Stolen titles: five worst teams to win the Grey Cup in the last 35 years

Photo: Arthur Ward/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

Winning a championship in sports is an amazing accomplishment but sometimes, especially in football, the best team doesn’t always come out on top.

We can go down the list in the NFL of teams, like the 2007 New England Patriots or 1998 Minnesota Vikings, that had record-shattering regular seasons only to come away empty-handed at the end of the season and fall to lesser opponents in the playoffs. Awesome NBA teams like the 2016 Golden State Warriors, 2011 Miami Heat or the 2004 Los Angeles Lakers all cruised through the regular season only to come up short.

The CFL is no different and in the 35 seasons since the league adopted an 18-game schedule, we have seen a few shocking results in the Grey Cup game. Nothing as shocking as a five-win Ottawa Rough Riders team nearly ending Edmonton’s dynastic run in 1981 — Ottawa was up 20-1 at halftime on an Edmonton team that went 14-1-1 in the regular season — but we have seen our fair share of surprising Grey Cup outcomes.

This past year’s Grey Cup was no different, as the 15-3 Winnipeg Blue Bombers fell to the 11-7 Toronto Argonauts. However, not even the most diehard Argos hater would dare claim that this year’s Toronto team was one of the league’s worst champions.

There have been some truly bad teams to win a Grey Cup; teams that even their own fan bases would probably look at and go, “Yeah, we probably shouldn’t have won that one.” While no team that goes through the crucible that is the regular season and playoffs to win a championship is unworthy of being champions, there are a few that make you raise your eyebrows.

Here is my list of the five worst teams to win the Grey Cup in the CFL’s 18-game era.

Photo courtesy: Ottawa Redblacks

5. 2016 Ottawa Redblacks
Result: Beat Calgary 39-33 in overtime

Of the “bad” teams to win a championship since the CFL began playing an 18-game schedule, the 2016 version of the Ottawa Redblacks is the best one. They finished atop the East Division in 2016 with a pathetic 8-9-1 record but they did so while being led by a Hall of Fame quarterback in Henry Burris, who had won Most Outstanding Player the year prior while leading Redblacks to a Grey Cup berth in just their second year of existence.

Ottawa had a good roster in 2016, both offensively and defensively, but they struggled in no small part due to an injury Burris suffered in their first game of the season in Edmonton. With the East Division being in shambles, the Redblacks had no reason to improve and winning the division with a sub-.500 record was not all that surprising.

The reason Ottawa is fifth is that while this season’s team might have not been all that good, the franchise as a whole at that time was. The Redblacks finished 12-6 in 2015 and made the Grey Cup, ultimately losing a close contest to Edmonton; they finished with the same 8-9-1 record in 2017 and made the playoffs; and they capped a somewhat incredible four-year run in 2018 by winning the East with an 11-7 record and making their third Grey Cup appearance in four years. For a team that came back into existence in 2014, that stretch of play is impressive and one of those teams winning a championship is not egregious.

Had a couple of bounces gone their way the year prior, the 2016 title could have been the Redblacks’ second championship team in a row. Ottawa narrowly lost to Edmonton the year prior but they were in that game until the end and could have easily won that Grey Cup as well.

A down year makes the 2016 Redblacks one of the worst teams record-wise to win a title, but they are nowhere close to being amongst the absolute worst when you take their entire résumé from 2015-2018 into account.

Photo courtesy: B.C. Lions

4. 2000 B.C. Lions
Result: Beat Montreal 28-26

The 2000 B.C. Lions are the second of three under-.500 teams on this list.

The Lions that year were a bit of a train wreck. Their head coach at the beginning of the season resigned to work in the first incarnation of the XFL, which led the team to promote the recently hired Steve Buratto to head coach. Buratto had joined the organization just two weeks prior as the team’s receivers coach and was thrust into the top job before he probably knew a lot of people’s names.

The Lions would throttle the Argos in Buratto’s first game at the helm, but go on to lose six of their next eight, and the only reason they were still in the playoff hunt at all was because of how truly awful the Saskatchewan Roughriders were that season.

The Lions were bad but the CFL as a whole wasn’t great in the first year of the new millennium. Just three teams finished with records above .500 and no team won more than 12 games that season. The Lions would continue to make the playoffs over the next few years but did not win another playoff game until a 27-25 victory over the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the 2004 West Final. They would not win another Grey Cup until a 25-14 win over the Montreal Alouettes in 2006.

The Leos never fell to the depths of the other teams still left on this list but they were a truly unremarkable champion in one of the most unremarkable seasons the CFL has ever had.

Photo courtesy: Toronto Argonauts

3. 2017 Toronto Argonauts
Result: Beat Calgary 27-24

I gave serious consideration to putting the 2012 or the 2004 Argos on this list, as both teams were far from great, but the follow-up to the 2012 title saw Toronto finish first in the East, while the years before and after the ’04 triumph saw them make the playoffs six years in a row and the East Final five times.

