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Elks need to show marked improvement this year under head coach/GM Jones

The harsh reality of professional football is what Edmonton Elks head coach and general manager Chris Jones faces in 2024.
Edmonton Elks head coach Chris Jones walks on the sideline during a stoppage in play during the second half of a pre-season CFL football game against the B.C. Lions, in Vancouver, on Friday, May 31, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The harsh reality of professional football is what Edmonton Elks head coach and general manager Chris Jones faces in 2024.

After consecutive 4-14 records, the weight of expectation is firmly on Jones's shoulders as he enters the third season of the reported four-year deal he signed in December 2021. And the biggest sign of that sense of urgency was the addition of veteran quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson.

Bethel-Thompson signed a one-year deal to return to the Canada after helping lead the Toronto Argonauts to a Grey Cup title in 2022. He spent last season in the USFL and will lead Edmonton into its season opener Saturday afternoon against the visiting Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Edmonton signed Bethel-Thompson despite Canadian Tre Ford's promising '23 campaign. Ford, of Niagara Falls, Ont., began the year well down the depth chart but led the Elks to all four of their wins upon becoming the starter.

The '21 Hec Crighton Trophy winner's dynamic skill set and athleticism gave Elks supporters hope for a franchise that last reached the CFL playoffs in 2019.

Jones, who led Edmonton to a '15 Grey Cup title during his first stint as head coach, has stated repeatedly Ford, taken eighth overall in the '22 CFL draft, remains very much in the club's plans. But he also made it crystal clear Bethel-Thompson, a two-time Grey Cup champion over five seasons with Toronto, was signed to be the club's starter now.

Jones also acquired Canadian receiver Kurleigh Gittens Jr., from Toronto for American defensive lineman Jake Ceresna and added kicker Boris Bede and returner Javon Leake in an eventful off-season. And he lessened his coaching load by hiring Jason Shivers as defensive co-ordinator.

Jones isn't the only CFL official who'll be on the hot seat this season. Shawn Burke is also entering his third season as the Ottawa Redblacks GM looking to end a lengthy playoff drought.

Ottawa was last in the CFL post-season in 2018, losing 27-18 in the Grey Cup to the Calgary Stampeders. The Redblacks have finished fourth in the East Division in each of the last four seasons.

Burke was also busy this off-season, acquiring the rights to quarterback Dru Brown from Winnipeg, then signing him to a two-year deal. He'll start ahead of Dustin Crum, who was a bright spot last season as a CFL rookie.

Dominique Rhymes, twice a 1,000-yard receiver, also returned to Ottawa following three seasons with the B.C. Lions. Rhymes began his CFL career with the Redblacks (2017-19).

But Ottawa won't have 1,000-yard rusher Devonte Williams, who suffered an Achilles injury this off-season and could miss the entire campaign.

Ottawa also signed linebacker Adarius Pickett, the East Division's top defensive player last season with Toronto.

Bob Dyce enters his second full season as head coach but his future in Ottawa is invariably tied to Burke.

Last season, Calgary reached the CFL playoffs for an 18th straight season — the league's longest streak — despite posting its first losing record (6-12) since '07. Head coach/GM Dave Dickenson isn't on any hot seat, but he could have a tough decision to make should the Stampeders struggle again or miss the post-season in the competitive West Division.

That could put Dickenson in a position to relinquish coaching duties and concentrate full-time on his GM post. Calgary appears to have a head-coaching candidate already on the staff in longtime special-teams co-ordinator Mark Kilam, who enters his 20th year with the franchise and fifth season with the additional title of assistant head coach.

Rick Campbell, B.C.'s head coach/co-GM, is safe after leading the club to consecutive 12-6 records and West Division final berths. But expectations are high for the Lions, with the '24 Grey Cup being played at B.C. Place Stadium in November.

B.C.'s last Grey Cup title came in 2011 at B.C. Place Stadium and it also won at home in 1994.

A turnaround is expected in Regina after the Saskatchewan Roughriders, for the second straight season, lost their final seven games and missed the playoffs. Head coach Craig Dickenson's contract was not renewed.

GM Jeremy O'Day received a three-year extension and promptly hired Corey Mace — Toronto's former defensive co-ordinator — as head coach. Then the Riders dipped into free agency to sign the likes of running back A.J. Ouellette (Toronto), tackle Jermarcus Hardrick (Winnipeg), linebacker Jameer Thurman and defensive end Malik Carney (both Hamilton).

Most important, though, is the return of veteran quarterback Trevor Harris after missing most of last year with a knee injury.

O'Day has the security of a long-term extension, but another would appear unlikely if improvement doesn't come about shortly.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 4, 2024.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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