Unexpected heartbreak and more thoughts on another Elks loss

The game was in the hands of Edmonton’s best player. The ball was, literally, in his hands.

But he dropped it.

And got beat for 48 yards on the next play, which was followed shortly by Winnipeg’s winning touchdown.

Aaron Grymes, yes. He’s a lights out coverage guy when he’s not thinking about missing a 55-yard interception return touchdown — what would’ve been the biggest play of the season. It wasn’t an automatic win, but with as much trouble as the Bombers offence was having against the green and gold defence, up 23-16 in the fourth quarter would’ve made the Elks favourites.

Grymes is the number one player who always plays like he gives a damn, and this was the third game of the season where the rest of the team followed suit, along with the wins in B.C. and Calgary on Labour Day.

A lot of sports fans half-joke about something on screen causing them physical pain. I don’t remember feeling more heartbroken than after that drop.

The Elks fall to 2-7. Now a bye week that will probably be far from quiet.

The other drop

Derel Walker was frustrated enough to voice some of his feelings this week. The short form is that if he’s getting open but he’s not getting the ball, well, that’s as much as he can do.

That happened exactly as described on back to back third quarter plays, where he had space but got two totally uncatchable balls in his direction, one well over his head and one way short.

Unfortunately, a third one early in the fourth quarter hit him square in the mitts on a deep curl and he still didn’t catch it. I don’t doubt it’s been a hugely difficult season psychologically, but that hurts in a lot of ways.

In three games against Winnipeg, Walker caught 2-of-9, 3-of-10, and 4-of-9 for a total of nine for 28 yards — a pitiful 32 percent completion rate, with 93 total yards and so a 3.3 yards per target. The best receivers usually push 10.0 over a season. He’s had his drops, but it’s impossible to put more than two on him from this last game. A lot of those targets have been virtual throwaways or home run prayers.

Winnipeg has their own question, as Darvin Adams only had one catch that shouldn’t even have been called a catch, but he has never been the same focal point of an offence like his green and gold counterpart.

Walker has every right to be frustrated, but he still has to make the plays when he gets a chance. At least he was able to throw a nice block on Shai Ross’s touchdown.

That’s a nice lead into:

Trevor and Taylor

I described it as ‘self-sabotage’ in the weekly picks. Trevor Harris has been measurably the most accurate passer this season. One qualifier I will add: that won’t factor in what passes he decides to throw. So for instance, a fair criticism might be that he overlooks a wide open receiver and tries to make a much tougher throw. But when he chooses, it’s on target more than any other quarterback.

You don’t get that with Taylor Cornelius. He made some attractive throws against Winnipeg, but it’s so important to notice the bad as well as the good. He also misses a lot of pretty straightforward plays, and “Zach Collaros did it too” is not a defence of throwing a ball that should have turned into a walk-in defensive touchdown.

As a mini-test with Greg Ellingson targets: there’s a good chance you remember Cornelius’s third quarter strike to a stretching Ellingson that set up Edmonton’s touchdown. You may also remember him firing it into a tight window for his receiver on the next possession.

How about the almost-intercepted ball over the middle in the first quarter, or the one off a scramble that Ellingson could only get one hand on a few minutes later? It’s a mix.

Cornelius had a fair game. His escape ability was clear, as he turned a number of ‘sure’ losses into positives. And nobody questions his arm strength. But ultimately he only generated 187 pass yards on 29 attempts, with a 59 percent completion rate, and led the offence to 4.8 yards per play. That’s not good.

At this point, we have a pretty good idea of what Cornelius is. He’s shown you enough to keep him on the roster and keep working with him, and I have no opposition to him getting more game time soon. Right now, Edmonton is three games out of a playoff spot – barring a tiebreak miracle – with five games remaining.

I suggest it’s time to take a look at Dakota Prukop. He’ll give you similar odds of winning, and you should give him the chance to show what he has.

Edmonton needed a small miracle against Winnipeg to keep real hope alive. They’re talking about trading Harris. Let’s not act like they need anything less than a large miracle now, and I’m talking a ‘five straight wins’ large miracle.

Final note: I respect if Cornelius fought through an injury suffered at the end of the third quarter. But it’s foolish if it has a significant negative impact on your ability to contribute, which is probably not for me to say.

All-caps DE-FENCE

If you’re looking for perfection against a very good team, I’d advise against it.

The Elks defence had its costly mistakes, but they played a very nice game overall. In particular, Noel Thorpe seemed to call several blitzes that got results at important moments, including a sack by Derrick Moncrief while his rush partner on the other side prevented the quick throw. It might be a nice summary to point out how Kenny Lawler only caught three of eight targets, but for 82 yards.

Winnipeg clearly felt the absence of Jermarcus Hardrick at tackle. The Elks wrapped up Collaros four times and made excellent use of that outmanning to limit the Bomber offence.

Many will criticize the shaky run defence, but that’s not high on the list of concerns in terms of allowing points. The unit didn’t let the Bombers drive for any score from their own end until the second half. If not for the two play snafu that I hope to never talk about again, we’re talking about yielding 19 points despite several difficult field position starts.

All season it’s been the defence leading the charge with the offence struggling to catch up. Very disappointing how hard it’s been for the team to break that theme.

Winnipeg is mortal?

