After a pulsating Grey Cup final, the 2021 CFL season has officially wrapped up. Throughout the season the Winnipeg Blue Bombers were the talk of the town as they completely dominated the league. But there was another team making headlines for reasons we’re much less accustomed to. The Calgary Stampeders, the most consistent team in the CFL of 2010s were sitting at 2-5 and we’re in real danger of missing the playoffs. The Stamps did eventually rebound to finish the year 8-6, when adjusted to factor in the shortened schedule, it was their worst regular-season showing since 2009.
In the West Semi, Calgary lost an entertaining game against Saskatchewan in overtime, marking the first time since 2006-2007 that Calgary had failed to make the West Final in consecutive seasons. So why was this season a struggle? In a time where Winnipeg is a serious threat to Calgary’s claim of being the CFL’s model franchise, what does the future for the Stamps entail? The answer to both questions might be related to a common answer, Calgary Stampeders quarterback, Bo Levi Mitchell.
Mitchell was signed by Calgary in 2012 and was initially a backup before he got his chance to be the starter in 2014. Mitchell didn’t look back from that point, putting up 3389 yards and a touchdown to interception ratio of 22 to eight on his way to winning the 2014 Grey Cup, where he was awarded as the game’s Most Valuable Player. This early success was a sign of things to come as Mitchell firmly established himself as an elite CFL franchise quarterback. In 2016, he put up a career-best 5385 passing yards in the regular season and a 32 to eight touchdown to interception stat line.
Despite losing the 2016 Grey Cup, Mitchell’s season was awarded with his first CFL Most Outstanding Player award. After again coming up just short in the big game in 2017, the Stamps and Mitchell once again put it all together in 2018. Mitchell went off for 5124 yards, 35 to14 touchdown to interception ratio and won his second CFL MOP award. In his fourth Grey Cup in five seasons, Mitchell won his second Grey Cup MOP en route to a 27-16 win over Ottawa to secure his second Grey Cup win. From 2014-2018, Mitchel had accounted for 23,149 passing yards, 138 touchdowns and only 54 interceptions. The 2018 offseason provided him chances to go down to the NFL, but he eventually signed again for Calgary, hoping to continue his dominating run in the league.
They say availability is the best ability, and going into 2019 Mitchell had been an ever-present for Calgary. But unfortunately, that changed in week three of 2019. Mitchell suffered a pectoral injury against BC and was placed on the six-week injured list. Backup Nick Arbuckle played well in relief, throwing 2,103 yards for 11 touchdowns and 5 interceptions, culminating in a 4-3 record and keeping Calgary in the division title hunt in Mitchell’s absence.
Mitchell returned to action in the 2019 Labour Day Classic against Edmonton and started every game afterwards. He would finish the season with 19 touchdowns, his lowest total since he became the starter (understandable given he missed seven games). Despite not winning the division for the first time since 2015, Mitchell led his team out for a home West Semifinal game against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. It would be a disappointing end of the season however, Mitchell had his worst statistical game in the playoffs to date. He completed less than half of his attempted throws, gave up a two-point safety, and threw three interceptions to just one touchdown.
While there was room for leniency for the first two picks, the third one was an ugly throw from Mitchel that perfectly encapsulated his and the rest of the Calgary offence’s performance on the day. By default, from the high standards he had set in previous years, 2019 was the worst season of Bo Levi Mitchell’s career. But he still had the complete faith of the Calgary Stampeders. Back up Nick Arbuckle was traded to the Ottawa RedBlacks in the following offseason. Heading into the 2021 season (2020 was cancelled because of ‘you know what’), Bo Levi Mitchell was still the franchise quarterback for Calgary and was on the hunt for a third Grey Cup.
The season didn’t get off to a good start for Mitchell, down 23-20 to Toronto with 40 seconds left on the clock, he threw a game-ending interception straight into the path of Argo’s Shaq Richardson. The following game against the BC Lions was supposed to be a bounce-back game as BC failed to beat a single West division opponent in 2019 and had uncertainty at the QB due to the health of their starter Michael Reilly.
It wasn’t to be the rebound win that Calgary were expecting. In one of the worst showings in his career, Mitchell put up four interceptions and his offence failed to score a single touchdown, losing the game 15-9 and starting 0-2 for the first time in his career. Following the defeat to BC, Mitchell was placed on the 6-week injured list again, this time because of a broken fibula which he initially suffered against Toronto, meaning it was new backup Jake Maier’s time to lead the offence.
Maier became the first CFL quarterback to throw for over 300 yards in each of his first three starts and when Mitchell was due to come back in week six, many Stamps fans were of the opinion that Maier should continue to take the snaps. Mitchell did bounce back however to beat Edmonton 32-16 but his stats were uninspiring. Mitchell went just 23/42 on his pass attempts and threw a touchdown and an interception on the day, and it wouldn’t get better in the following game.
