Stampeders’ Dave Dickenson: decision to bench Bo Levi Mitchell was ‘coach move’ despite year of front office talk

Photo: Larry MacDougal/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

Calgary Stampeders’ head coach Dave Dickenson recently added general manager to his title but insists he wasn’t thinking like one when deciding to bench veteran quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell last season.

“I think it was still a coach move,” Dickenson told 3DownNation at the CFL winter meetings, though he admitted the topic of a QB change was not a new conversation.

“I knew this ball was rolling. [Then-GM John Hufnagel] and I had been talking about it for about a year, so I knew there was potential that it could happen. You just don’t get ahead of yourselves too far because in this world, as soon as you think you got the following year figured out, there’s problems.”

Dickenson’s choice to pull his 32-year-old signal-caller in Week 11 set a new trajectory for the franchise, handing the reigns to 25-year-old Jake Maier as the quarterback of the future. The move spelled the end of Mitchell’s time in Calgary, allowing the team to get both younger and cheaper at the position, but the man who pulled the trigger on an era of Stampeders’ history says he was only thinking as a coach at the time.

“That move, it was just one of those things. We were kind of in a rut and I felt like at the time I needed a spark to see what could happen and we ended up winning the game and ultimately, that’s the way the season went,” he explained.

“It was a big decision, a tough decision. There was a lot of thought into it — it wasn’t that it happened just at halftime. It had been kind of one of these things that I was thinking about but ultimately, I did need to make sure I put the team first.”

To that point in the year, Mitchell had completed 160-of-261 passes for 2,010 yards with nine touchdowns and six interceptions. After struggling with injuries for much of the previous two seasons, the future Hall of Famer was finally healthy but struggled to maintain the production level that the organization had become accustomed to.

Maier took over for the second half of the season, completing 207-of-277 passes for 2,389 yards with 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions. After taking over for Mitchell in relief several times in two seasons as the backup, he was signed to a two-year contract extension a month after unseating his teammate which included guaranteed money.

While front-office thinking may not have pushed him to make a change until it was necessary, the coach admits that other factors did ensure that the move to Maier was made permanent down the stretch.

“We kind of got into a deal with the salary cap and Jake had some escalators in his contract, and that was all through Huf,” Dickenson confessed. “I knew about them but once we went past a certain stage, we did make a decision that probably this is going to be Jake’s team moving forward.”

“That didn’t mean though that each week I wasn’t going to put the team in the best situation to try to win — that was my job.”

That was evident in the West Semi-Final when Maier was pulled late in the game after going 12-of-22 passing for 138 yards. Mitchell came off the bench to go 8-of-11 for 147 yards in the fourth quarter, looking like his vintage self while falling short of a heroic comeback.

The performance was enough to give some pundits pause as to whether the franchise was making the right choice behind centre. Dickenson had no such doubts however and was unsurprised by Mitchell’s success.

“I know Bo can play. I know he’s gonna have a good year wherever he goes and I’m happy that he played well,” Dickenson said. “I think we were trying to win a game and that’s the most important thing, trying to win games and we’re trying to take a step and get to the next week.”

Dickenson and his former quarterback have previously expressed a mutual interest in coaching together in the future but that will have to come after Mitchell has finished his career in another CFL city. The Stampeders traded his rights to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats two weeks after their playoff exit, though the two-time Most Outstanding Player has been vocal about his desire to test free agency in February and may sign elsewhere.

The Stampeders left the door open for Mitchell to explore a return during his 2022 exit meeting, but his coach was unsurprised to see that offer declined.

“One thing I wanted to make sure is that Bo understood we appreciate everything he’s done, we wish him well and that if he wanted to be part of our team, we could find a role for him,” Dickenson explained.

“The competitor he is and the talent he has, Bo wants to be the star and he wants to be the guy and he’s earned that and he should be that. Once that was relayed back and forth, it was best for our club to try to look for an option to try to get something back for him.”

Mitchell’s official departure puts the full job of being the unquestioned starter onto Maier’s shoulders for the first time. While Dickenson credits both pivots with their professionalism in handling the switch, he notes that it did pose challenges for the guy taking over.

“Jake was in a tough spot because, obviously, Bo still had a lot of interaction in the locker room, giving away game balls. He still had guys’ ears,” he explained. “Jake wants to take a little bit more of that leadership role and yet the other guy is right there. Bo, on the other hand, he is chomping at the bit to get back in every game.”

Both players will get what they desire next season, albeit in different uniforms. With Maier entering his third season, the Stampeders will need to see him grow into the face of the franchise role while also improving on the field.

“Say what you want, we feel he’s done enough to show he will be successful,” Dickenson said. “But now, put it together for 18 games, put it together year after year. Those are all things Jake has to prove he can do.”

Justin Dunk is a football insider, sports reporter and anchor.