There were cracks. It’s not a surprise that Edmonton failed to win one of the three games, but I feel my assessment that they were a good style matchup for the Bombers held up okay. The Elks didn’t play well enough to earn a victory, but a fierce top-to-bottom defence based on strong coverage and a simple, clean offence seems to be the best bet for any team seeking an upset. Edmonton managed to be that for a little over three quarters.

The biggest difference in the game ended up being distinct big plays. All three touchdowns were set up by one, Winnipeg’s with deep balls to Rasheed Bailey and Lawler. The Lawler play was disappointing to watch, where he looked skyward thinking the play was dead with Collaros under pressure which caused his defender, Jonathon Mincy, to get a little lazy himself. Lawler realized it was still alive and made himself available to Collaros, and Mincy was just barely unable to get back in reach. That was a huge turning point.

Edmonton had the one deep corner route to Ellingson but couldn’t conjure a second, and lost (effectively) by a touchdown. Football isn’t usually that simple, but it feels like it was close to it in this one.

Specials

The other stark difference was special teams. I’ll get to a couple of Edmonton specifics later, but in a shockingly balanced first quarter, the Bombers broke out with a punt return lateral for a huge gain. It would’ve led to points if not for a Collaros to Trumaine Washington end zone interception.

The very next Edmonton drive, Winnipeg blocked a punt and started in plus territory again.

The Elks actually began the game with nice field position, too, which might have been the most surprising thing that happened all night. Their second drive began at their 48-yard line and a punt to the Bomber 12-yard line resulted in a safety. On the flip side, Edmonton had a great kick return to the 40-yard line at 23-16 but oh wait, a penalty, so they’ll start at the seven yard line.

The Elks defence had to stand tall —  as it too often does — to keep it close early.

One positive: my high school quarterback, Shaydon Philip, officially got on the scoresheet for the first time with two special teams tackles. He also had some nice TSN screen time defending future Hall of Famer Mike Miller on a punt return – and his guy didn’t make the play, so he earned a win on that rep (even though Glen Suitor spent the whole time gushing about Miller). Congrats to Shaydon, and here’s to hopefully many more.

The funny thing (warning: math)

Mike O’Shea, for all his strengths, is a conservative coach — in terms of run/pass ratio on offence, third down decisions, and, seemingly like the rest of the league, safeties.

It was very amusing that he chose to give up two points after Edmonton’s safety triple last week. The Elks prompted a very smart person to write an article on the topic that goes deep into the math of why kneeling instead of punting is a poor decision. I encourage you to check it out, but I’ll summarize:

– Taking possession of the ball after a safety is worth about 1.7 points on average — sometimes you’ll score a touchdown, or a field goal, and a lot of times you won’t score. It means that by kneeling, a team gives up 2 plus 1.7 equals 3.7 points.

– If a punt, instead, results in the average of an opposition start from your 46-yard line, then the average score is three points, obviously less than 3.7. The author discusses any ‘multiple drive’ effect, if you’re wondering.

– The ‘breakeven’ point — where starting on offence, first and ten, is worth 3.7 points on average — is about the 35-yard line. So if a punt from your five yard line nets 30 yards, it’s as good as giving up two, and better if it goes any further.

In the discussion last week, I also mentioned increasingly aggressive NFL fourth down decisions. O’Shea and Jaime Elizondo both had third down opportunities but never dared, even with one of them having a kicker they couldn’t trust with a virtually game-sealing 49-yarder.

That third and four with four minutes left was the perfect time to go for it.

The little things

Elizondo was having a pretty okay coaching game. Sure, he needlessly swapped in Prukop for a play when the offence was rolling in the second quarter. It was bizarre that eight different players had a catch at halftime. But the team was holding its own against the league leaders. Impressively, their penalty tally was only four for 28 yards compared to Winnipeg’s seven for 81 yards. He won a challenge on a laughably bad roughing the passer flag.

Then it seemed like he outsmarted himself badly in the last two minutes.

Despite watching this team’s return game all season, down seven points with Winnipeg punting he and his staff were shown clearly instructing Terry Williams to “bring it out” of the end zone, even though seven points down isn’t much different than eight.

It went about as well as expected. They got bailed out by a missed Winnipeg field goal, but the Bombers made one on a second try.

Soon after the miss the Elks were faced with a third and one. I don’t know why exactly they decided to throw, but of all the times to be overtly aggressive that was not the one. An acquaintance made the point: ‘Why not use the short yardage quarterback you insisted be on the roster?’ Fair comment.

Then we get to the conclusion, where I was genuinely unsure what I was watching. Laterals? Down two scores, with 30 seconds left? What the heck?

They fumbled, because of course they did, and Winnipeg recovered. La fin.

Interesting

Things like giving Terry Williams the ball on the second offensive snap almost make me wonder if an Elks coach read my recap last week. Unfortunately the play went nowhere — a screen attempt, naturally — and they never tried again.

If they did read this, I would love to go back and forth with a coach to try to understand some of their decisions, offer questions and challenges so they can confirm for themselves that their choices are justified — not that they’re stumped by a random question. No better time than a bye week for self reflection.

What now?

It wouldn’t be a bad performance if not for the preceding month or two.

Like I mentioned, the Elks have a bye. The trade deadline will hit before they take the field again versus Hamilton on October 29th. There’s no reason not to make a move or two. Personally, I’m in favour of Sean Whyte to Winnipeg — he was perfect again, two for two – and it’s because I love him that I say that.

2-7. Who could’ve imagined?

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