Every championship story requires a loser, and sometimes those losers were championship-calibre squads in their own right, but happened to come up short on the wrong day.
Recently, I wrote a piece on the greatest CFL team of all-time. As much fun as it was to write and rank Grey Cup champions it got me thinking about the flip side.
One of the best things about football is that any team can win on any given day. Nothing is certain and players on championship teams are often just a play or two away from spending the rest of their lives wondering, ‘What if?’
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the best CFL teams to not win a Grey Cup.
Much like the Blitzkrieg that sparked World War II and overwhelmed Germany’s opposition, Ottawa’s ‘Tank Corps’ (as they were nicknamed) smashed their way through every CFL opponent they lined up against, rolling to a 5-1 regular season record while scoring 146 points and conceding only 44.
In the playoffs, the Rough Riders dominated their two-game IRFU (Interprovincial Rugby Football Union) Final against the Argos, sweeping them 11-0 and 28-6 to book their spot in the 27th Grey Cup (known then as the Dominion Football Championship) against the Winnipeg Blue Blue Bombers.
Heavy snowfall in the days preceding the game and an attempt to unthaw the field using gasoline and fire resulted in a field that was a giant crater of semi-frozen mud. The 11,738 fans packed into Lansdowne Park were treated to some truly horrendous football. Winnipeg punted 18 times to Ottawa’s 17 and the two teams combined for a total of 10 first downs.
In the last minute of the game, Ottawa quarterback Orville Burke (who doubled as Ottawa’s kick returner) attempted to avoid conceding a rouge as he fielded a punt in his own end zone by punting the ball away and back to Winnipeg.
Unfortunately for Rough Rider fans, he slipped, and the ball went off the side of his foot and sailed out at Ottawa’s eight-yard line. Winnipeg took over and a few plays later, kicked a punt through the end zone to win the Grey Cup with a rouge, 8-7.
The 1971 Toronto Argonauts
This Argo squad had to make this list if only because there’s a documentary crowning them as the greatest team to never win a Grey Cup.
Led by head coach Leo Cahill, the 1971 Argos ended the regular season atop the East Division with a 10-4 record.
Their attack included quarterback Joe Theismann (2,440 yards and 17 touchdowns), a two-headed rushing monster consisting of Leon McQuay (977 yards and five touchdowns) and Bill Symons (418 yards and two touchdowns) and receiver Mel Profit (who averaged 18.6 yards per catch).
On the opposite side of the ball, Toronto was stout defensively, amassing 30 interceptions and recovering 17 fumbles. Dick Thornton, a hybrid DB/RB/REC led all Argos with seven picks.
After years of playoff misery, Toronto punched their ticket to their first Grey Cup appearance in 19 years by beating their rivals (Hamilton Tiger-Cats) in a two-game East Final series (winning the first game 23-8 and tying the second leg 17-17).
Despite being widely acknowledged as the best in league, much like the 1939 Rough Riders, inclement weather did the 1971 Argos no favours.
Pouring rain meant a slick field and Toronto trailed 14-3 at halftime. A fourth quarter rally made the score 14-11 and when Thornton intercepted a Jerry Keeling pass and returned it to Calgary’s 12-yard line. The Argos looked in position to go-ahead for good but on the ensuing handoff, McQuay slipped on the turf, fumbled the ball and Toronto’s best shot at a Grey Cup title since 1952 slipped away.
Calgary held on to win their first Grey Cup since 1948.
The 1989 Edmonton Football Team
In the franchise’s 40th season, almost everything went right for the ’89 squad. They regularly lit up scoreboards as they went on to score the most touchdowns in a single CFL season (70) and generated the most offensive yards in a season (7,951 yards).
Quarterback Tracy Ham was named the league’s MOP and on top of throwing for 4,366 yards and 30 touchdowns, he set a quarterback rushing record, running for 1,005 yards and another 10 touchdowns.
Defensively, Edmonton forced 37 interceptions, notched 55 sacks and recovered 28 fumbles on their way to allowing the fewest points against in an 18-game season (302).
The ’89 team also made history as the first (and only) CFL team to win 16 games in a season. Heading into the playoffs, Edmonton was riding a seven-game winning streak.
And yet their season came to an abrupt halt in the West Final. For a team that was so loaded, it’s almost beyond comprehension that they failed to even make the Grey Cup.
In fact, Edmonton’s only loss at Commonwealth in 1989 was their 32-21 defeat in the West Final to a scrappy Saskatchewan team that went on to win the Grey Cup.
The 1994 Calgary Stampeders
Unfortunately for Calgary fans, there were a handful of 15-3 teams from the ’90s that could’ve made this list, but I ended up settling on the 1994 squad.
Offensively, the team was a juggernaut. Quarterback Doug Flutie was in his prime, throwing for 5,726 yards and 48 touchdowns while rushing for another 760 yards and eight scores on the ground. Running back Tony Stewart rushed for 1,120 yards and 14 touchdowns. Receiver Allen Pitts hauled in 126 passes for 2,036 yards (a single-season CFL record) and 21 touchdowns. No wonder the ’94 Stampeders set the CFL record for most points in a season with 698.
Defensively, Calgary was just a good, conceding only 355 points. Calgary forced 30 interceptions (Greg Knox led the way with 10), generated 59 sacks (Will Johnson had a team-high 17) and recovered 20 fumbles.
