When it comes to greatest ever arguments — be it players or teams — there’s always sure to be heated debate.
That’s part of the appeal.
Some people base arguments purely on stats. Others focus on the number in the win column. Some consider how wins were earned. Others are only concerned with the ultimate sign of success — a championship.
There’s also the question of comparing different eras and how the rules of the game have evolved through the decades.
Given the league’s rich history and the thousands of talented players who have suited up for professional three-down football, whittling down the Grey Cup winning rosters to crown one team as the greatest ever is no easy endeavour.
Nevertheless, here is my attempt to do so. Before I name our ultimate title holder, I’ll be listing runner ups and demonstrating why, in my opinion, they fall short of the title of “Best CFL team ever.” Each candidate below is a Grey Cup winner, but — as fans are quick to point out — not all championships are equal.
Please note that for the purposes of this piece, I’ve considered all pro teams from the 107 years the Grey Cup has been awarded, including those from before the foundation of the modern day CFL in 1958.
The 2014 Calgary Stampeders
Regular season record: 15-3
John Hufnagel’s second-to-last season as a head coach was a memorable one. His offence — led by quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell — had their way with opposing defences, averaging 28.3 points per game. On the defensive side of the ball, all-star defensive backs Brandon Smith and Jamar Wall helped Calgary limit opponents to 19.2 points per game.
Not only did the Stamps record nine wins of 10-plus points in the regular season, but that dominance carried over into the post-season as Calgary routed the Edmonton Eskimos to the tune of 43-18 in the West Final.
What holds the 2014 team back from being named the greatest of all-time is that they were a questionable block in the back away from losing the Grey Cup. The best team ever doesn’t eke out a 20-16 win in the championship game.
The 1981 Edmonton Eskimos
Regular season record: 14-1-1
There’s no denying that the 1981 Eskimos squad was a powerhouse. Coming off three straight Grey Cup wins, the Eskimos crushed their regular season opponents. Not only did Edmonton rack up 14 wins, but each victory was by at least a margin of 10 points and six were by at least 20 points.
With Warren Moon under centre, Edmonton’s attack averaged 36 points per game while the defence — featuring six all-stars including Danny Kepley, the CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player — held opponents to just 17.3 points per game.
But for all their regular season dominance, the Eskimos playoff performances weren’t convincing. In the West Final against the B.C. Lions, Edmonton trailed until deep in the fourth quarter when Moon finally hit all-star receiver Brian Kelly for the go-ahead score with just over five minutes remaining in the game.
On paper, the Grey Cup match-up against the 5-11 Ottawa Rough Riders was the biggest mismatch in league history. But instead of cruising to victory, the Eskimos trailed 20-1 at half-time and were extremely fortunate to be on the right side of a flag that’s been called exactly once in pro football history.
A double pass interference call on Ottawa’s Tony Gabriel with four minutes left in the game wiped out a second down conversion that would have set the Rough Riders up at midfield. Instead the Eskimos received the punt, chewed the clock and kicked the game-winning field goal with three seconds left to win their fourth consecutive title.
Although dominant, the best team in CFL history does not squeak by in the West Final and then need a once-in-the-history-of-a-sport call to win the Grey Cup.
The 1995 Baltimore Stallions
Regular season record: 15-3
Fresh-off losing the 1994 Grey Cup, the Stallions entered the 1995 season with revenge on their mind. Things began the way the previous year ended, though, with Baltimore losing their season opener to the Lions by a field goal yet again.
The rest of the regular season went smoother for the Stallions. Led by veteran quarterback Tracy Ham in the air and a young Mike Pringle on the ground, the Stallions’ attack averaged 30 points per game, winning by 10-plus points six times. Their defence featured four all-stars and held opponents to an average of 20.5 points per game.
Although the Stallions went on to win the Grey Cup — earning victories in the final 13 games they played in 1995 — they can’t be crowned the greatest team of all-time for one simple reason.
The best team in the CFL’s 107-year history doesn’t lose to an expansion team, and the Stallions did. Despite playing at home in Week 7, the Stallions fell 25-15 to a Memphis Mad Dogs team in their inaugural (and only) season.
