It was CFL football at its most chaotic, a sloppy rollercoaster ride with a thrilling overtime finish, but it may not hold a candle to the uncertain future that comes after.
When Brett Lauther’s game-winning field goal split the uprights in extra time, it brought the Calgary Stampeders’ Grey Cup dreams to a sudden end. Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell called the loss “a mirror of the season” and if the metaphor continues, it may well mark the final chapter of their incredible dynasty.
That’s a refrain that’s been parroted by CFL prognosticators at the conclusion of every season for several years — never with any accuracy — but this year feels different. Never in this century has Calgary needed to scratch and claw their way into the post-season with a late surge like they did this year and now the question mark is at a spot on the roster not so easily reloaded and replaced: quarterback.
Indeed, 2021 marked the worst season of Mitchell’s career by a wide-margin. He was limited to 11 games due to a broken leg and the two-time Most Outstanding Player threw for 2,594 yards with 10 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
Just as Mitchell himself indicated, Sunday followed the trend, finishing 26-of-36 for 286 yards and two interceptions. The quarterback delivered another pedestrian outing in the biggest moment of the season. Not awful, but a far cry from the standard once set by the two-time Grey Cup MVP.
“He made a throw in the first half I want him to not ever make, but otherwise I was good with it,” head coach Dave Dickenson said post-game, providing a more balanced perspective on the outing.
“I love coaching Bo, I want Bo back, I trust Bo. Listen, some things happened, but he made some huge throws as well. It’s a game of how big are your mistakes and how crucial are your big plays? How many daggers can you throw at them? I don’t mind a mistake here or there if you can come back from it.”
At times the Stamps did come back, but they couldn’t complete the process and buried in that statement is an idea that would have once seemed ludicrous to consider: Mitchell may not be back in Calgary in 2022.
His current contract runs through next season at a base salary of $289,000, plus a $25,000 report and pass bonus and a $2,000 travel stipend, but the 31-year old is also due two $100,000 off-season bonuses, one each on January 15 and March 15. That brings his potential cap hit for next season to $516,000 and there is some question as to whether Mitchell remains worth it.
Rookie Jake Maier impressed the Stampeders in Mitchell’s absence and replaced the veteran in multiple games this season. A broader call to bench Bo in favour of the youngster bubbled in the fan base at times. And there would be some financial logic to general manager John Hufnagel moving on from the future Hall of Famer this off-season, but according to Dickenson, that isn’t where the uncertainty about Mitchell’s return stems from.
“It’s more on Bo’s plate, to be honest,” he insisted.
Over the course of the last two seasons, injuries have hampered Mitchell significantly. First a labral tear in his throwing shoulder in 2019 resulted in off-season surgery, then groin soreness cost him most of 2021 training camp, before he suffered a fractured fibula in a Week 1 loss to the Toronto Argonauts.
That last injury resulted in a career-worst four interception performance against the B.C. Lions the next week and a rushed return saw Mitchell pulled in embarrassing fashion against the Ticats in Week 7, but it was the surgically repaired shoulder that he indicated was irritating him in later weeks. At times the frustration was obvious and it now appears the quarterback faces a choice.
While he denied that retirement was on the table, Mitchell had less than his usual bravado post-game and admitted he would be taking some time to evaluate his body.
“I’m gonna take my time in the off-season just to make sure that I’m good, make sure my body’s right. I want to be the guy, I just want to be me,” Mitchell explained. “I’m gonna be back, I’m gonna do everything I can to get back and be a hundred percent and just come back stronger.”
The quarterback did not give any indication of what he would do if he couldn’t get back to feeling the way he was accustomed and allowed some of the emotions to boil over when asked to clarify his comments about not feeling like himself on the field.
“Did I look like myself?” He asked rhetorically, before softening. “There’s a lot behind the scenes with every athlete, every athlete is going through a lot of things — it’s not an excuse though.”
From Dickenson’s perspective, there is plenty of hope that Mitchell will be able to return refreshed next season, though far from any certainty.
“I thought Bo really found some of the enjoyment back in football and he was leading us out there. Made some huge throws, moving around against a great group, great d-line,” he said.
“I wanna coach Bo three, four, five more years. That means I got my job still, which is good, and I think Bo can do it, but you never know. What’s hard when you lose sometimes is everyone kind of has to reassess their life and where they’re at with things.”
It is clear that Mitchell will be one of those undergoing that process, while the Stampeders’ front office will also be making an assessment of their own. If the Bo Levi Mitchell era is to continue in Calgary, both will have to agree on a return and in the aftermath of a first round playoff exit, that does not appear to be a certainty any longer.