CALGARY — The Calgary Stampeders capped an uphill season with a valiant, but messy effort in a playoff exit. A healthier quarterback and more roster continuity is their goal for 2022.
"Nothing was easy. Nothing was smooth," head coach Dave Dickenson said Monday.
"Everything we did seemed to come at a cost, so that's why when you put that much investment into something, you kind of want a return on your investment and we were hoping to get more return in the playoffs."
Less than a day after a 33-30 overtime loss to the host Saskatchewan Roughriders in the West Division semifinal, Dickenson said the season felt laborious and isolating at times because of measures to keep the COVID-19 virus out of the dressing room.
The pandemic wiped out the 2020 CFL season. While Dickenson lauded the CFL for treating the pandemic with more caution than the NFL, the coach hopes for a return to more normalcy next year
"We want to have a feeling of camaraderie," Dickenson said. "We want to meet as a team, we want to have a chance to go have wings together. We want to do the things that make being part of a team, and a sport, special.
"I do believe 2022, we'll be there. This year was a grind. We did everything we could to keep this thing rolling and stay in our bubble."
A team that won three Grey Cups and played in three others between 2008 and 2018 was ousted in the West semifinal a second straight season.
Calgary (8-6-0) opened a CFL campaign shortened and delayed by the pandemic with a 2-5 record. The Stampeders rallied to win six of their last seven and finish third in the West.
Calgary's weak start and resurgence aligned with losing quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell to a fractured fibula by Week 2, and his return to the lineup in Week 6.
But the 31-year-old Texan threw more interceptions (13) than touchdown passes (10) in a season for the first time in his career.
Mitchell managed pain in his throwing shoulder. He had off-season surgery on it in 2020.
"My arm is what makes me the person I am on the football field," Mitchell said. "I'd be in a great mood and all of a sudden I'd make a throw and it would hurt. It would just change my mood. That's hard.
"I think (B.C. Lions quarterback) Michael Reilly and I were going through some similar things as far as having to do some pain things to play every day, practise every day. It wears on you.
"I still had fun. I love this game too much not to be here. It was just hard. It was a lot of times (my) wife kind of picking me back up, and encouraging me to keep going.
"As the season kind of rolled on, we got better and continued to play better, my arm started to feel better. Mentally, I got happier and felt better about the game, but it was a tough year."
Mitchell says more rehabilitation, not surgery, is the plan for his throwing arm.
Calgary wasn't strong converting red-zone chances — 20 yards out from the goal line — into touchdowns with a 54 per cent success rate in 2021. The Stampeders ranked sixth in the CFL in TDs averaging just under two per game.
The Stampeders' turnover ratio of -8 ranked in the league's bottom four clubs.
Mitchell threw for 285 yards, but zero touchdown passes and was intercepted twice in Sunday's loss in Regina.
Calgary eked 10 points out of four interceptions. Two ended with a turnover on downs and a missed field goal.
Division all-star kicker Rene Paredes, so reliable in the regular season with a league-leading 91 per cent success rate, faltered Sunday.
He missed three of eight attempts, including one from 35 yards.
His 47-yarder with 59 seconds left in regulation sent the game into OT, but booting a 44-yarder wide in extra time opened the door for Saskatchewan's winning field goal.
"Worst time to have the worst career game," Paredes said. "I thought my technique was all over the place every kick, even the ones I made. That's just something that was going on throughout the whole game.
"Actually, the last one I missed, I thought I hit it well. For some reason it didn't go in. I left nine points off the board."
Saskatchewan had the upper hand in special teams with a punt return to score and the recovery of an onside kick for an eventual touchdown.
Stampeder defensive end Shawn Lemon was ejected at halftime for punching Saskatchewan's Duke Williams after the whistle. Lemon accused Williams of spitting on him.
"I felt very disgusted and disrespected, you know in a COVID time like this," Lemon said Monday. "Someone spits on you and then backs out like everything's OK, it was just a knee-jerk reaction from me."
Stampeder middle linebacker Darnell Sankey topped the CFL in defensive tackles (97).
Ka'Deem Carey ranked second in rushing yards (869) behind Montreal's William Stanback.
The late-season returns of receiver Reggie Begelton and cornerback Tre Roberson from NFL stints bolstered Calgary's second-half surge.
"We were, I believe, the youngest team in the league," Dickenson said. "We keep this group together, I think we can go places. I think we can win it.
"We still have that expectation every year regardless, but I think we were somewhere in that 75 to 80 per cent brand new (players). I'd like it to be the other way. I'd like it to be 75, 80 per cent of the same guys and build from there.
"The work was there, the improvement was there, the attitude was there. The things that I think will make you a championship team are here."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2021.
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press