Sports

Stampeders start an off-season of soul-searching in wake of Grey Cup loss

CALGARY — The Calgary Stampeders face a long winter thinking about the Grey Cup that got away.

On the same day the Ottawa Redblacks held their Grey Cup parade in the national capital, the Stampeders were still coming to grips with the reality it wasn't their parade.

"The last two nights of sleep have been waking up from plays going differently and thinking we still had a Grey Cup to go play and go win," quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell said Tuesday at McMahon Stadium.

Added offensive lineman Derek Dennis: "Still reliving plays in my head. Playing the woulda, coulda, shoulda game."

The heavy favourites lost the CFL's championship game 39-33 in overtime to the Redblacks on Sunday in Toronto.

The Stampeders were built to win in 2016 and mostly did with a 15-2-1 record, but not when it counted the most.

Calgary's defence gave up a season-high 534 yards and Mitchell threw three interceptions Sunday.

But the play under the microscope happened when Calgary, trailing by three points on their final drive of regulation, got to second and goal from the two-yard line.

Instead of Mitchell staying on the field to throw or run the ball in — or giving the ball to running back Jerome Messam for a second consecutive carry — coach Dave Dickenson put the ball in the hands of rookie quarterback Andrew Buckley.

The move wasn't without precedent as Buckley rushed for eight touchdowns in short-yardage situations during the season, and had just scored on a one-yard dash earlier in the fourth quarter.

But Buckley was tackled for a one-yard loss by Ottawa's Abdul Kanneh. Calgary kicked a field goal to tie the game, but lost in overtime.

"Monday morning quarterbacks operate when the play doesn't work. When the play works, it's forgotten," Dickenson said. "That one play will never define that game, but it certainly causes some regret."

Stampeder general manager John Hufnagel, who handed the coaching reins to Dickenson this year after eight seasons in the job, did not second-guess him.

"I've been in that position. I do truly understand the reason it was called," the GM said. "The only bad thing about the play was that it didn't work."

Mitchell said his post-game comments were edited to make it sound like he was critical of Dickenson's decision. Both he and Dickenson insisted Tuesday there wasn't friction between them.

"Dave knows I will always ride with him," the quarterback said. "He's one of the greatest coaches in this game.

"The ball was still in my hands in overtime. Just didn't finish."

Added Messam: "It was more than just the one play that put us in that position. You can't place any blame on coaches on anything like that. We just didn't show up. We just didn't win."

Why they didn't will be the talk of the CFL until 2017.

Calgary had dominated the B.C. Lions — the league's No. 2 team — in the West Division final just a week earlier. The Redblacks were an 8-9-1 team in the regular season.

"They looked faster than us. They looked more physical than us," receiver Marquay McDaniel said. "That's the part I don't understand.

"It's going to be a long year to try and get back to that point."

McDaniel is one of "25 or 26" Stampeders who will be free agents and many of them starters, according Hufnagel.

Dennis, winner of the CFL's offensive lineman award, CFL sack-leader Charleston Hughes, punter Rob Maver and kicker Rene Paredes are among them.

"This locker-room will be no where near the same next year," Mitchell said. "There's a lot of free agents not only in our locker-room, but in a lot of others. In a nine-team league, that's going to create a lot of change."

The Stampeders lost their chance to go down in history as one of the CFL's best teams ever. Mitchell will have a sour taste in his mouth when he thinks of 2016.

"I think we did great things, I think we did positive things, but in the end we lost to a sub .500 team in the Grey Cup," Mitchell said.