42-15.
It’s no coincidence the leader that day – and all season – was quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, who led the CFL with 32 touchdown passes this season and was one of just two QBs to crack the 5,000-yard mark (5,385) in passing.
Quarterbacks tend to thrive in Calgary, and Mitchell says he knows why.
“One of the best parts of our team is that everybody buys in,” he said. “That entire locker room, we believe in our coaching staff. Dave has kept us focused all year. They’ll take our opinions, but ultimately, they get paid to create the game plan, and we get paid to execute it.”
The Stampeders play the Ottawa Redblacks in the 104th Grey Cup on Sunday at BMO Field in Toronto. For Dickenson, there would be a nice symmetry if the Stampeders won, given that exactly 10 years ago, he earned most-valuable-player honours in the 2006 Grey Cup game as quarterback for the B.C. Lions.
Mitchell is a big fan of Dickenson’s message because, as a former QB, his coach understands the position – and all of its inherent challenges – better than others might.
Mitchell, meanwhile, leads by example. He studies the game relentlessly, works hard on his conditioning and blends just the right amount of confidence with respect for the opposition.
So when Mitchell speaks of playing against Henry Burris, the Redblacks’ quarterback who played for Calgary at the start of Mitchell’s CFL career, he heaps praise on Burris’s career achievements. But he also makes it clear the Stamps’ plan is to win and complete what would be, statistically, one of the greatest seasons in league history.
Mitchell has been a good fit in Calgary ever since he won the starter’s job away from Drew Tate in 2014.
“When Bo came in, he was one of those guys who said, ‘I want to make this my home and I want to be the best,’” said Dickenson. “He’s not someone always looking for that ‘the grass is greener on the other side.’ He’s in the moment. We have a good relationship. We have some give and take, but I feel like the communication lines are open and there’s mutual respect, and when you have that, that’s when you have success.”
The Stampeders went 15-2-1 this season, and Dickenson, as the team’s offensive co-ordinator, guided a unit that featured both the league leader in passing touchdowns (Mitchell) and rushing yards (Jerome Messam). Dickenson, Mitchell and Messam are all up for CFL awards this week – as coach of the year, most-outstanding player and top Canadian, respectively.
In 2012, however, the Stampeders were heavily favoured going into the Grey Cup but lost to a 9-9 Toronto Argonauts team, a defeat that Mitchell has used as a motivating reminder at different times this season.
To Mitchell, the transition from Hufnagel to Dickenson has gone smoothly in part because “Dave has let us be who we want to be this year. Let the young guys take over. Let the locker room be our locker room.
“It’s definitely nothing different than what Huf was doing. Huf reminds me a bit more of Belichick – a no-BS kind of guy; what he says goes. Dave’s given us a little bit of leniency here and there, and I think guys have responded well to it.”
There are other connections between the Stampeders and the Patriots beyond consistent excellence and Hufnagel’s prior relationship with Bill Belichick, the Patriots coach. Defensive captain Deron Mayo, a linebacker who won’t play Sunday because of an injured knee, is the younger brother of now-retired Pats linebacker and former Pro Bowler Jerod Mayo.
And Dickenson knows Belichick a little from before.
“The only thing I can say about that is, I do think a consistent message is important,” said Dickenson. “I think Belichick might be the best coach ever; he’s a guy I would like to emulate. I met him one time. I tried out for him, and enjoyed just speaking with him. He’s dry, but I know that football’s important to him. That’s what we want to do, too – make sure football’s important and represent our city and our club well, and give it our best.”Report Typo/Error