If there is a single player who epitomizes what went right for the Calgary Stampeders this season, it might be defensive back Joshua Bell.
He played college football at Baylor, has 13 NFL games on his resume and began his CFL career with the B.C. Lions – who happen to be Calgary's opponent in Sunday's Western Conference semi-final at McMahon Stadium. He joined the Stamps two years ago as a free agent, won a Grey Cup in his inaugural season and this year became one of two Calgary defensive starters to make the CFL All-Star team (defensive end Charleston Hughes was the other).
Bell was a consistent presence on a team that went 14-4 despite missing its former MVP running back, Jon Cornish, for long stretches of the season. Injuries also decimated the offensive line and kept some of their most notable defenders on the sidelines – including Hughes and Juwan Simpson.
Considering all the challenges facing the team, winning 14 of 18 games was an exceptional accomplishment, and yet somehow, the Stampeders are flying under the radar a little.
How does that happen?
"We play to win the Grey Cup every single week," answered Bell, "so our progression doesn't ever have to change. Some teams, they get up for certain teams. We don't care who it is. We could play the Little Sisters of the Poor and we'd be up to play them every single week. We're just consistent, that's all. We just come to play."
Bell was just getting warmed up.
"Some people are saying we should lose this weekend," he said, "and you think, 'it's a 7-11 team versus a 14-4 team. Why would you ever pick a 7-11 team? You've got to be out of your mind.' But when you're consistent, they get bored with you. It's almost like a marriage. You stop doing what you were doing – no more wining and dining. Everybody wants to be wined and dined. You're still doing a great job, but nobody likes it. That's the point we're at right now."
Calgary finished tied with Edmonton for the best regular-season record in the CFL, but lost the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Stamps swept the season series against the Lions, winning 35-23 at McMahon in mid-September and 28-7 in the regular-season finale at BC Place.
As for the charming and quotable Bell, he has been a fixture in the Stampeders secondary, starting all 18 games, 17 of them at safety. He helped the Calgary defence lead the CFL in fewest points allowed (290) and fewest touchdown passes allowed (22).
Defensively, the Stamps had a metronomic consistency. "We don't have those snowball games where we catch five interceptions and run them back and we're cheering and doing backflips and stuff like that," Bell said. "We just come out there and slap you in the mouth and make you lay down. We just beat you. We keep doing the same things from the first to the fourth quarter. No matter what the score is, you're going to get the hammer."
Because the Stampeders didn't roll over opponents the way they did a year ago, the perception is they could be vulnerable here against the Lions – in a loser-goes-home scenario with the unpredictable November weather conditions, the theory goes, anything can happy. The Stampeders are taking nothing for granted.
"We haven't been blowing teams out," quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell acknowledged. "We've been grinding out wins because we've had too – and that's more impressive to me because that's what playoff football is going to be.
"[The Lions'] offence has been hot lately, ever since they got [QB] Jonathon [Jennings]. He's been creating confidence in that offence, and their defence builds off it too. If you can get that short field position, you feel like you're going to score. We know we have a tough game coming up. It's going to be a dogfight. Records don't mean anything now, and we know that. It's about the man across from you and playing better than him."
Mitchell, a finalist for the most-outstanding player award, started every game except the meaningless regular-season finale against the Lions. He led the West in completions (364), passing yards (4,551), touchdowns (26) and quarterback rating (96.8).
But, using basketball terms, Mitchell said the credit "starts with the guys putting together that game plan. They've got to choose our ratio every week. They've got to choose our lineup. I'm just a facilitator, a point guard. You all tell me who's going to be shooting threes, who's going to be down there low for me and I'll get them the ball."
One of the key factors will be how Mitchell facilitates the running game, which Jerome Messam joined in a deadline-day trade with Saskatchewan and has had enough time to learn the Stamps' playbook. In total, Messam ran for more than 1,000 yards this season, one of only three CFL running backs to do so. His average of 6.2 yards per carry was tops among all running backs.
According to Mitchell, the team's 14-4 record happened "because we have guys who buy into exactly what we're supposed to do. No one is selfish on this team. They all know – you're not going to get the ball every single game. We're going to spread the ball around, confuse that other team and make it tough on them."
What Bell likes most about playing for the Stamps is their professionalism.
"They don't crack the whip on us or kill us every day," he said. "We're treated like men here, like professionals – come to work, do your job. The coaches don't have to get on us about small things – we get on each other. We don't just play X's and O's. We're not just puppets on a string. We actually give feedback to the coaches and they listen to us."
"This is like football heaven to me," Bell added. "We actually take ownership of what we do. It's the culture here – there's a certain standard to meet, there's a certain air we have about us. We do not expect to lose. We could be down 21 points at a certain point in the game, but we still do not believe we're going to lose."