Change is inevitable in pro sport, but Dave Dickenson has never seen an off-season quite like this one.
Since the Calgary Stampeders’ Grey Cup win in November, defensive co-ordinator DeVone Claybrooks left to become the BC Lions head coach while linebackers Jameer Thurman and Alex Singleton, defensive lineman James Vaughters and receiver Marken Michel all signed NFL contracts. And there could be a fifth as quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, the 2018 CFL and Grey Cup MVP, has worked out for eight teams south of the border and is scheduled to become a free agent next month.
There’s also the matter of the CFL’s impending collective bargaining talks with the current deal expiring in May.
“I doubt there’s been a year where a team has lost more than four players to the NFL,” Dickenson said via telephone from Mont Tremblant, Que., where CFL presidents and general managers are meeting this week. “I think it’s different for all of us with so much uncertainty right now.
“It just seems this off-season it’s harder to be organized, harder to be structured. I think many questions will be answered here.”
Despite the busy off-season, Dickenson said he had plenty of time to relish Calgary’s 27-16 Grey Cup win over Ottawa. Not only was it Dickenson’s first as a head coach, it came after two straight heartbreaking championship losses to the Redblacks and Toronto, respectively.
“I think we all enjoyed it,” Dickenson said. “In the sports world, you’re on top for maybe a couple of days, then you start thinking about moving forward and how you can have a successful 2019 season.
“But I’ve had many people throughout the city congratulate me, and it’s funny, because the previous two years it was like I’d lost a family member. People almost walked around me on eggshells … now this year, many really good people have been happy for me and I don’t even know them, and to me it shows me what kind of city I’m in.”
However, Dickenson realizes that euphoria will quickly fade and the weight of expectation will again be heavy for the Stampeders.
“That’s okay,” he said. “It’s part of history, and we’ve been on the wrong side of a couple of tough games, so I think it’s important for our guys to soak it in and appreciate what we accomplished.
“But then it’s time to move forward.”
The biggest question that remains, though, is Mitchell’s future. Since becoming Calgary’s starter in 2014. the 28-year-old native of Katy, Tex., has twice been named the league’s outstanding player and led the Stampeders to a pair of Grey Cups in four appearances.
Mitchell has compiled a stellar 69-15-2 record as a CFL starter with 150 TD strikes against just 59 interceptions. With sophomore Nick Arbuckle and rookie Montell Cozart behind Mitchell on the Stampeders’ depth chart, GM/president John Hufnagel will definitely be in the market for a veteran quarterback if Mitchell leaves.
Still, Dickenson isn’t so sure Mitchell is a slam dunk to go to the NFL.
“I know Bo. His first priority is his family, and then Bo takes a lot of pride in loyalty and legacy,” Dickenson said. “I think he’s going to have the opportunity. I don’t know if he’s going to take that opportunity, so that’s a question that needs answering.
“It’s his call. He knows either way, I’ve got his back and will support him and his family. As an organization, we need to know before Feb. 12 [start of CFL free agency], but we also know he’s a free agent Feb. 12. I think we’d have a good chance to sign him … but certainly no guarantee.”
Dickenson filled the vacant defensive co-ordinator’s position by promoting linebackers coach Brent Monson. The 33-year-old Hamilton native has been on Calgary’s staff the past nine years, having served also as defensive-line and running-backs coach as well as strength-and-conditioning coach.
So now Dickenson is looking to add another coach to his staff. Traditionally, Calgary has brought in young coaches and given them time to learn the pro game.
It’s a path Dickenson followed, becoming an offensive assistant coach with Calgary shortly after retiring as a player in 2009. Upon later serving as quarterbacks coach and offensive co-ordinator, Dickenson assumed head coaching duties from Hufnagel in 2016.
But starting this year, CFL teams must adhere to a football operations salary cap that not only limits the size of coaching staffs but also how much can be spent on them.
“Whenever you start as a coach you need a while,” Dickenson said. “I felt [DB coach Josh Bell] really improved, and by the middle of last year took ownership and leadership of the group.
“Same thing with [defensive-line coach] Corey Mace, I think he’s on the path to being a co-ordinator. We’ve got some help, but we’re young, though, and I’ve still got to hire another guy … that guy who has to be more that low pay scale and willing to learn, so it’s tough to go hire a coach with a lot of experience for that position because there’s no money there any more.”