Football players are the ultimate creatures of habit – tied to a rest-practice-play routine that rarely varies from week to week. It's what makes Sunday's CFL's West Division final between the Calgary Stampeders and B.C. Lions such a curious and intriguing anomaly.
The Stampeders haven't played a meaningful down of football since Oct. 10, when they defeated the Toronto Argonauts at McMahon Stadium to clinch first place in the West.
They had a scheduled bye in the final week of the season, a bye in the first round of the playoffs and a number of starters, including quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, received the day off in the regular-season finale against the Montreal Alouettes.
It means that when the Stampeders take the field Sunday afternoon, with a berth in the Grey Cup on the line, it will be 41 days between games that matter. The man in charge of finding the correct balance between rest and rust is Stampeders coach Dave Dickenson, who insisted his primary concern wasn't the extended layoff.
"The biggest challenge for us is B.C.," Dickenson said. "When you have time off, it's good for certain things. You feel fresh. But football is scheduled and guys like knowing what comes next. They got away from it for a while, which was nice.
"We are still working and progressing with some of the small details of our plan, but I'm confident we'll get it right."
The Stampeders (15-2-1) are playing a 12-6 Lions team in a matchup of the two best regular-season teams in the CFL. The Lions advanced to the West final with a dramatic 32-31 victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers last weekend. The Stampeders won two of their three games against the Lions, dropping the season opener at B.C. Place, before rebounding with a 44-41 overtime victory at McMahon in Week 6 and a 37-9 away win in Week 9.
In all, Calgary lost just twice this season – the first and last games of the season. Had it won in Montreal, it would have finished with the best regular-season record in CFL history.
But Mitchell, who sat out that game for precautionary reasons, believes regular-season records matter little compared with the larger goal of winning a Grey Cup.
"I know guys were disappointed in not getting the record, but it wasn't in our mind," Mitchell said. "Our objective was to focus on playing winning football. Going over these last couple of weeks that we've actually had off, I mean, it's been great to get your mind and body straight and get ready to go. I love how Dave did the schedule.
"The three days we came in [last week], we knocked all the rust off. There was a missed pass here and there. We came out yesterday and today and I feel like we've been firing. I feel like offensively we're firing on all cylinders. Defensively, I know the defence needs to see a full-speed look. All in all, I think we look pretty darn good."
If anyone understands how to overcome a long layoff in the midst of a football season, it might be DaVaris Daniels, the Stampeders' first-year wide receiver and the CFL's West Division nominee for rookie of the year. Back in January of 2013, Daniels played for Notre Dame in the BCS national championship game, a mere 44 days after the Fighting Irish wrapped up their regular season.
Notre Dame ultimately lost the title to Alabama, but Daniels had one of his finest college performances, catching six passes for 115 yards.
"For me, if the game is important to you, you will do something little just to keep your mind focused on the game while you're away," said Daniels, a Chicago native who had a chance to celebrate the Cubs World Series' at Wrigleyville during the Stampeders' extended break.
"Timing, once you have it, it's kinda easy to get back, once you get back in the groove and get a couple of practices under your belt. Contact is probably the main thing – being able to brace yourself for hits and bounce back from them, especially in the cold weather like this. I'm from Chicago, so I'm used to the cold, but this is a different kind of cold. It sticks with you a little bit."
Daniels became a fixture at receiver after the Stamps lost Eric Rogers to the NFL, but he didn't make his CFL debut until Aug. 19 after spending eight weeks on the Stampeders' practice roster to start the season. In the end, Daniels finished second on the team in receptions (51) and receiving yards (885); and was fifth overall in the league with nine TD catches. The CFL suited him, once he settled in.
"As a receiver, you love it," Daniels said. "It's a passing league. It forces you to have your endurance and conditioning up. As a rookie, there was a learning curve for me. I like the rules. I think it's a little more entertaining actually. There's a lot going on. I like it."