Heading into the 2023 regular-season finale against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, it was a familiar feeling for the Calgary Stampeders. A playoff spot was all locked up, and some key were players getting rest ahead of a playoff matchup next week,
The difference between this week and those of the past, however, was that the Stampeders had the chance to avoid tying the worst record for a playoff team in the 18-game era.
If you excuse the league’s US expansion years, where the then-Ottawa Rough Riders made the playoffs twice with records of 4-14 in 1993 and 1994, the worst record to qualify for postseason play in a purely Canadian league was the 1999 Edmonton Eskimos at 6-12.
If the Stampeders had been victorious, they would have joined nine other teams that got to the dance with 7-11 records and avoided joining their provincial rivals at the bottom of the pile.
Alas, it was not to be and the Stampeders would fall 36-13 to the Bombers, ending the first losing season in head coach and general manager Dave Dickenson’s entire career.
Here’s what I saw from the press box.
Awe over the place
Micah Awe came into this season with big aspirations.
“It’s a goal I set out at the beginning of the year. I wrote it down. I wanted to be the Most Outstanding Player. I didn’t get that, but I did get Most Outstanding Defensive Player.”
Awe flew around the field against the Bombers, finishing the game with 13 individual tackles.
“It may sound selfish, but the way I look at it is, Michael Jordan took a lot of shots. If he shot 48 times and made all 48, the Bulls were probably going to win,” Awe said. “If I have 13 tackles and I am 13-for-13, we probably won. Tonight that didn’t happen so I still have to make more tackles. There are two or three out there that I could have had.”
Awe finished the season with 134 total defensive tackles, the league’s third-highest total of all-time behind only Solomon Elimimian, who has the two highest totals of 143 and 144 tackles respectively.
Awe expected himself to be able to pile up stats in the Calgary defensive scheme that saw Alex Singleton, Darnell Sankey, and Jameer Thurman all produce massive totals.
“I’ve known this since 2017 when I saw Singleton play across from me,” Awe told reporters. “When I’m in a defence where I can use what I’m good at, which is speed, I can get to the ball and hit. I do that very well and I take pride in it because that’s down to effort and speed.”
Dave Dickenson praised his middle linebacker after the game.
“Micah has been a great leader, been a guy that’s helped us in our defensive fronts. He never gives up, he plays right to the whistle, plays short yardage and goes right over the top. I’m happy for him, because he is a good person too. He’s a guy that really takes football seriously.”
Maier takes care of the ball
Earlier in the season, Jake Maier was plagued by the interception bug. He threw eleven interceptions in his first seven games against eight touchdowns on 248 attempts.
Since then, the Stampeders quarterback has thrown 330 passes and been intercepted just four times, with eleven touchdowns on the other side of the ledger.
To make those numbers slightly easier to digest, in the first seven games Maier threw an interception 4.5 percent of the time, while in the last eleven games that dropped to 1.2 percent. The touchdown rate stayed pretty constant throughout at a season rate of 3.3 percent.
The drop in interceptions could bode well for the Stampeders as the season moves to the playoffs and ball security becomes even more important.
Maier only threw for 110 yards with six completions on fifteen attempts in the game, but the Stampeders went down the field frequently, albeit unsuccessfully.
Maiden score for Tucker
Cole Tucker was drafted in the first round of the 2023 CFL Draft with the knowledge that Jalen Philpot would be missing the entire year after suffering an injury in the offseason.
It’s safe to say that the expectations placed on his rookie season haven’t been met, given that Tucker has been in and out of the lineup and his draft-class compatriot Clark Barnes was nominated as the team’s Rookie of the Year candidate despite missing half the season with an injury of his own.
In this season-capping effort though, the rookie found the endzone for the first time, making a nice spin move to find paydirt. Tucker would also lead the team with 53 yards on a pair of catches that included the 32-yard score.
After the game, Tucker praised another Canadian teammate for helping him get into the endzone.
“I had a great block thrown by Luther (Hakunavanhu) and that’s the reason I scored. He was blocking downfield and really working for me.”
Mills makes the most of it
Dedrick Mills is in an interesting position as the team transitions into playoff mode.
Mills is the team leader in rushing yards and carries and yet he’s unlikely to be on the roster for the West Semi-Final a week from now.
With both Ka’Deem Carey and Peyton Logan healthy, Mills will likely be the odd man out. This is following an 11-carry performance for 88 yards against the Bombers, where half of his runs went for better than first-down yardage.
Earlier in the season, Peyton Logan was on the injured list and receiver Tommylee Lewis was returning kicks, which allowed for both Mills and Ka’Deem Carey to be on the roster and in the Stampeders’ backfield. From a performance standard, the two backs both have similar averages at 5.5 and 5.3 yards per carry, but where Carey stands out is as a pass catcher with 21 catches in his nine games, which matches Mills’ 21 in 14 games for slightly less yardage.
Logan’s ability to make explosive plays and return kicks makes him a must-have for the team, which will likely keep Mills sidelined.
Special teams rounding into form
The Bombers left many of their top players at home for this contest, but one of their undisputed starters made the trip in Janarion Grant.
Grant is a dynamic returner but was mostly bottled up by the Stampeders cover teams, a sharp contrast from earlier in the season when teams were finding touchdowns at an unusually high rate.
The Stampeders have allowed four return touchdowns this year, as many as Montreal, Edmonton, Hamilton, Toronto, and Winnipeg combined heading into this weekend’s action. They haven’t taken one to the house themselves either, the only team in the league not to do so in 2023.
The Stampeders have also been uncharacteristically middle of the pack when it comes to the average return yardage allowed, sitting fifth in both categories prior to kickoff.
But if the cover teams can continue their solid play of late and bottle up the returners of their potential playoff opponents, who knows what could happen?
Turn last week into this week
Given the backs-against-the-wall mentality that this team has had to carry during the last eight weeks of the season, there was an understandable lack of atmosphere at McMahon Stadium on an evening that featured a fairly healthy amount of snowfall on a game with no real stakes.
“You could tell the whole building didn’t have any energy,” Dickenson told reporters after the game. “It was one of those games where we couldn’t manufacture (energy) on our end, and couldn’t execute.”
Full credit has to go to the fans who didn’t abandon their endzone metal benches for the more comfortable seats in the middle of the field despite a wide range of options available.
After the game, more than one player expressed the mindset that the team may have finished 6-12 during the season but in the playoffs, they now reset to 0-0. That leads this reporter to believe that the team may have felt this game required less intensity than the ones over the last two weeks.
However, no matter what has befallen the team this year, they did keep the playoff streak alive, now at 18 years and counting.
There remains optimism as well given their recent results, beating the B.C. Lions in Vancouver by 31 points just a week ago. There is an anything-can-happen nature to the CFL playoffs once the snow starts to fly.
The West Semi-Final will kick off Saturday, November 4 at 6:30 p.m. EDT, and the team has a chance to wipe away all their disappointment with another win against the Lions.