‘We’ve got our quarterback’: Chris Jones determined to stick with Taylor Cornelius despite Elks’ shutout loss

Photo courtesy: David Friedrich/B.C. Lions

Edmonton Elks’ head coach Chris Jones was a man of few words after his team was shutout 22-0 by the B.C. Lions on Saturday night in Vancouver, getting straight to the point when asked what his biggest concern was.

“The fact that we couldn’t stay on the field offensively and couldn’t generate offence.”

You don’t have to be a Grey Cup champion coach to figure out that particular flaw in the Elks’ performance, as they mustered just 146 yards of offence and were held scoreless for the first time since 1976. Just don’t expect Jones to do anything about it while standing firmly behind Taylor Cornelius after another disappointing performance from the franchise quarterback.

“We’ve got our quarterback,” Jones insisted when asked if he considered pulling his starter.  “We’re gonna do a better job of coaching him. We’ve got to get his confidence back. Certainly, it’s been rattled the last two weeks, but that’s just the way it goes.”

Cornelius was coming off a season-opener in which he completed 13-of-25 attempts for 202 yards, a touchdown, and two interceptions to earn a 33.2 passing grade from ProFootballFocus — the worst of any CFL quarterback.

Jones defended the pivot during the week, criticizing his offence’s overreliance on vertical routes. He was rewarded with a follow-up outing that made Week 1 look like teach tape, as Cornelius completed just 13-of-22 passes for 98 yards against B.C.

“It was tough,” the quarterback said post-game, looking visibly beaten down. “To game plan all week and feel like you had something successful to go against their defence and how good they are, then to come out the way we did and play, it was terrible.”

For his part, Jones could not entirely avoid the elephant in the stadium but was quick to deflect when asked about Cornelius’ play.

“I’ll tell you this, we fumbled the football at the 37, which is scoring position, then we fumbled the ball defensively at the 22. Those are two scores,” he stressed. “At that time, it was 9-0.  We score those two times and it’s essentially a different game coming out of halftime.”

While the turnovers proved to be critical errors, they do little to explain the offence’s ineptitude when it came to moving the football. 2023 was supposed to be a break-out campaign for Cornelius, his third in the CFL and first as the undisputed starter, but instead, his game appears to have regressed.

The 27-year-old originally arrived in Edmonton in 2021, fresh off a stint in the XFL with then-head coach Jaime Elizondo. He would go on to start eight games for the team and eventually push out veteran incumbent Trevor Harris, completing 57.9 percent of his passes for 1,795 yards, nine touchdowns, and 13 interceptions while rushing for 149 yards and a score.

Following the hiring of Jones and his staff in 2022, Cornelius fell out of favour and began the season as a healthy scratch, before eventually taking back over as starter in Week 6. He completed 57.4 percent of his passes for 2,768 yards, 11 touchdowns, and nine interceptions to go along with 71 carries for 502 yards and seven touchdowns while posting a 3-9 record.

The Elks rewarded the six-foot-five, 232-pound passer with a two-year contract extension last September that included a $106,500 signing bonus and will pay him up to $432,000 if he starts every game this season. He became one of the first CFL players to receive guaranteed money in the second year of his deal and would be owed $100,000 in 2024 even if Edmonton cuts him.

The Elks spent lavishly on receivers in the offseason in order to help counteract their quarterback’s accuracy issues, but haven’t seen the results. Free agent signee Eugene Lewis, who is set to earn a whopping $320,000 this year, is the only pass catcher over the century mark through two games, but most of that came on a 102-yard touchdown in Week 1 that was underthrown. On Saturday, he managed just one catch for nine yards.

“We feel comfortable with each other. I think, obviously, there’s room to grow,” Cornelius said of his failure to connect with Lewis. “Like with the deep post today, I thought he was gonna be flatter and he stayed skinny, things like that. We missed that one but I just gotta give him a chance to go make plays.”

Edmonton has other quarterbacks on the roster who might give that loaded receiving corps a better chance. Dual-threat Canadian pivot Tre Ford was the eighth overall pick in the 2022 CFL Draft and started three games last year, winning his first. He completed 58.0 percent of his passes as a rookie for 461 yards with two touchdowns and five interceptions and ran the ball 19 times for 149 yards, but put up prolific numbers in college as the Hec Crighton Trophy winner.

However, Ford is listed as the third passer on Edmonton’s depth chart behind Kai Locksley, the team’s short-yardage man. The UTEP product started 12 games at receiver in 2022 and notched 17 receptions for 247 yards, while completing just five passes for 50 yards.

Had Cornelius been pulled in Vancouver, Locksley appeared to be the next man up. Still, Jones was reluctant to pull the trigger.

“Kai’s a good option, he’s been around what we’ve done, but no, we’re going to get Taylor going,” he stressed.

How long the coach can afford to wait before making a change under centre is anyone’s guess, as he begins to feel the pressure from a team president anxious to see the product on the field match his marketing push.

The clock is already ticking on Cornelius’ job — and, by extension, Jones’ — and the quarterback knows it.

“I feel like I can be better, I need to be better, for this team,” he acknowledged. “Whatever I’ve got to do, we’ll go back and look at the film and figure it out and get it corrected.”

The Elks (0-2) will next play host to the Toronto Argonauts on Sunday, June 25, with a chance to end their pro football record 18-game home losing streak on the line.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.