‘Shocked at where we are’: Sunderland insists Harris trade was ‘football decision,’ but cultural questions remain

Standing at the podium Sunday in Edmonton, general manager Brock Sunderland had a hard time comprehending how he’d got there.

Football is a cruel and unpredictable mistress. Nothing about the 2021 season had gone the way anyone in the Elks organization had expected, but this was disappointment on a deeper level. A change of direction that would have seemed unfathomable at the start of the season and the suggestion of which would have been viewed as nearly as ridiculous just two weeks ago.

But somehow here Sunderland was, explaining how in the span of little more than a week his prized starting quarterback Trevor Harris had gone from face of the franchise to benched and shipped out of town.

“If you would have told me the chances of me growing to six-foot-five versus this happening, I would have said the chances of me growing would be higher than this,” Sunderland admitted to the assembled reporters.

“Shocked at where we are. Disappointed at where we are. Nobody anticipated this.”

The series of events that culminated in Edmonton trading Harris to the Montreal Alouettes in exchange for defensive end Antonio Simmons are as difficult to wrap your head around as the Elks’ disastrous season.

In the eyes of many, he was a pre-season league MOP favourite in what was supposed to be a potent Elks offence. There was a rocky two game start to the season, before two straight wins and Labour Day heroism. Then came rematch struggles and an unexpected neck injury, costing Harris two games.

When he returned against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Week 10, it was Edmonton’s worst showing of the year. That was all it took for head coach Jaime Elizondo to make a change to backup Taylor Cornelius, deciding that sticking with his franchise pivot would be the easy, but incorrect choice. A healthy Harris was dropped out of the lineup entirely and a week later, his locker is empty.

“It’s never all on one person, but the quarterback play in general just wasn’t consistent and it wasn’t to the level that we certainly anticipated and where it’s been before. We feel we can get that from Taylor,” Sunderland said explaining the move.

“It’s a football decision. We need better play at the quarterback position and we believe we can get that from Taylor and the combination of Dakota [Prukop] as well.”

There is no doubt that the team liked Cornelius, Elizondo’s starter with the XFL’s Tampa Bay Vipers, when they brought him in, but the possibility that he could replace Harris was never viewed “as even the slightest possibility.” Indeed, critics will argue that while the Oklahoma State product has shown some flashes, moving on to a player who is now 0-3 as a starter with more interceptions than touchdowns is beyond rash.

So once again the focus shifts internal for an organization that has had far too much controversy in that area as of late, trying to decipher how on earth a situation once viewed as ideal for their starter to blossom could end with him packing his bags.

“The reason that this is so shocking is the relationships and the history of Trevor, me and Jaime,” Sunderland freely admitted, referencing how the trio of former Redblacks were supposed to combine for another career year for Harris.

“We certainly thought that we’d pieced the puzzle together about as well as he could have when the change was made in January with Scott [Milanovich] stepping away. We thought we’d aligned this about as well as we could and that’s part of the surprise and the shock of all this right now.”

Beneath the surface of that shock still swirls meaningful questions around each of those three men and how they’ve contributed to Edmonton’s downfall. Sunderland, the general manager barely removed from a near revolt of the fan base two weeks ago. Elizondo, a coach on the hot seat and seemingly unpopular with many former players. And Harris, the fall guy quarterback who has long been the subject of his own rumours in CFL circles.

One of those back room whispers was addressed head on by Postmedia’s Gerry Moddejonge when he asked Sunderland if his now former quarterback was vaccinated, citing an unnamed source who claimed he wasn’t.

“Not going to get into who or who wasn’t vaccinated, but this was one hundred percent a football decision,” Sunderland shot back. “It had nothing to do with anything in that area.”

Sunderland, himself unvaccinated due to a medical exemption, was never going to answer that question and refused to give credence to any rumours of unrest or division in the locker room.

“The reality is this would be a much easier day if Trevor wasn’t the man that he is,” he emphasized. “He’s a great person, he’s a very good friend, I have no problem saying that and I believe that friendship is going to continue.”

Yet it seems impossible that factors outside of football performance didn’t lead to the benching of a proven CFL starter who has completed 70 percent of his passes for 1,568 yards with six touchdowns and five interceptions in six games this season. Those numbers, while hardly laudable, are firmly middle of the pack in a poor year for quarterbacks generally.

A looming $300,000 roster bonus in February and a $550,000 price tag for Harris would force a decision eventually, but for it to come so soon has to be about more than just the opportunity presented when Vernon Adams Jr. went down in Montreal.

Whether the details will ever be made public, Elizondo and Harris’ relationship clearly deteriorated for the decision to switch to Cornelius to ever take place. Sunderland alluded to the fact that the presence of an aggrieved starter might not have been best for the team, even if he didn’t outright say it.

“I think this gives that room a direction and it gives them a solidified answer of who our starting quarterback is,” Sunderland said. “I hope that room all move in the same direction moving forward right now. Not saying it wasn’t, but when you have a fork in the road — which we do right now — with the guy that we believe in moving forward, that’s part of the process of the decision-making.”

Every level of the organization had to agree to move on from Harris within the span of a few days, in some ways a strange show of unity for a team recently synonymous with chaos. It’s likely to be just the first of many significant changes and those who made this one aren’t likely to be safe from the next, but just as in the case of Harris, it is performance not culture that Sunderland urges us to focus on.

“Our job is to win football games. We’re not doing that right now — we’re 2-7. When we beat Calgary at Calgary and we’re 2-2 and coming off back-to-back road wins, culture was never a discussion,” he insisted.

“I think this is a by-product of where we are with wins and losses, rightfully so. It’s pro football, you don’t get points for moral victories.”

On that front, Sunderland is completely wrong. Edmonton’s Labour Day win came on the heels of their major COVID outbreak, with questions rampant about the internal culture of the organization and Harris’ role as a leader in it specifically.

Harris answered that bell resoundingly with a fiery performance. Sunderland and Elizondo have answered theirs with this trade, but unless Cornelius proves himself to be the second coming of Jackie Parker, it will only serve to highlight the Elks’ rapid deterioration, not obscure it.

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