Mitchell was pulled in the fourth quarter against Hamilton, he had again failed to inspire throwing for just 170 yards and an interception, his backup Jake Mair came into the game and lead Calgary on a touchdown drive, again having Stamps fans asking questions on who should lead the offence? Calgary were 2-5 at this point and was in serious danger of missing the playoffs.
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A season-defining stretch awaited Calgary. Their next four games were against two of their playoff rivals in the West, three games against Saskatchewan with a rematch against BC sandwiched between the second and third game against the Riders. Mitchell continued his record of throwing an interception in every game he had played in this season but two touchdowns helped get the job done against Saskatchewan at home. In the rematch at Saskatchewan’s Mosaic Stadium, Mitchell threw two very untimely interceptions in the fourth quarter, fortunately, his defence held on and he was able to lead the Stamps on a game-winning field goal drive.
Suddenly, they were back in the playoff hunt. With momentum behind them, Calgary charged into BC Place to face the Lions and Mitchell finally had a clean game, throwing one touchdown pass and no interceptions. The final game against Saskatchewan would prove to be the most important game in the Stampeders’ regular season, a win would give them a firm advantage in the race for a home playoff tie while a defeat would leave their destiny out of their control. On the night, Mitchell made history becoming the Calgary Stampeders all-time franchise leader in pass completions but he threw three interceptions on the night, some of which were very ugly to watch and were a key reason Calgary lost the game and the chance to win out and host a playoff game.
Mitchell and Calgary would rally from that disappointing loss with three wins on the bounce. After a zero touchdown and zero interception game against Ottawa, Mitchell went off for three touchdowns, 20/26 passes completed and 264 yards against BC in a game that sealed Calgary’s place in the playoffs, extending Mitchell’s streak of making the playoffs in every season he has been a starter.
With the playoffs set, Calgary would once again face off against Saskatchewan in the West Semi-Final. Mitchell threw an interception in the second quarter after his pass was thrown slightly too high for his receiver. Mitchell would again throw a second interception in the same quarter, this time straight into the path of a Saskatchewan defender, bringing Mitchell’s interception haul for the season up to 15 including playoffs. Mitchell would rebound from his rocky second quarter and the Calgary offence put up 19 points in the second quarter, forcing the game into overtime. On Calgary’s two overtime drives, Mitchell failed to lead the offence into the endzone, and after Stamps kicker, Rene Paredes missed a field goal, there was nothing Mitchell could do as Saskatchewan won the game 33-30. Bringing an end to Calgary’s season at the West Semi-Final stage once again.
In 11 games, the same amount as he played in 2019, Mitchell had regressed in multiple categories. In 2021, Mitchell threw for 2594 yards, nearly a thousand less than his 2019 haul of 3464 yards. His 10 touchdowns were a significant drop off from the 19 he threw in 2019 and Mitchell’s 13 interceptions was a slight increase on the 11 he threw in 2019. It was Mitchell’s second-highest interception tally, just one behind the 14 picks in 2018 and crucially, he played seven fewer games in 2021 than in 2018.
So what does this all mean? Calgary were fortunate enough this season to still go 8-6 in 2021. Running back Ka’Deem Carey put up 869 yards and played a big part in crucial games for Calgary such as the second win against Saskatchewan. The Calgary defence was also one of the best in the league, they finished second in passing touchdowns allowed, second in rushing touchdowns allowed and forced 15 turnovers either from interceptions or fumble recoveries. If Mitchell played the way he did this season for a team such as the 2021 Edmonton Elks or Ottawa Redblacks, there’s a good chance he wouldn’t have made the playoff this season based on his form. Mitchell isn’t getting any younger, and for two seasons in a row he’s had to miss multiple games through injury and by the time next season comes around, his 2018 MOP season will have been four seasons ago, a long time in Canadian Football.
So what should Calgary do? Winnipeg has just won their second Grey Cup in a row, and as of now have overtaken Calgary as the darlings of the league, they will need to be at their best to usurp the Bombers and the quarterback position will be crucial in accomplishing that. Backup quarterback Jake Maier is a free agent this offseason, and if Calgary should bring him back, perhaps it’ll give us an idea of what to expect in 2022. If Calgary brings Maier back, who proved to be a competent option last season then it gives Calgary the option to shorten the leash on Mitchell next season if he continues to struggle.
But all is far from lost, next season the CFL will have a normal preseason program, giving Mitchell the chance to grow chemistry with his offence in a way he couldn’t in 2021. If Calgary does have a strong number two quarterback, maybe it will give Mitchell the impotence to improve his game and not lose his place? All I can tell you for sure is that for the legacy of Bo Levi Mitchell and the immediate success of the Calgary Stampeders, the 2022 season is going to be one of the most important seasons in the franchise’s recent history.
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