Struggling Stampeders seek turnaround, starting with Argonauts
CALGARY — The Calgary Stampeders have a mountain to climb in August starting with Friday's home game against the defending Grey Cup champion Toronto Argonauts.
The Stampeders will attempt to clamber out of their 2-5 hole on the backs of the top three teams in the CFL — the Argonauts, the B.C. Lions, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Argos again in that order — before the end of the month.
"It's probably going to be one of the more difficult stretches of our season," Calgary quarterback Jake Maier said. "We knew that since the off-season and it's here now."
The Argonauts arrive with a 6-0 record for the first time since 1935.
Maier's Toronto counterpart Chad Kelly, who finished out last year's Grey Cup victory for the injured McLeod Bethel-Thompson, has been a model of efficiency in 2023.
The 29-year-old carries a 70 per cent completion rate, a 255-yard passing average, eight touchdown throws and just four interceptions into Friday.
Toronto's strong finish in 2022 and Kelly's performance in relief in the championship game set the stage for a hot start to 2023, said Argonauts coach Ryan Dinwiddie.
"The way Chad performed at the end built some confidence in himself and also in the football locker room," Dinwiddie said. "Those guys really understand the stage is not too big for him.
"And then I think our guys started understanding what it took for us to get there and it really changed our culture. The last nine games of last season and the first six now are really similar."
Six of Calgary's seven games this season were late decisions and they're 2-4 in those games.
"It really doesn't matter the opponent right now it," Stampeders head coach Dave Dickenson said. "It doesn't because we've got to be better and our playmakers have to find ways to make plays, so that we have a better chance at the end, to be ahead, win games, rather than just send them to overtime."
The Stampeders also want to end an unwanted streak at McMahon Stadium where they're 0-3 for the first time since 2004.
"They've got to get that fixed and I trust they will," said Dinwiddie, who was Calgary's quarterbacks coach from 2015 to 2020. "I still feel like they're a very good football team. They're much better than their record."
The Stampeders are coming off a pair of near misses starting with a 43-41 overtime loss — Calgary's second straight OT loss at home — to the Ottawa Redblacks in Week 7.
The gift of an Alouettes' roughing-the-passer major put Calgary's offence in the red zone with 30 seconds to play Sunday in Montreal.
There was the potential for OT or a win depending on a converted touchdown, but Maier couldn't connect with a receiver in the end zone for a TD in a 25-18 loss.
Maier leads the CFL in passing yards this week (1,928) after averaging 340 in his last three games. Calgary's quarterback also leads the league in interceptions (11).
"Jake, you know, he's improving. He really is. He's making some good throws, he's moving around well in the pocket, he's got command of the huddle," Dickenson said.
"He needs to make sure we reserve the right to punt if it's not there. Maybe the other thing for me if it's not clean and he feels like he's broke the pocket, he has the right to run to get those four, five, six yards or more.
"We have to be better but the main thing is taking away that catastrophic play that seems to bite us when we look back at the game."
Calgary's averaged just 56 rushing yards per game in its last three and Maier may take to the air again Friday.
Ka'Deem Carey, the CFL's leading rusher last season, remains out with a toe injury sustained in the season-opener. Running back Derek Mills didn't practice this week because of illness, but is tabbed to start Friday.
The Argonauts have few weaknesses offensively or defensively, but one crack in their armour is defending the pass.
Toronto ranks last in the league in that category, although the defence compensates by being the best in forcing turnovers (22) and interceptions (14).
"Bend, don't break. We get turnovers, but I think we've given up too many yards passing," Dinwiddie said.
"One thing I'd say defensively, we haven't stopped a team when they're in their own end. When we have them backed up inside the 10, let's keep them down there. Teams have been able to flip field position on us quite a bit."
The Stampeders had just one full practice Wednesday following Sunday's loss to the Alouettes in Montreal, because of travel and a day off.
The Argonauts had a longer break, but more travel from Halifax to Toronto, and Toronto to Calgary, after Saturday's 31-13 win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Touchdown Atlantic.
"A lot of people don't understand the elevation can get to you a little bit," Dinwiddie said. "It's also long travel, a five-hour flight, so we have a lot of work to do to get it done."
A respiratory ailment has run through the Stampeders, with Dickenson among those afflicted Thursday.
"I'm the least important guy," the coach quipped. "It does concern me because of keeping your wind and feeling like you can run.
"It's caught us a bit, but our guys will be ready to go."
— With files from Dan Ralph in Toronto
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 3, 2023.