The 2009 Montreal Alouettes
Regular season record: 15-3
You want to talk about a complete team? This Marc Trestman squad was loaded, boasting 10 all-stars, including a clean sweep of the special teams awards: kicker (Damon Duval), punter (Damon Duval) and returner (Larry Taylor).
Hall of Famer Anthony Calvillo was slinging passes to a receiving corps that consisted of Ben Cahoon, Kerry Watkins and Jamel Richardson, who all recorded 80-plus receptions. A young S.J. Green was an afterthought in an attack that averaged 33.3 points per game.
The Alouettes didn’t just win games in 2009, they crushed their opponents, winning by 10-plus points 12 times and 20-plus points eight times.
The defence — led by veterans such as John Bowman, Keron Williams, Anwar Stewart, and Chip Cox — limited opposing teams to 18 points per game.
Montreal went into the playoffs hot and continued rolling against the visiting Lions in the East Final, cruising to a 56-18 victory. All of their success came to a screeching halt in the Grey Cup, as the Alouettes never led in the championship game but still earned the win thanks to a Saskatchewan counting error.
After Duval pushed the game-winning kick wide right with no time on the clock, a flag for having too many men on the field gave him a shot at redemption. Given a second chance, he nailed a 33-yard field goal, giving the Alouettes a 28-27 win and salvaging an otherwise impressive Montreal season.
If not for their poor Grey Cup showing, this could could have been the best CFL team of all time, but the greatest squad doesn’t need a 13th man to help them steal a ring.
The 1948 Calgary Stampeders
Regular season record: 12-0
As the only undefeated team in CFL history, you had to know this Calgary group was making an appearance somewhere on the list. Some might argue that by virtue of being undefeated the 1948 squad is automatically the greatest of all time, but no so fast.
Although the team never lost, they didn’t exactly dominate their opponents. Despite averaging 18.1 points per game on offence while only conceding five points per game, five of Calgary’s regular season wins came by a single score, with three being by a single point. On the other hand, they did win seven games by at least 10 points and recorded two shutouts.
In the playoffs, they tied the Regina Roughriders 4-4 in the first leg of the Western Interprovincial Football Union (WIFU) Final, before cruising to a 17-6 victory in the second game to earn a Grey Cup berth.
In the Grey Cup, they beat the Ottawa Rough Riders by a score of 12-7, with the winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter being set up following an Ottawa fumble that the Rough Riders did not react to, thinking the play had been blown dead.
Even if all the 1948 Stampeders did was win, it was rarely in convincing fashion. The best CFL team of all time leaves no room for doubt. The 1948 Calgary team was certainly special, but not the best ever.
The 1997 Toronto Argonauts
Regular season record: 15-3
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the greatest CFL team of all time was led by the greatest quarterback of all time as he had one of the best seasons of his career.
In 1997, everything Doug Flutie touched turned to gold. The league’s Most Outstanding Player completed 63.9 percent of his passes for 5,505 yards and 47 touchdowns, while rushing for 542 yards and five scores.
But the 1997 Argos were not a one-man show, as demonstrated by the fact that 10 of Flutie’s teammates earned all-star nominations, including Mike Kiselak (Outstanding Offensive Lineman) and Derrell Mitchell (Outstanding Rookie).
Toronto’s offence averaged 36.6 points per game while their defence gave up 18.1 per game. The Argos won by 10-plus points 11 times, with nine of those victories being by 20-plus points. Even when they didn’t win, the Argos still put up impressive numbers. They never lost a game by more than a single score and generated 35 and 38 points in two of their three losses.
In the post-season, the Argos outgunned the Alouettes 37-30 to win the East Final and book a berth in the Grey Cup against Saskatchewan. After an opening drive Paul McCallum field goal gave Saskatchewan a 3-0 lead early in the first quarter, Flutie and the Argos responded with a touchdown, took the lead and never looked back, cruising to a 47-23 victory.
The 1997 Argos are the single best CFL team to ever take the field because they simply left no room for doubt. They dominated on both sides of the ball and, when the stakes were highest, elevated their play to seal their magical season with a championship.
There have been 107 Grey Cup winning rosters in the history of Canadian pro football, but none were as special or as good as the 1997 Toronto Argonauts.