Elks suffer failure to launch & 10 other thoughts on Edmonton’s spoiled season opener

Photo courtesy: Edmonton Elks

Well, don’t we all look stupid?

It was a result that no one predicted, but the Ottawa Redblacks pulled a monumental upset on Saturday night, stunning the Edmonton Elks by a score of 16-12 in a defensive slugfest.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Failure to launch

In the long lead up to the 2021 season, thoughts of what the Edmonton Elks offence could accomplish kept many of us warm through the darkest of nights.

What that offence would look like exactly changed a little bit over the last 20 months, but the final creation was impressive, at least on paper. James Wilder Jr. in the backfield. Greg Ellingson retained and Derel Walker back in the fold with Armanti Edwards as a dynamic number three. Trevor Harris leading the show, led by a head coach in Jaime Elizondo who had a history of drawing the best out of him.

Whatever that tantalizing creation ends up being, it certainly wasn’t on the field. The first half was as mediocre an offensive performance as you could possibly imagine from an all-star laden group and while statistically better, the second half did nothing to reassure a shocked fan base.

No amount of yardage could make up for a failure to finish and a lack of creativity. After so much anticipation, the results were — dare I say it — boring. After nearly 36 minutes of possession and 443 yards of offence, to have only four field goals to show for it was embarrassing.

Week 1 isn’t the time for hot takes, but Edmonton will need to be much better going forward if they are going to touch their lofty expectations.

Hard on himself

In a brilliant example of why you should never believe a box score, Harris finished this one 33-of-44 passing for 333 yards, completing 75 percent of his throws. He’d have happily taken a few more incompletions if it meant scoring a single touchdown.

The quarterback simply didn’t look quite right. He threw three interceptions and while none entirely rested on Harris, he bears a significant part of the blame. He was off target even on a few completions and held on to the ball a touch too long. A large portion of his production came either late or from dump offs. In the end, he had just one completion over 20 yards.

Ottawa proved to be a tricky defence and Mike Benevides called an exceptional game, but Harris was his own harshest critic afterwards.

“They used a lot of trap corners, a lot of dropping into zones and blitzing on second downs and they mixed it up pretty well, but this loss is on nobody but me,” he said, visibly upset with himself. “This was on number seven, Trevor Harris, and that’s all there is to it. That’s the story of the night.”

That is perhaps hyperbole, but there is a grain of truth to it. Harris looked despondent after the game, but not half as uncomfortable as he did during. As always, his biggest struggles appear to be mental.

Missing in action

Absolving Harris of some of the blame in the eyes of this observer was the dismal performance from what was supposed to be the most talented receiving corps in the CFL, particularly early.

Walker caught two balls in the first half for just 11 yards. Ellingson had just one catch for four yards. The secondary is undoubtedly the strength of a pretty solid Redblacks defence, but there was no excuse for two of the league’s premier pass catchers to be erased from the game all together for any stretch of time.

Both had better second halves, finishing with 98 and 52 yards respectively, but even as the yardage grew, neither seemed dangerous. The Ottawa secondary had their number all night and they couldn’t get open when it mattered.

Friar Tuck, not Robin Hood

Despite the best efforts of the Edmonton offence to end this prematurely with bad turnovers, this game came down to the final play and the ball ended up in the hands of James Tuck. No better way to finish a night of offensive disappointment than to have a fullback come up one yard short of the goal line.

“Tuck was in for protection purposes. When you need to throw the ball deep in that situation, it’s either going to be max pressure or max coverage. In past tendencies Benevides has gone max pressure, but they didn’t bring pressure in that case,” Elizondo explained after the game.

“James was a check down and there were nine guys deep in the end zone, so we checked it down and just came up short.”

Unlike some teams who might have had a bigger receiver in that package to either chip or run a route, the Elks don’t really have that player on their roster. Tuck was the only guy available and he did the best he could, though given the obvious four man pressure and seven seconds remaining, I’m not certain chip and check down was the best utilization of the fifth receiver.

My bigger issue was with Tuck’s usage on an earlier drive, running across the formation after lining up as a boundary wide receiver. He ultimately got boxed out for Harris’ third interception.

Tuck clearly wasn’t who that play was supposed to go to, but given his skillset, it didn’t seem like the most judicious use of personnel. If it was intended to create some sort of mismatch, it didn’t work.

None of that falls on the fullback, who has been a stellar locker room presence, solid blocker and great special teamer. You just wish it had been one of the Elks’ stars getting the ball in either of those situations.

The Wilder dilemma

While the rest of the offence was anemic, you couldn’t say the same thing about Wilder Jr. The recently unretired former Most Outstanding Rookie was clearly fired up for his Elks debut and looked like his vintage self immediately from the start of the opening drive.

Partly because they had no other options, Edmonton kept feeding Wilder Jr. and he kept churning out yardage. He ground out a hard 89 yards on 15 carries and added nine catches for 72 more. It is not an exaggeration to say his performance kept this team in the game.

