Head coach John Hufnagel hasn’t always been satisfied with the performance of his Calgary Stampeders in games this season, but he can’t argue with the results.
Calgary tops the league at 9-2 and is the first team this season to secure a playoff berth.
“We’ve won in different fashions, but we won as a team and that’s the good part,” Hufnagel said Monday.
“We don’t always hit on all cylinders offensively, defensively sometimes we’re on the field too much, special teams we’re not as productive as we’d like to be, but as a team, one phase has been outstanding to allow us to peck out wins. That’s essentially the sign of a good team.”
The Stampeders have worked for their wins with a constantly rotating cast of characters. All CFL teams deal with injuries in a season, but the theme of Calgary’s season so far is resiliency.
The employment of three different starting quarterbacks has been well documented, but the Stampeders have also been forced to cover gaps on the offensive line, at receiver and in the defensive backfield when starters went down.
It begs the question how much better Calgary would be if they weren’t routinely plugging holes in their lineup.
“It’s hard to improve under those conditions,” Hufnagel said. “When you have new people in your lineup, then there’s an adjustment period.
“Our offensive line has been a scramble all year long. I’m hoping that before the season is over we can get our five in there and get a couple games underneath our belt to head into the playoffs.
“Same with our quarterback position. With three different quarterbacks playing, it’s the same playbook, but like I’ve always said, each quarterback brings their own personality.”
Calgary’s 26-22 win over Hamilton combined with the Saskatchewan’s 31-29 loss to the Toronto Argonauts on the weekend allowed the Stampeders to gain sole possession of first place in the West.
A 25-7 Edmonton Eskimos victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers eliminated the possibility Winnipeg (2-9) could finish ahead of Calgary in a crossover playoff scenario. The Esks, last in the West at 2-9, also can’t catch Calgary because the Stampeders won the season series between the teams.
The Stampeders host defending league champion Toronto, the East Division leaders at 7-2, on Saturday in a rematch of last year’s Grey Cup. The Stampeders are unbeaten at home at 5-0.
Calgary’s win over the Tiger-Cats on Friday was by no means a classic. Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell struggled early, but marched the Stampeders downfield with two minutes remaining to score the eventual winning touchdown.
The defence that had given up 408 passing yards to Hamilton’s Henry Burris sprang to life on the last drive of the game. Sacks by Charleston Hughes and Cordarro Law helped prevent the Ticats from countering with a winning score.
Mitchell, 23, was Calgary’s third string quarterback in training camp. He’s won his three starts with veterans Drew Tate and Kevin Glenn on the sidelines with injuries. He’s also come onto the field to preserve wins when Glenn has gone out of the game.
While Mitchell entertained reporters in the Stampeders dressing room post-game, Glenn walked by chanting “All we do is win. No matter who is playing. We just win.”
Hufnagel said he allowed himself scotch and a cigar post-game, but that was in celebration of his 62nd birthday.
One of the team’s big recent improvements is in sacks, with 23 in the last four games. Hughes and Winnipeg’s Alex Hall were tied for first in the league with a dozen sacks apiece ahead of Law with nine.
Receiver Maurice Price has also been an impact player since his return from a hamstring injury with four touchdown catches in the three games.
Running back Jon Cornish, who has achieved 1,000 rushing yards for a second straight season, and the consistency of field-goal kicker Rene Paredes, are the constants for Calgary this season.
Field goals can feel like settling for less on some drives, but two misses by Hamilton’s Luca Congi on Friday reinforced the importance of Paredes’s contributions to Calgary’s bottom line.
Paredes set a CFL record of 39 consecutive field goals before missing his first of the season Aug. 24 in Toronto. He was 12 for 12 in his last three games.
If he can maintain his 97.2 per cent completion rate, Paredes will break the single-season record of 94.3 held by B.C.’s Paul McCallum.
“Rene has been exceptional with his field-goal kicking and his ability to put it through the goal posts has really determined the outcome of a lot of our football games,” Hufnagel said. “One of the reasons we are in first place is because of Rene’s consistency.”
The coach expects both Glenn and fullback Rob Cote returning to full practice this week after knee and shoulder injuries respectively. Offensive linemen Dan Federkeil (groin) and Dimitri Tsoumpas (concussion) remain out. Receiver Joe West (shoulder) is close to returning, but has two games remaining on the nine-game injured list.
“We know we need to improve in all areas and hopefully I can get the guys back that have been injured who have been starters at the beginning of the year and get them playing good football,” Hufnagel said.
“If they don’t return, we’ll get better with the guys we have.”