Sometimes you just have to laugh: 10 thoughts on the Elks’ shattering loss to Toronto

Photo courtesy: CFL

Two minutes after the last pass fell incomplete, I briefly broke into hysterical laughter, thinking, “I have to write about this game.”

The Edmonton Elks have done it again, folks — they’ve shattered the hearts of their fans.

They had a 16-3 halftime lead, but let their opponents chip it away in the third quarter before crumpling in the wild fourth. The Toronto Argonauts walked away from Commonwealth Stadium with a 28-23 win, clear East Division frontrunners.

Leads

I dug through the data during halftime to find Edmonton’s biggest leads this year. They’ve had a two-score lead three other times this season: Week 3, when they were up 13-3 on Calgary and lost 30-23; Week 11, when they came back from 12-3 down to win 30-12 in Ottawa; and Week 15, when they lost a 23-14 lead in Saskatchewan before Sergio Castillo secured a 26-24 win in the last minute.

Add to that being 16-3 up on the Argos, who took a page from the Elks’ book and won a game after being down double digits.

Say what now?

After Edmonton took a 10-3 lead, Toronto threw a bizarre illegal forward pass on the kickoff return. It wasn’t anywhere close to being a lateral, but my curiosity was aroused by it being ruled a fumble, which Edmonton recovered and turned into a field goal.

Normally an incomplete forward pass is ruled a dead ball but apparently the same does not hold true on illegal passes. My few minutes of digging in the rulebook didn’t find an answer, but it would make sense.

I also wonder if Toronto had a cross-field lateral prepared, as an attempt to take advantage of Edmonton’s habit of intentionally short kickoffs. I could see it succeeding, but the Argos’ execution definitely needs work.

The opposite of Thanksgiving

Taylor Cornelius started off cleanly, albeit not all that effectively. A first-throw strike to Derel Walker in the middle of the field was good, as was hitting Danny Vandervoort for a precise touchdown to start the second quarter.

There were still some simple mistakes, like holding on to the ball for too long and taking a sack. His first-half stat line was 13-of-18 for 100 yards and a touchdown — they were at 5.6 yards per play, which is only decent compared to Toronto’s 4.7.

At first, it was mostly the misses that were disappointing. Twice Cornelius took aim toward Dillon Mitchell but couldn’t quite get it within the receiver’s reach. One of those may instead have been an overthrow on the run to a very wide-open Walker.

He also wasted 17 seconds pre-snap and 11 seconds during a second-and-five play from midfield with a minute left before halftime. Had they converted, that would have been time dearly missed.

The most critical miss was underthrowing Vandervoort on a deep ball where the receiver had a full step on Jamal Peters. Would VanderVoort have outrun Peters to the endzone? Perhaps or perhaps not, but he couldn’t have asked for a better position to do so. It continues the trend, again, of Cornelius underthrowing potential game-breaking touchdowns.

Of course, he ran for a first down on the following play, so no harm done. (I don’t usually write sarcastically, but that is definitely sarcasm.)

And then some more damaging mistakes crept in. The worst was ending a crucial and promising fourth-quarter drive with a reckless interception against the blitz. You’d like to think of first-and-ten from the opposing 28-yard line as close to guaranteed points, but that was not the case for Edmonton. Later in the quarter, he faced another blitz and was unable to either get the ball away quickly or evade pressure, which resulted in a sack and a two-and-out. I noticed a couple of other times he seemed panicked against pressure as well.

Also worthy of discussion is his 30-yard rush which ended with him taking a huge hit. Cornelius acknowledged after the game that he bears some responsibility to protect himself and step out of bounds a yard or two earlier, but ‘leadership’ doesn’t help so much when you can’t be on the field.

To sum up the offence’s production, a few plays into the fourth quarter, the Elks were at 134 rushing yards — mostly thanks to Kevin Brown and his offensive line — to 118 passing yards. That’s not a reliable formula for success in the CFL. Normally I would point out how much better passing is at turning yards into points than rushing is, but on Saturday night they were probably doing the right thing with how poor the air game was.

With 30 seconds left in the game, Cornelius had 141 passing yards.

The final drive was a great encapsulation of his game: major improvisation where he chucked one up and connected with Walker for 44 yards, followed by a pass into two Argos defenders that should be intercepted nine times out of ten, followed by scrambling for a bit into a no-hope overthrow of his target in the endzone.

Going 18-of-30, this was his first performance completing 60 percent of his passes or better since the Labour Day Rematch. It’s only the fourth time in 12 games this year that Cornelius has done so. And he also hasn’t hit the magic 300 yards in any single game, with a high of 292.

Tre

For a couple of weeks now, I’ve been hoping to see more of rookie Canadian quarterback Tre Ford, seeing as these last games are little more than open tryouts for the Elks. However, I’ve been clear that it would be best for it to be a predetermined entrance, be it for a full game or just a second half, to avoid exactly what we saw on Saturday: Ford getting thrown unexpectedly into the fire, and something terrible happening.

Earlier in the season, Ford talked about needing to be better at knowing his hot routes against blitzes and, to his credit, he was decisive in getting rid of the ball against a serious rush on his lone pass Saturday. Unfortunately, his throw caught a blitzer’s arm and Royce Metchie was able to take advantage with an interception off the deflection.

Based on both season circumstances and play — and now possibly health — I see little reason not to ‘rest’ Cornelius in the final game. If the coaching staff wants to argue Ford isn’t ready, that would merely blow apart their decision to start him back in Week 4.

Enough

I still think about Week 3, when the Elks were up 17-13 in Calgary in the late third quarter. Nick Arbuckle didn’t see Cameron Judge creeping underneath and threw an interception, after which the Elks’ defence allowed a 28-yard touchdown on the very first play.

