The Edmonton Elks looked like they were about to do the impossible.
All but left for dead a week ago and verging on a league-wide laughing stock, here they were all tied up with the CFL-leading Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the fourth quarter, the very same team that so utterly humiliated them a week previous.
Then came the fortuitous bounce the team had waited all year for, an errant pass forced by pressure in the face Zach Collaros hurtling straight for the chest of Aaron Grymes. A certain interception with nothing but grass in front of him. A golden chance to take the miraculous late lead.
When the ball sailed through the former All-Star’s hands, bouncing off his chest plate and to the ground, the fairy tale was over.
“That one play doesn’t define the game by any stretch, but it was a big momentum shift,” head coach Jaime Elizondo said at the podium after his team’s fifth straight loss. “I think it sucked a little bit of life out of it, but that’s where we have to grow as a team. We’ve talked about where we need to respond in that moment a little bit better and we didn’t.”
The uncharacteristic error from the usually standout Grymes led to the Bombers’ game-winning score four plays later, points that Edmonton would not come close to getting back. It was a play that perfectly defined the Elks season, so much explosive promise left painfully undelivered.
And yet, there was something present in Commonwealth Stadium on Friday that was completely absent a week ago in Winnipeg or for much of the rest of the season. Call it energy. Call it passion. Call it heart, or hope, or any other synonym you wish, but the Elks had it in a way they haven’t since pandemics were things in history books and the club had a different name.
If you think that made this loss any easier to swallow, you’d be wrong.
“All losses are tough. You don’t sleep after them. They weigh on you for a couple of days, but when you lose them like this, these are a little tougher,” Elizondo admitted post-game, looking like a man on whom the hot seat is beginning to take it’s toll.
“It’s one thing to go out and kind of get your ass kicked, but when you lose the ones where you’re close and have a chance, it will always hurt a little bit more.”
How hot Elizondo’s seat ends up getting depends largely on the very player that gave them that chance in the Winnipeg rematch, quarterback Taylor Cornelius. The shocking decision to bench veteran Trevor Harris in favour of the coach’s strong-armed XFL pivot earlier in the week seemed like the raising of a white flag on a lost season, but sparks like the Elks received Friday rarely come from fabric.
Cornelius’ final stat line will be a largely forgettable one, 17-of-29 passing for 187 yards and a touchdown with four scrambles for 19 yards, but that wasn’t how it felt to the viewer. While a fiery defensive performance by a team looking to punch their opponent in the face should be the headline, it was hard not to see Cornelius as the catalyst for the team’s dramatic personality shift as he battled against a ferocious Bombers’ pass rush to keep his struggling offence alive.
“He was able to extend plays in there, which is what we expected of him. I’m impressed with his composure, his ability to see things, and he’s only going to continue to grow,” Elizondo explained, noting the effect that had on the rest of the team.
“I thought the sideline was really good. They kept believing in him. He’s walking up and down the sideline encouraging guys and I thought their response was different this week than last week. I don’t know what that’s a reflection of, but I think that they know that this kid can make a play at any time. I think they get excited by that.”
That much was clear and Cornelius’ fire spilled into the post-game. While Elizondo was quick to point out the multitude of costly errors, from obvious protection issues to key drops, that the team will have to reckon with over the coming bye week, his young quarterback would have none of it. Those questions were quickly and briskly nipped in the bud, gritted teeth leaving little doubt about how he felt about criticisms of his teammates.
“No protection issues. The o-line played great,” Cornelius coldly insisted. “Everyone played great.”
Those steadfast refusals, though hardly honest to the media, leave little doubt as to why the team seems to have been sparked by Elizondo’s surprising change under centre. Trevor Harris was hardly throwing teammates to the wolves, nor is it fair to claim he was the root of the Elks’ issues, but this felt different and refreshing. Not that Cornelius would admit that either.
“The guys are rallying around everybody. It doesn’t matter who’s out on the field. We’re a tight knit group here and we’re going to stay that way the rest of the season,” he said when asked about the impact of the quarterback switch.
“Guys made plays, like Shai [Ross] breaking two tackles and just having that will to get in the endzone. Guys are still wanting to play and ready to go and wanting to win every game. You just see the passion that they have every day.”
It seems the fight has not left the bruised and bloodied body of this Elks team and for a deprived fan base, that is like water in a desert. Yet both quarterback and coach agreed that this was a game they could have won, even should have won, and still let slip away. A hollow moral victory, rather than a real one.
The spark at quarterback couldn’t save the Elks on Friday. It will not salvage their season, nor save many in the carnage that will follow, yet determining what exactly what Cornelius is will bring purpose to a lost year. The final assessment of this now 0-3 starter will ultimately define the Elizondo era and maybe even save him, but regardless of the results one thing was certainly gained against Winnipeg, something Grymes’ deflating drop couldn’t take away.
“I think there is some energy in the locker room right now feeling like, man, we just went toe-to-toe with the best team in the CFL, defending Grey Cup champs, and really should have won that game,” Elizondo said.
“The excitement seems to be coming back and we’re trying to get this thing right. That’s an encouraging sign.”
In a year with so few of those, you take what you can get.