In the playoffs, the Stampeders made short work of Saskatchewan in the West Semi-Final, crushing them 36-3 to book a date in the West Final against the B.C. Lions.
On a frigid and snowy Sunday afternoon, in the last minute of a back and forth game, a touchdown caught by Lions’ receiver Darren Flutie (Doug’s brother) with no time on the clock ended Calgary’s season in shocking fashion and gave B.C. a 37-36 win.
The 2001 Winnipeg Blue Bombers
Apologizes to fellow 3DownNation teammate John Hodge for bringing this up because I know he’s still not entirely over this team.
The 2001 Winnipeg Blue Bombers were simply in a class of their own. Not only did they finish the regular season with the league’s best record at 14-4 and enjoy a 12-game winning streak that only ended when they chose to rest their starters, but they also boasted eight all-stars and cleaned up at the CFL Awards.
Quarterback Khari Jones won Most Outstanding Player, defensive lineman Doug Brown took home Most Outstanding Canadian, Dave Mudge was named the Most Outstanding Lineman, Charles Roberts won the Most Outstanding Special Teams Award and Dave Ritchie earned Coach of the Year honours.
The ’01 Bombers were lethal offensively, putting up 509 points thanks to strong contributions from Jones, Roberts, Eric Blount, Milt Stegall, Bob Gordon and Arland Bruce III. Defensively, Winnipeg mustered 24 interceptions, 33 sacks and recovered 14 fumbles while conceding just 383 total points.
After cruising to a 28-13 win over Hamilton in the East Final, the Bombers met an 8-10 Calgary team in the Grey Cup. Unfortunately for Winnipeg, all their regular season dominance counted for naught, as Wally Buono’s squad used a 17-point second quarter to build up a lead they’d never concede, hanging on for a 27-19 victory.
The 2004 Montreal Alouettes
Much like the Stampeders in the ’90s, early millennium Montreal had multiple candidates for this list. But what sets the ’04 team apart from the other early-2000s Alouettes teams that came up short is failing to even make it to the Grey Cup game after a 14-4 regular season.
In 2004, Hall of Fame quarterback Anthony Calvillo threw for a career-high 6,041 yards as Montreal became the first team in CFL history to feature four 1,000-yard receivers (Ben Cahoon, Jermaine Copeland, Kwame Cavil and Thyron Anderson). The Alouettes averaged 32.4 points per game as their offence ran roughshod over the rest of the league.
Defensively, Montreal recorded 30 interceptions, 48 sacks and recovered 20 fumbles as they conceded an average of 20.6 points per game.
The ’04 team boasted six all-stars (four on offence, two on defence) yet were one and done in the playoffs, failing to overcome a shoulder injury that forced Calvillo to miss the second half of the East Final, falling 26-18 to the Argos.
The 2016 Calgary Stampeders
It’s not hyperbolic to say that if the 2016 Stampeders had won the Grey Cup, they’d be considered one of the best teams in league history.
Calgary was in a league of their own with a 15-2-1 regular season record, which included a CFL single-season record 14 consecutive wins.
Head coach Dave Dickenson maximized the talent on his roster, as evidenced by nine CFL all-star selections which included Bo Levi Mitchell, Jerome Messam, Derek Dennis, Spencer Wilson, Micah Johnson, Charleston Hughes, Tommie Campbell, Ciante Evans and Jamar Wall.
The Stampeders also cleaned up at the CFL Awards with Mitchell named Most Outstanding Player, Messam as Most Outstanding Canadian, Dennis as Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman and Dickenson as Coach of the Year.
In the playoffs, Calgary easily punched its Grey Cup ticket, manhandling the B.C. Lions 42-15 in the West Final. Regrettably for Stamps fans, an 8-9-1 Ottawa team proved too much to handle in the championship game.
Calgary’s best efforts overcame a 20-point deficit to force extra time, but Hall of Fame quarterback Henry Burris had saved the best game of his career for his last, leading Ottawa to a 39-33 overtime victory with a five-touchdown performance.
The 2019 Hamilton Tiger-Cats
Ticats’ fans have been longing for a return to Grey Cup glory since 1999 and for most of 2019 it seemed like they finally had the team to make it happen.
In his first season at the helm of the franchise, rookie head coach Orlondo Steinauer led his team to a spectacular 15-3 record, the most regular season wins in franchise history.
It wasn’t only that Hamilton was winning games, but it was how they were doing it that was so impressive. Nearly every game they took the field, the Ticats were better than their opponents in all three phases of the game. They were amongst the league’s most dangerous offences and boasted the stingiest defence, notching 52 sacks, 22 interceptions, 14 forced fumbles and surrendering an average of 19.1 points per game.
Given that the 2019 team boasted nine CFL all-stars including the Most Outstanding Player (receiver Brandon Banks), Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman (Chris Van Zeyl), Best Special Teamer (Frankie Williams) and Coach of the Year (Orlando Steinauer), it was no surprise to see them coast to a Grey Cup appearance.
After thrashing the crossover Edmonton Football Team 36-16 in the East Final, Hamilton was heavily favoured against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, their Grey Cup opponent.
What makes their Grey Cup loss so shocking is that Hamilton wasn’t just beaten — they were dominated by three touchdowns. Losing Banks to a leg injury in the third quarter didn’t help, but ultimately the Ticats seemed a step behind the Bombers all game long as Winnipeg owned the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.