Arbuckle took almost all the heat for the team’s failure and saw himself benched the following week.

Fast forward to this week, Ford has to come into the game with a 23-15 lead, and the dominant conversation is about Cornelius’s exit. Disaster strikes and what happens? The defence follows an interception by putting up less resistance than a wet paper bag, allowing the Argos to score in three plays: 16 yards, 12 yards, and finally 35 yards to DaVaris Daniels.

That was a ‘controller disconnected’ moment if I’ve ever seen one. A two-and-out later, Edmonton let Toronto do it all over again. There’s a common denominator here, and it isn’t the green and gold’s quarterback.

I’ll be blunt: the Elks need to pull off a huge upset next week for there to be any reason at all to retain the services of Chris Jones. Without the sheepish argument that “we were getting better at the end, we won a game,” there is nothing here. Start over.

D-ceptive

While Toronto only managed a miserly 34 passing yards and 80 net yards in the first half, it’s hard to give Edmonton’s defence that much credit when McLeod Bethel-Thompson was having such an off-night.

I made a note to look back at all his incompletions again after the game and of the nine he threw, all but two of them were to wide-open receivers — including a trio of potential massive plays in the first half. The level of openness ranged from ‘had a full step’ to ‘had several full steps’. Jamie Harry was the defensive back most taken advantage of, while the only time I noticed Donovan Olumba was breaking up Toronto’s two-point attempt. That’s a good sign for Olumba, and it was the only such breakup of the Elks’ night.

Bethel-Thompson started hitting receivers more and more as the game went on, with 112 yards in the third quarter and 127 yards in the fourth quarter en route to finishing 19-of-28 (68 percent) for 273 yards. Despite their disastrous first half, the Argos finished with 8.6 yards per play and a 10.9 second-half average.

The defence only had one sack, and it came courtesy of defensive back Treston Decoud who got home before backup running back Javon Leake realized he had to block that edge. Starter A.J. Ouellette made no such mistakes and had 91 yards on just nine carries.

The little things, and the big finish

The head coaches had active nights, although nothing compared to the third-down madness of Friday’s doubleheader.

Ryan Dinwiddie started things off by losing another challenge. It was in a very low-leverage situation in the first quarter, and he was trying to get what was very much a borderline call.

The fourth quarter saw two simple, yet egregious, mistakes on converts. Chris Jones was first, as the Elks scored a touchdown to take a 22-15 lead but chose to kick the single. There is only a small difference between a seven-point lead and an eight-point lead, but a huge difference between those and a nine-point lead. The only possible excuse for not trying for a two-score lead was that Cornelius had just been hurt, but it should still have been attempted.

Dinwiddie obviously did the right thing attempting to tie the game at 23-21 down, but he failed by also kicking the single point with a 27-23 lead. This time, there is zero difference between a four-point lead and a five-point lead when the opponent needs a touchdown, but if you can make it a six-point lead then at least they would have to make a convert after scoring. You may think it’s a small thing, but coaches fight for much smaller edges than that all the time.

Of course, the last minute was hectic. We’ll pick up as Toronto’s play ended with 36 seconds left. Jones didn’t call a timeout until the 32-second mark, wasting four seconds. But then something curious happened; truly, the way the seas parted, I can’t tell if the Elks were letting Ouellette score on his 25-yard game-winning touchdown or if their defence is so bad that that’s just what it looks like.

By allowing the touchdown, Edmonton kept enough time on the clock for themselves to go back the other way. Had they tackled the runner short of the first down mark, they’d have had about three or four seconds after a field goal. Any later and the Argos would kneel once and kick an extremely high-percentage game-winner on the final play. For the same reason, it likely would have been smarter for Ouellette to go down anywhere after getting the first down.

The Elks, as it turns out, almost managed a much-needed miracle but ‘close’ wasn’t enough.

I will give Cornelius credit for rushing up to spike after their big play, with nine seconds on the clock. We rarely see it in the CFL — though I recall Cornelius himself has done similar before — but it’s smart in very specific scenarios because, while the clock isn’t running in real-time, it still starts on the whistle. You sacrifice an unneeded down and one second instead of, at best, the two to three seconds it takes to get the snap off, at which point you would have about six seconds and a lot of chaos.

Needing 29 yards — and thus a fairly lengthy play — means there’s a good chance you only get one shot in six seconds, whereas at eight you should be able to squeeze in two if the quarterback doesn’t mess around for too long. It’s subtle, but every second counts.

As for the final two plays the Elks ran, having only two receivers in the endzone is peculiar. Most disturbingly, Mitchell didn’t get any closer to the endzone than the 20-yard line. Yes, both times the Elks decided to have their best receiver be the checkdown option on the far side when checking down wasn’t an option.

Positives

The Elks had a running game, a kicker, and Derel Walker.

Brown finished with 19 carries for 121 yards and his first career rushing touchdown. Castillo made all three of his field goals, from 50, 37, and 47 yards out, plus two converts. Walker caught all seven of his targets for 114 yards.

Christian Saulsberry also broke through once — a 38-yard punt return early in the fourth quarter — though he could only get the final shallow kickoff to the 37-yard line while burning seven seconds. The special teams did recover a second Argos fumble on a kick return too.

Next

Thankfully, there is only one game left, with the Elks hosting the Lions next Friday at 7:30 p.m. As excited as we all get for June, sometimes November and December are equally welcome.

Mike Ludwig enjoys math, chess, and football, all of which are kind of related. He lives in Edmonton and does not endorse Rod Black's metaphors. Follow him on twitter at @CityOfChamps14.