For a team that had lost both its matchups against a talented-deprived Ottawa Redblacks’ squad, it seems unconscionable that rock bottom would come against the best team in the league.
Yet what the Edmonton Elks put on display against the Blue Bombers on Friday night in Winnipeg was more than a loss and deeper than a 30-3 blowout. For the league’s most storied franchise, it was a spiritless display. The gasping breaths of a once model team ripping apart at the seams.
“I’ve never walked away from a game where I’ve been embarrassed,” starting quarterback Trevor Harris said post-game. “This game was embarrassing.”
It wasn’t just the game though.
In the 72 years since the club’s founding in 1949, the Green and Gold have seen their fair share of peaks and valleys, eras of dynastic dominance followed by stretches of irrelevance. You’d have to look long and hard through that history to find a week so utterly demoralizing as this one.
Controversy has followed this team all season — from the complaints of ex-players like Kenny Stafford and Derek Dennis to their unprecedented COVID shutdown — but this was different. The firing of 630 CHED analyst Eddie Steele after his vocal criticism of general manager Brock Sunderland and the revelation that beloved Edmonton sports hero Joey Moss may have been banned from the locker room by management prior to his death laid bare the soul of the organization and few liked what they saw. Then Harris and company trotted out onto the field for a game that felt entirely soulless.
Almost at a loss for words at the podium, head coach Jaime Elizondo couldn’t say whether that outside noise had any impact.
“I can’t answer that,” he hedged, unable to determine quite what went wrong for his team. “I told them to block out the noise and focus on football and I’ll go back to what we did in practice, we had three good days practice, but we got physically manhandled tonight. We were physically beat in every phase of the game and that’s the truth.”
“We’re not going to make any excuses. We got our asses whooped and we need to bone up and be a better team and find some better answers.”
Any answer would be better than what the Elks’ offence turned in against Winnipeg. Edmonton produced just 159 total net yards on the evening and three points, while conceding three safeties. It was a rare situation where an offence willingly surrendered more points than they were capable of scoring.
At the centre of it all was quarterback Trevor Harris, who lasted just over three quarters in his return from injury before being pulled for poor performance. A baffled Elizondo struggled to comprehend what could have gone so horribly wrong for his starter, resulting in him being just 9-of-22 passing for 87 yards on the evening, but he felt forced to make a change. It was a decision Harris did not dispute, refusing to deflect any blame onto his injury.
“I think it would just be an excuse to bring anything like that up,” he said afterwards. “Shoot this is pro football, if you’re not able to produce and do what you should be doing, you shouldn’t be out there.”
Backup Taylor Cornelius was little better, finishing 6-of-13 for 47 yards and a pick, but the problems went far beyond the two quarterbacks. Receivers dropped passes, protection faltered and a valiant defensive effort was marred by big chunk plays and an inability to stop Andrew Harris. Most importantly however, special teams again proved the group’s downfall and the Elks had to start five drives inside their own ten-yard line. A persistent problem all season, Elizondo is nearing the end of his rope with the game’s third phase.
“We’re physically getting outmatched. We put more of our starters on teams than probably we ever have before. You saw James Wilder out there, you saw Greg Ellingson out there covering on punt,” he explained, adding that injuries did play a factor. “The fact that we’re not stepping up and making plays is disappointing.”
Those plays weren’t made up for anywhere else on the field and as a result, the Bombers were hardly tested. The reigning Grey Cup champs won by an easy 27 points and much of their post-game focus was on how poorly they played. It didn’t matter against the Elks, who are finally facing an internal reckoning.
“Every emotion that you can think of — angry, upset, disappointed, embarrassed — all come to mind right now,” Trevor Harris acknowledged.
That goes beyond the locker room. While visions of Warren Moon and five straight Grey Cups will skew the narrative, Edmonton has never possessed a fair weather fan base. Those who still fill the seats at Commonwealth Stadium and who will again next week are no strangers to braving 50 below weather to watch a loss. But the murmurs have now started and they’re getting louder.
For many this has become, for the first time in their lives, a difficult team to cheer for, and that has nothing to do with a name change. This hasn’t been the team of Hugh Campbell for a number of years, but the change in direction has never been starker. The heart and soul piece of the EE way has been unceremoniously shown the door along with local legends like Dwayne Mandrusiak and their treatment has soured a fan base. As the events of the past week have made clear, this is a community-owned team where the community no longer likes the management and the team on the field is no longer good enough to overlook those problems.
“This season has not gone the way that we expected or wanted, any of us, but all I would say is please continue to support us even through the difficult times,” Elizondo urged the fan-base. “We’re building something on the inside that will be lasting, but right now I understand their frustration. I’m frustrated too.”
“Anybody rooting for the Elks or anybody within our organization, there’s no one more embarrassed than our offence is and we’ve got to make sure that we’re better,” Harris added. “We’ve got to bring it and in every facet we’ve got to be better. There’s no excuse, nothing. It’s as simple as that.”
The problem is that the apathy is already beginning to set in for the fandom of a team that was once pre-season favourites, but is now basement dwellers. Why cheer for an organization divided by internal strife, one where top voices seem content to allow COVID outbreaks and feel beloved legends are locker room distractions?
One of the few bright spots Saturday, safety Jordan Hoover, offered one of the few compelling arguments in favour.
“I can’t really speak to the collective losses that are compounding here, but at least I could promise you that this week and going into the next game, we’re going to give it everything we got, man,” he said. “We’ve got absolutely nothing left to lose. I mean, nothing. So let’s leave it out there.”
Whether Elks fans buy that argument is another matter entirely. While this feels like rock bottom, many have grown used to losing a little more every day and it will take the whole franchise responding to the shock of this week in a meaningful way to change that.