The Rand McNally road atlas Discover North America was perched yesterday at the stall of offensive lineman Taylor Robertson, who will be making the cross-continent trek to his winter home in Florida. He and dozens of other Calgary Stampeders will be discovering every back road and pit stop over the next few days
en route to their other residences.
Linebacker Marc Mitchell wandered the locker-room like a wide-eyed fan, football and Sharpie pen in hand, requesting signatures from teammates.
The final day of the Stamps' CFL campaign offered all the signs of an ending -- the team hitting the finish line well behind the pack with a disappointing
4-14 record -- with players scattering to the wind until training camp kicks off next May.
Meanwhile, the club's braintrust is anxious to sell the final days of the 2004 season as a strong sign of a bright future.
"We're holding our heads high," said GM/head coach Matt Dunigan, who will return next season should the franchise remain in owner Michael Feterik's hands.
"We have a foundation that has been built -- 4-14 is not indicative of this football team and how they feel about themselves."
The third straight season without a playoff berth is an obvious disappointment for Dunigan and Co., a completely new regime installed less that a calendar year ago.
But the Stamps boss was quick to suggest he was overly optimistic to think a team that won just five games in 2003 could be rebuilt into a winner this season.
"I think our expectations were too high," Dunigan admitted.
"You always expect to be in the playoffs and win the Grey Cup.
"(Secondary coach) Mike Roach said it last night: 'We didn't realize how far we had to come.' "
With one fewer win than last season, arguing the team is ahead of last year's club might be a stretch. But the late-season acquisition of former MVP quarterback Khari Jones along with import running backs Joffrey Reynolds and Ronney Jenkins, comprise three key components of a revamped offence for next season.
Additionally, 10 Stampeders will become free agents Feb. 15.
"We'll continue to work on some of our free agents," said Dunigan, who hopes to sign half of those players to new deals.
A number of free agents should be priorities to lockup for next year and beyond.
LB John Grace, DB Joey Boese, DL Garrett Smith,
DB Omar Evans and WR Wane McGarity should all be offered new deals. Rookie receivers Nik Lewis and Sulecio Sanford, both entering their option year, could field offers from NFL clubs and are also a priority for Dunigan to ink to extensions.
The team isn't interested in
QB Marcus Crandell or defensive back William Fields, both free agents Feb. 15.
Dunigan said a number of positions will need reinforcements before training camp, pointing to the offensive line and secondary as areas in need of improvement.
"I think we have to look at the offensive line, we need more depth there," Dunigan said.
"When we lost Taylor Robertson (to an ankle injury), it hurt us. I think we would need at least two offensive linemen.
I think we need a few more weapons in the receiving corp. And a DB or two."
President Ron Rooke also said the final games of his first year on the job offered glimpses of the Stamps' potential for 2005.
The team won two of its last five contests, not including a victory in Vancouver nullified on the last play by an officiating error.
Rooke refused to comment on the possibility of hiring Ottawa Renegades GM Eric Tillman to help the Stamps with player personnel. Tillman's contract expires in January and rumblings out of Ottawa suggest he could be looking for work as early as tomorrow along with Renegades head coach Joe Paopao.
The Stampeders are also expected to begin searching for an offensive co-ordinator and the best candidate might be current Stamps assistant Craig Dickenson, who just completed his third CFL season.