I know Elizondo is extremely high on Wilder Jr. and he’s earned that trust, but this is a double-edged sword. The knee jerk reaction to this game will be to turn the keys over to the ball carrier, but an offence that centres around a running back — even an incredibly versatile one like Wilder Jr. — is rarely a good idea. Statistically, it is just a very hard way to win.

Yes it’s possible, Andrew Harris and the Blue Bombers proved that in 2019, but the reason Winnipeg never finds itself at the top of the West in the regular season is because consistently winning with a rushing-centred offence is a lot more difficult than with a dynamic passing attack. A perfectly executed run gives you a heck of a lot less yards than the average pass. And even pass catching running backs contribute significantly less yardage per touch than an average receiver.

Wilder Jr. has to be a contributor in this offence, but any attempt to make him the focal point will hurt long term, no matter what your gut says — the data doesn’t lie.

Nine point bucks

You’ll need a much better test than Ottawa and an injury-hampered Matt Nichols to make any bold proclamations, but it appears that Edmonton has the makings of a very good defence.

Noel Thorpe had his unit buzzing for the opener and they looked exceptional. They flew to the ball with aggression and physicality, always in numbers of three or more. The secondary allowed nothing downfield — not that I’m sure Nichols could have thrown anything deep to begin with — and neither Nyles Morgan or Keishawn Beirria looked anything like rookies at linebacker.

Most impressive to me was the defensive line and you can already tell they will be a treat to watch this season. They are built from the inside out, with Mike Moore and Jake Ceresna wreaking havoc in the middle as potentially the most talented defensive tackle combo in the league. The Redblacks offensive interior had real problems containing them and any quarterbacks not prepared to use their legs are going to end up with a lot of offensive linemen pushed into their laps.

There is no sense crowning anybody after this one, but you can only play the opponent in front of you and Edmonton did that to perfection on defence. Allowing only nine points and 127 yards of offence should give you a win 99 times out of 100, but unfortunately, Saturday was the one.

Single-game Betts-ing

We all know what Canadian defensive end Kwaku Boateng is capable of off the edge — he had two sacks in this one — but all the training camp hype has been about young Mathieu Betts and he showed why.

The sophomore out of Laval University didn’t get home and finished with just one tackle, but he flashed really well off the edge and made some veteran type reads. Betts generated pressure and one of Boateng’s sacks should have been his. He is a pure effort disruptor and has the potential to be special.

I’m not much of a gambler — apologies to our friends at Bodog — but if I were to lay down some money on one of the league’s new-fangled prop bets, I know what I’d choose: Betts with more sacks than Boateng by the end of 2021.

What can I say? I love a long shot.

Here today, Tevaun tomorrow

Back to the receivers, I would have liked to see Tevaun Smith out on the field last night.

The Canadian receiver spent a large portion of training camp banged up and while healthy enough to dress, he ceded starting duties to Shai Ross and Mike Jones. Both performed admirably, but Ross was unfortunately the man targeted on both of Abdul Kanneh’s interceptions, even handing the DB his pick-six with an unfortunate deflection.

You could tell Ottawa was content to allow the Canadian duo some catches if it meant better coverage elsewhere and while they kept Edmonton alive, it’s hard to argue they thrived. Smith is maybe the most talented Canadian receiver in the CFL and his presence could have changed that equation. Here’s hoping he’s at 100 percent health and back in a starting role soon

Cultural superiority?

I don’t pretend to know the internal locker room dynamics or even how to fit him on a roster, but I couldn’t help but muse during the game whether a player like Kenny Stafford might have made a difference for the offence.

Alas, it would have been almost impossible given the ratio, but getting open didn’t seem like a ‘cultural fit’ for this team on Saturday.

Photo courtesy: Edmonton Elks

Kill it with fire

Among the many special events for the Elks first game under the new name was the unveiling of a fresh mascot. Say goodbye to Nanook and welcome Spike to the CFL. Then run away screaming.

The anthropomorphic elk has a deeply unsettling lack of neck, a pronounced underbite, long goatee and what appears to be a gold tooth. Maybe he just isn’t my cup of tea, but Spike reminds me vaguely of a 65-year-old retired member of a bike gang that’s recently recovered from a meth addiction. He makes Hunter, the Oilers’ terrifying lynx, look cuddly.

My suggestion to the Elks? Lean into it. The CFL could use a Gritty-esque mascot character to drive some attention online. Use the weirdness, otherwise you are only scaring the children.

Sleep easy

What happened on the field was a dreadful bad dream for Elks fans and a terrible way to christen a new era, but this game carried more weight than the result on the scoreboard.

The nods to EE history and the passing of the torch from old players to current ones was important. Seeing fans embracing the new name — and new merchandise — live and in person made everything real.

I don’t care if you love or hate the Elks name, the change mattered. There are people living their lives a little more carefree and sitting in that stadium without discomfort because action was taken to make sure they were made to feel welcome. In the big scheme of things, it was a minuscule issue but for many individuals, it meant the world that someone finally heard them and prioritized their healing.

The world is just ever so slightly a better place now that the Edmonton Elks have played their first game. No matter how nightmarish the result, that makes it a whole lot easier to sleep easy afterwards.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.