EDMONTON - As the Edmonton Eskimos cleaned out their lockers and said their goodbyes Monday, they felt confident that their turnaround in 2014 is just the beginning of something special.
Sure, their loss to the Calgary Stampeders in Sunday's CFL West final was extremely disappointing. But after advancing to the division final one year after missing the playoffs altogether, the Eskimos believe they have created the solid foundation that will lead to even more success in the future.
"I feel we've built a great foundation for what we want to come back in Edmonton," said Adarius Bowman, who emerged as the CFL's leading receiver. "We're very disappointed how things ended because our expectations were very high."
He said the team made huge strides, especially considering they went into the season with an entirely new coaching staff and a bunch of new players who had to learn their roles and the systems.
Rookie head coach Chris Jones, the architect of the turnaround from a four-win season in 2013 to 12-6 and second place this year, said he and his staff know they left some work undone.
"We have to look inward at ourselves and the mistakes we made to find out how we can get better," he said of the staff that he expects to return next year. "I look at myself first of all, to make sure I teach it so we don't make the mistakes we made (Sunday)."
While Jones anticipates his coaching staff to remain intact, the player roster will not. One of those probably not returning is slotback Fred Stamps, the league's leading receiver in 2013 who was relegated to a part-time role this year.
The 32-year-old Stamps, who has played his entire eight-year CFL career in Edmonton, said it was an extremely difficult season for him.
"I don't know any other CFL team but if I'm not here next year hopefully I'll be where I can contribute and win a championship," Stamps said. "But hopefully things work out where I'm here and I can retire here but it's not my decision. All I want to do it win, put my name on a Grey Cup trophy and walk away with a ring. That way I can walk away from the CFL feeling I accomplished something.
"I'm going to get ready for 2015 because it's going to be a big year for me. I promise it will be a totally different season."
Jones said there were a lot of guys "who had to play roles they never played before, back-up type roles, splitting time and that's a tough pill to swallow from some players.
"We had guys who did it and put the team first," he added. "That's the biggest thing I'm most proud of, other than we had a good record, the fact everyone in the lock room put the team before themselves."
Quarterback Mike Reilly, who started Sunday's game but left early in the third quarter, confirmed he had a broken bone in his foot. That led to atrophy in his calf and hamstring that created more issues for him.
"And then we had some pretty severe bruising in the ankle, which ended up being one of the biggest issues. With the bone it healed pretty quickly and we could numb it but the bruise there was not really anything we could do for it. There's no way to get rid of the pain."
He said he felt fine at the start of Sunday's game but as it went on, "every hit, every play, things just kind of deteriorated a little bit. It got to a point where I just couldn't walk on it."
General manager Ed Hervey said the franchise now has positives to build on, knows the areas that need improvement and he remains committed to his game plan. He said the coaching staff this year re-established a culture where competition is important and where players are accountable and can depend on one another.
"We're united," he said. "We're not a clown show. The organization is on solid ground. We're criticized for different things we do and the way we do it but we know it's right."
He said he will meet with soon with Stamps to discuss his future. While he wouldn't say how many free agents he has to deal with, Hervey said he has met with every one. Some have committed to return while others want to wait.