John Hufnagel tried to laugh it off as just a “regular” practice. It wasn’t. Too many testy moments saw to that.
If their late-week antics are any indicator, the Calgary Stampeders should be in full combat mode for their 47th Labour Day encounter against the visiting Edmonton Eskimos. In a matter of minutes Thursday, head coach Hufnagel tossed one player from the field and watched as two others had to be separated during an exchange of differing opinions.
Linebacker Marc Calixte was banished to the showers early after driving a teammate into unsuspecting running back Jon Cornish – not a wise manoeuvre considering Cornish’s status as the CFL’s leading rusher. Then defensive back Tad Kornegay and receiver Romby Bryant had to be kept from one another during a dispute over Kornegay’s cover tactics.
Asked what he thought of such spirited displays, Hufnagel eventually acknowledged, “It was a lively practice. Every now and then confrontations happen. I told [Calixte] to go in and cool down.”
With a so-so record (4-4) that includes just two wins at McMahon Stadium, it’s easy to understand why the Stampeders need to heat up. The clash Monday with the 5-3 Eskimos is the first of four meetings between the provincial foes over the balance of the regular season. Of late, the Stampeders have been following a win-one, lose-one pattern that has left observers wondering just how good the team really is. Against the Toronto Argonauts, the Stampeders were equally loathsome and lethargic. Last week against the Roughriders in Saskatchewan, they were full-marks efficient.
The need to establish a reliable winning identity comes as the games grow more meaningful and fewer in number.
“The intensity has definitely stepped up. Guys are way more amped up,” middle linebacker Juwan Simpson said of Calgary’s practice mood. “We’re ready to play ball, and that’s the start of it. Once you get great competition in practice it transfers to the game.”
The Stampeders have been weaving back and forth between aggressive play and foolhardiness this season. The team has been penalized 77 times for 626 yards, the fourth-worst totals in the league. Hufnagel has used many of his postgame assessments to talk about discipline and level-headedness. Calgary will need both those attributes to beat an opportunistic Edmonton side.
While the Eskimos have their own issues – chief among them: Who should start at quarterback, Kerry Joseph or Steven Jyles? – they come equipped with an efficient running game and a sure-tackling defence that can dominate any style of game. It’s why the Stampeders have sought a higher level of competition in practice.
“They’re a good team,” assessed Simpson, who will be out to slow Eskimos rushers Cory Boyd and Hugh Charles. (Canadian running back Jerome Messam, recently released by the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, officially rejoined Edmonton on Thursday but will not play Labour Day.) “It’s unfortunate we haven’t had as many wins [at home] the past couple of years but that can change at any moment. We have to come in as a team, leave as a team.”
They insisted that’s exactly what they did in the feisty workout Thursday.
“We understand there are going to be heated arguments, a little profanity,” Simpson added. “But we all understand what everybody’s motivation is.”
The Stampeders and Eskimos kick off Monday at 4:30 p.m. (EDT).