Losing is something the Edmonton Elks organization is not used to but lately the trend is not a good one. The Elks have failed to make the post-season in three of their last four seasons — it’s the worst stretch for the team since the 1960’s.
Chris Jones himself isn’t used to losing either. Jones has won four Grey Cup championships with four different teams, including Edmonton as head coach in 2015. There’s only one other year when Jones experienced a losing season back in 2016 when the Saskatchewan Roughriders finished with a 5-13 record.
On Saturday, the Elks players cleaned out their lockers and took part in exit meetings with coaches and management. Jones says after a 4-14 season, the day after feels very sombre.
“It’s an empty feeling,” Jones said. “Seeing the guys and we’re not out there (on the field) preparing and up in the offices watching film, getting ready for the playoffs.”
Jones was named head coach and general manager of the Elks back on Dec. 19 and he didn’t take long to overhaul a roster, which finished with a 3-11 record in 2021. One-hundred-and-three players dressed for at least one game this season. Twenty-eight players received at least one receiving target on offence.
A long injured list didn’t help either with key players like receiver Kenny Lawler, defensive back Aaron Grymes, running back James Wilder Junior, linebacker Nyles Morgan and offensive lineman Tony Washington seeing time on the six-game injured list.
The defence struggled because of injury and inexperience finishing dead-last in 15 of 24 defensive categories. The Elks finished with a minus-21 turnover ratio which is perhaps the biggest indicator of the success of a team.
The Elks ended up using three different starting quarterbacks. First, with Nick Arbuckle who didn’t win a game and was traded to the Ottawa Redblacks in mid-July. Eighth overall draft pick Tre Ford, a star out of Waterloo won his first CFL start on Canada Day in Hamilton. Then, he injured his shoulder the next week against the Calgary Stampeders, knocking him out of action for two months. Taylor Cornelius would start in 12 games after not even dressing for the first five games this season recording 2,768 yards throwing for 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
The offence finished last in the CFL in points scored (20.0) and struggled in the passing game finishing ninth in average yards per game (231.1) and completion percentage (58.8%).
Cornelius who suffered an injured spleen a week ago against the Toronto Argonauts says the formula to be a good offence is developing.
“The things that Jones has put into place — the guys that are in this locker room and the guys who are coming back,” Cornelius said. “There’s a sense from guys on the field and they can see it but it’s just not at a consistent level. We as a group feel like we can be and do something special — we just need to put the pieces together and do that every week.”
Edmonton Elks quarterback Taylor Cornelius on injuring his spleen against the Argos and a tough 2022 season
The Elks did enjoy a tremendous season from receiver Kenny Lawler who only played 12 games because of ankle and shoulder injuries, finished with 894 yards to lead the team. Derel Walker had a comeback season finishing just behind Lawler with 894 yards, including three 100 yard games in the final third of the season. Dillon Mitchell was signed halfway through the season and recorded 637 yards in just eight games, scoring four touchdowns.
Before Labour Day, the Elks found Kevin Brown from a small school in San Antonio, Texas called Incarnate Word after Chris Jones received a phone call from former Edmonton and CFL linebacker Dexter McCoil. Brown finished the season with 486 yards in seven games and tied for the CFL league in rushing average with 6.6. yards per carry.
On defence, defensive tackle Jake Ceresna recorded 10 quarterback sacks in 12 games which is good for third in the CFL. When healthy, middle linebacker Nyles Morgan was a big reason in the Elks resurgence in stopping the run. After re-injuring his groin which he originally hurt in training camp, the Elks allowed over 100 yards rushing in each of the final four games.
Special teams was a eye sore for the Elks but along came Christian Saulsberry after Labour Day who recorded three punt returns of 30 yards or more and two kick-off returns of over 40 yards in eight games. His punt return average of 13.1 yards is third-best in the CFL.
Edmonton Elks kicker Sergio Castillo on steps the Elks are taking to better days
The 4-14 record however is what matters and head coach Chris Jones says the work for 2023 is well underway. He says his scouting department will look deep into the U.S College system and not just Division 1 of NCAA but Division 2 and 3 and NAIA schools. The Elks own nine selections in what Chris Jones calls a very deep CFL draft including four picks in the first three rounds. Jones says he will active in free-agency but not as much as last season as he will look to keep as many players from this year’s roster he’s identified to go forward with.
Edmonton Elks head coach and general manager Chris Jones on the work to be done after a 4-14 season
As his season-ending media scrum was winding down, Jones was asked if he will get some time to decompress.
“I don’t even know what that is. Decompress to me is winning games.”
Jones leaves for his first scouting trip of the off-season on Wednesday.