The 2017 Argos, however, have a case to be called the flukiest team to win a championship in the Grey Cup’s illustrious history.

For starters, while the Argos finished atop the East in 2017, it was with a 9-9 record, and that season came sandwiched between a 5-13 mark in 2016 and a pair of 4-14 finishes in the two years that followed. While the 2017 team was decent, Toronto was one of the worst teams in the league over those four years.

The Boatmen won a horrible East Division in 2017 — the other three teams went a combined 17-36-1 and none of them finished above .500 — and the double blue had the fifth-best record in the league.

Toronto came close to being the first team to lose an East Final to a crossover opponent, narrowly defeating a decent Saskatchewan Roughriders squad in a four-point win to punch their ticket to what should have been a Grey Cup beatdown by the Calgary Stampeders. Instead, the Argos got their usual bounces and knocked off the Stamps 27-24 on a snowy field in Ottawa.

Photo courtesy: Saskatchewan Roughriders

2. 1989 Saskatchewan Roughriders
Result: Beat Hamilton 43-40

Newer fans might not know this but before their mid-2000s revival, the Saskatchewan Roughriders were mostly known for being bad. Like, really bad. Think Cleveland Browns or Detroit Lions bad.

Before 1989, the franchise had just one championship on its résumé, the 1966 triumph over the Ottawa Rough Riders. They also had just one winning season between 1977 and 1987, with zero playoff appearances to show for it. Things started looking up in 1988 when the Riders finished second in the West Division and had just their second winning season since making the 1976 Grey Cup, but nothing prepared anyone for what would happen the following season.

The green and white actually took a step back in 1989, finishing third with a 9-9 record and allowing more points than they scored, but they had one heck of a playoff run. It began with them dispatching the 10-8 Calgary Stampeders in the West Semi-Final, before taking down the 16-2 Edmonton Football Team in the West Final. It ended with them miraculously defeating the 12-6 Hamilton Tiger-Cats in an epic showdown that is still considered by many to be the greatest Grey Cup game of all time.

What those fuzzy memories can’t cover up is that the 1989 Roughriders caught lightning in a bottle. After their SkyDome triumph over Hamilton, the Riders didn’t win another playoff game until 1997, when another mediocre Riders squad made a run to the Grey Cup before getting crushed by the Doug Flutie-led juggernaut that was the Toronto Argonauts.

Between 1977 and 2001, the Riders won just five playoff games, all of them coming in two post-season runs. This was a horrible time for football in Saskatchewan and the Riders were a mostly horrible team, yet they somehow managed to squeak out a Grey Cup victory in the middle of all that mediocrity.

Photo courtesy:

1. 2001 Calgary Stampeders
Result: Beat Winnipeg 27-19

The Calgary Stampeders have been living the life of Riley over the last 30 years, with the team almost assured to win 10 or more games and always being a threat to make or win the Grey Cup. Their run from 1991 to the present day is truly remarkable. They have 12 Grey Cup appearances, six wins, have finished first in the West Division 14 times and have 25 seasons — yes, 25 seasons — of double-digit wins.

Over that span, the Stamps have had just five seasons with a losing record and have missed the playoffs just three times.

Four of those five losing seasons occurred between 2001 and 2004, which is the only truly awful era of Stampeders’ football since Terminator 2: Judgment Day was the No. 1 movie in the world.

What also occurred during an era that saw the team win just 23 games over a four-year period and never once finish above .500, was them winning a Grey Cup. If you ever needed proof that Wally Buono is one of the all-time best head coaches, then look no further than the 2001 Calgary Stampeders. The fact he won a title with that team is a true testament to his greatness.

After going from Doug Flutie to Jeff Garcia to Dave Dickenson, the latter two parlaying their success in Calgary to shots in the NFL, the 2001 Stamps were a shell of the team they were the previous 10 seasons. They never won more than two games in a row in 2001 and benefitted from a truly terrible West Division that had no teams finish with a record better than 9-9.

Yes, newer CFL fans, there was once a time when the East Division was the better of the two divisions.

The Stampeders somehow looked worse than their 8-10 record suggests and they finished with the worst record of the six playoff participants. Despite all that, the Stamps beat the Lions by nine in the West Semi-Final, drubbed Edmonton 34-16 in the West Final, and beat a generationally great Winnipeg team to improbably claim the franchise’s fifth Grey Cup title.

After their 2001 triumph, the Stamps’ slide would truly begin as they did not make the post-season again until 2005, didn’t win a playoff game again until 2008, and would cycle through three head coaches before finally handing the reigns to John Hufnagel in 2008.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The 2001 Calgary Stampeders were a truly awful team and had no business being in — let alone winning — the Grey Cup. They are, without question, the absolute worst team to win a CFL championship in the last 35 years and they may be the worst team to ever win a Grey Cup title, period.

Josh Smith has been writing about the Ticats and the CFL since 2010 and was sporting his beard way before it was cool. Will be long after, too.