Johnson: Stamps’ playoff drought has been painful
Current club focused on present, not past as they prepare to meet Roughriders
The brief of look of horror that crossed Brandon Smith’s face was all the answer anyone required.
He might as well have been asked to choose between a kidney stone, gout or an impacted wisdom tooth.
“They ALL hurt,” he replied.
“One’s not worse than the others.
“They’re all bad.
“They all burn.”
Playoff losses. Of which the Calgary Stampeders have suffered three in a row heading into Sunday’s encounter with the Saskatchewan Roughriders at McMahon Stadium.
On the cusp of going from a bad habit to a disturbing trend.
Since sliding past the Ricky Ray-directed Edmonton Eskimos 24-21 in the 2009 West semi, the Stamps have endured nothing but post-season misery.
A 27-17 loss to those uppity sodbusters from due east the next weekend slammed the binders on the rare opportunity to play for a Grey Cup on their home turf and, even more galling, they were forced to relinquished THEIR dressing room to the green gang that gonged them out of the big game. Galling simply does not come in larger force-fed portions.
That crushing comeuppance was followed a year later by a 20-16 semifinal loss at Mosaic (It’ll always be Taylor Field) Stadium and then November 2011’s 33-19 frostbitten failure up north.
Yes, it was only four years ago, but the golden sheen from the 2008 Grey Cup championship, a brilliant opening chapter to John Hufnagel’s How-To-Rebuild-A-Franchise manual, has already show signs of fading . . .
So a group that has delivered so much already in what has been essentially a re-tooling season finds itself on the hook for one more thing:
A playoff payoff.
That moment, they cry defiantly in unison, has arrived.
“I think so,” says middle linebacker Juwan Simpson. ”Man, I hope so.
“There’s a feeling in the air around here. Guys’ spirits are high. It’s easier to keep working hard when you’re confident in each other, believe in the direction you’re headed. You look out here today, you got guys working on routes, and we’re past Week 18. Guys doing the extra things, the little things.
“It just gives you a great vibe going into the playoffs. Not to say guys weren’t doing it in the past but you get more guys doing it, the attitude in the locker-room, the atmosphere ... it’s just awesome right now.
“We know it’s not going to be easy. We understand that. We know games are going down to zero, like they did (Friday) night (a last-kick 30-27 W over the Eskies), but as long as we come out on top, we don’t mind.”
Handyman Hufnagel has renovations well ahead of schedule. Only the B.C. Lions posted a better record than Calgary’s 12-6. This edition of the Stamps is a felicitous mix of decorated campaigners and young bucks. They managed to rise above a purple patch at the beginning of July and soldier valiantly on in the face of an onslaught of injuries.
“We have a good team, everyone’s in the right mind-frame, so we just have to concern ourselves with the game,” lectures Smith.
“We can’t be worrying about what happened in the past, in other playoff games. That can just bring you down.
“I was lucky enough to go all the way my first season, and every year after that we had good teams and we always felt we had what it takes to get to the big game. But things happen. Things don’t always go the way you want them. No law says they have to. But you have to let those things go.
“Our focus is solely on this year, on seizing the moment. This is our time.”
It’d better be.
Why? Because everything seems neatly placed, in pristine order, that’s why. Because the four-in-a-row Stamps and four-on-the-skids Riders find themselves riding entirely different elevators at the moment, the former pushing stylishly towards the penthouse, the latter plunging ever downward, caught in free fall, the basement concrete apparently all that’s left to break their fall.
Because they’re at home (even if it’ll be decked out half in green, minimum). Because they’re in an enviable mental space. Because they arrive armed with two quarterbacks champing at the bit, an underrated defence, the league’s top ball toter and a kaleidoscope of receivers unmatched anywhere across this blessed land. Because they claimed the season series against the Riders.
And because . . . well, just because, that’s why.
“We’ve got four wins in a row, tons of momentum and coming out with a victory this Sunday is definitely Mission No. 1,” says offensive-line cornerstone Dimitri Tsoumpas. “We’re all pumped up, good energy, lots of confidence. We just want to keep steamrolling and see how far we can take this thing.”
That’d be at least as far as Vancouver, common sense would dictate.
As a quick cautionary word, though: These are the Riders, remember. Crazy junk does seem to follow them, and their singularly rabid devotees, around.
So losing is not impossible.
The expected Sunday would not only propel the Stamps into the division final and arrange a fourth seasonal collision with the CFL’s best team, it’d provide indisputable validation of how far they’ve come, how well they’ve coped, how blazingly bright the horizon appears.
Otherwise, well, just add a bout of gastro-intestinal blockage to the stone, the gout and the tooth.
“We’d like to right some wrongs, make up for some disappointments,” acknowledges Simpson. “We’re ready. We’re hungry.
“Yeah, I’d say it’s about time.”
To stop the hurt. To stop the bad.
To end the burn.
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