Team of the decade and best organization in the CFL are used frequently to describe the Calgary Stampeders, but after another tough Grey Cup loss, this time at the hands of the Toronto Argonauts, we may need to reevaluate who the Calgary Stampeders are.
There is no denying that the Calgary Stampeders have dominated the regular season since 2010. They have won 107 games, 29 more than the next closest team over that span (B.C.’s 78); made the playoffs every year; and made seven trips to the West Final and four trips to the Grey Cup in the last eight seasons. Their lowest win total in any season since 2010 is 11 and they have finished first in the division five times in eight seasons. That is a run of excellence that is almost unfathomable to comprehend. The Stamps have been that good over the last eight years.
But then we reach the playoffs and, especially, the Grey Cup and the label of “can’t win the big one” rears its head.
Of the three West Final losses the Stamps have suffered, two of them were at home and both times they were three wins better than the team they lost to (in both cases, it was the Saskatchewan Roughriders). But even the New England Patriots sometimes don’t get to the Super Bowl. It is when we get to the Grey Cup that things really start to unravel for the Stamps.
Despite being, by far, the best team of the 2010s, the Stamps have just one Grey Cup title to their name when they beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 20-16 in 2014. And even that one very easily could have swung the other way. The Stamps are a ticky-tack, though legitimate, block in the back penalty away from having a new 0-4-4 area code.
There are probably two past teams, one in the CFL and one in MLB, that are most analogous to the current-era Stampeders: the 2000s Montreal Alouettes and the 1990s Atlanta Braves.
The similarities between the Als and Stamps are striking.
Montreal won 115 games between 2000-09, most in the league over that time; made the playoffs every year; made eight trips to the East Final; seven trips to the Grey Cup; and finished first in the division seven times. The only difference was, the Als had the B.C. Lions to deal with. The Lions finished that decade with almost as many wins as the Als, but their playoff success wasn’t as plentiful. The Stamps during this run have no peers.
But like the Stamps, the Als were haunted for a long time about their failures in the Grey Cup. After losing to the eight-win Lions in 2000, the Als did win in 2002 over the Eskimos, but then lost four straight Grey Cups (2003, 2005, 2005, 2008) before capping off the decade with a win in 2009 (and they followed that up with a third Cup in 2010). The narrative that hung around the Als’ necks like an albatross, and most specifically quarterback Anthony Calvillo, was that for as good as they were during the regular season, they couldn’t get it done in the playoffs.
But much like the Als, the Stamps have a chance to erase a lot of demons by winning a Grey Cup or two at the tail end of the decade. If Calgary follows Montreal’s path and wins some championships late in the decade, all of these bad memories will go away. We don’t talk about Anthony Calvillo, five-time Grey Cup loser. We talk about Anthony Calvillo, three-time Grey Cup champion.
But what if they don’t? What if they only have that one win in 2014 to show for all this regular season dominance? Then they become the Atlanta Braves.
Few teams in all of professional sports can match the Atlanta Braves run of success from 1990-99 (Atlanta’s playoff streak actually went from 1991-2005, but for the purposes of this piece we are only focusing on the decade of the 1990s). Aside from the strike year in 1994, Atlanta won their division and went to the NLCS every single season from 1991-99 and made it to the World Series in five times during that span (1991, 1992, 1995, 1996, 1999). They were a powerhouse, but they left the decade, and that entire 14-year run, with just one World Series championship. The Braves won it all in 1995, but fell short in every other season. That one title stops them from being baseball’s equivalent of the Buffalo Bills, but it still is a lot fewer than a team that good should have won.
Right now, that’s the defining characteristic of the 2010s Calgary Stampeders. Immense, even enviable, regular season success with just a single championship victory on their otherwise impressive résumé. History still looks back on those Braves teams with fondness, but also with a little bit of “what if?” They did win a ring, and like Calgary, that saves them from the ignominy of being an 0-fer like the Bills or Minnesota Vikings, but we also look at the Braves and feel they left a lot of championships on the table. It is hard to not feel the same way about the Stampeders.
The decade still has a few years left, so the Stamps could do what the Als did and reverse their fortunes and re-write the narrative that currently surrounds them.
Or they could go the Braves’ route and be one of the best teams of all-time, but one that has way fewer championship banners than they should after so much regular season success.