Best Season/Worst Season: Edmonton
Welcome to the latest in an occasional series looking at the best and worst seasons for each of the nine CFL teams. We started with the BC Lions. Then followed that up with the Ottawa RedBlacks, Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Calgary Stampeders, Montreal Alouettes, Winnipeg Blue Bombers, & Saskatchewan Roughriders.
But first some ground rules. Some of the teams have been around long enough to post completely winless seasons. For example, the Toronto Argonauts went 0-6 in 1898. While football was played as far back as 1869 in Hamilton.
But is that really a fair comparison? I would say not, as it was a different era with much different teams, games and leagues. So we will be looking at the ‘modern’ era only. Which will also allow us to compare the best and worst seasons of all of the teams over the same time frame.
You might think the modern era should begin in the post CFL era from 1958 to present day. However, whilst the CFL may have had responsibility for the Grey Cup since 1958, we should note that Wikipedia suggests that “1954 is reckoned as the start of the modern era of Canadian football, in which the Grey Cup has been exclusively contested by professional teams”.
So based on that we will take 1954 as our starting point for our best/worst season comparisons. Which is a heck of a place to start for Edmonton as that is they year they won their first Grey Cup!
Edmonton Elks – a history of success
Edmonton can point to periods of sustained success throughout their history. This is reflected in their all time 692-520-18 record. Coupled with 23 Grey Cup appearances and 14 title wins.
After going 4-10 in their inaugural season they gradually improved. After going 19-25 over their first three seasons, the Eskimos exploded. From 1952-1957 they recorded a 71-24-1 regular season run, won 5 division titles, appeared in 4 Grey Cup games, and won three in a row from 1954-1956.
They have also had two Dynasty periods. In the 50s as noted above and again in the late 1970s going into the 1980s. There is little doubt that the 1970’s were a good time to be a football fan in Edmonton. During the decade the team went 97-55-8. That had led to six Grey Cup appearances and three wins.
They finished off the decade with back to back title wins. And followed that up with championships in 1980, 1981 & 1982. Five consecutive Grey Cup wins is an incredible feat, and remains the greatest CFL Dynasty we have seen.
It is in the heart of that Dynasty that Edmonton had arguably their greatest season.
Best regular Season – 1989
The teams’ best regular season would come at the end of this decade in 1989. The only 16 win team in CFL history, the 1989 Esks were a dominant regular season team. In their 40th anniversary year the Esks set a record for most wins in a season (16), most points (644), most TDs (70), & yards gained (7,951).
QB Tracy Ham set a league record for yards rushing by a quarterback in a season (1,051). Combined with 4,366 yards passing and 30 TD’s he took home that year’s MOP award.
This was one of the great years in Edmonton history. But ultimately it is remembered as a missed opportunity. However good they were, they fell at the first hurdle in the playoffs.
The Saskatchewan team that vanquished the Esks would go on to win an incredible Grey Cup.
Your best season should be a championship season -1981
That year, (1989), was a spectacular regular season effort. But any season you walk away champion should trump a great regular season surely. The Elks have taken 9 titles (as the Eskimos) and on two of those occasions won 14 games in a 16 game season doing it.
The 1955 Eskimos went 14-2, before taking the second of three straight titles with a 34-19 Grey Cup win over Montreal. A defensively great team they averaged an 18-7 win over the course of the season. They were the most successful of the Dynasty teams that saw all of their first Grey Cup wins come against the Montreal Alouettes.
The 1981 iteration however was even better. Going 14-1-1 over the regular season before capping it with an (albeit surprisingly close) Grey Cup win over Ottawa. You could see the game had changed as their average win score over the season was 36-17.
Edmonton finished off the 1970s with back to back title wins. They followed that up with another championship in 1980. Going into the 1981 Grey Cup game then they were 3 time defending CFL champions coming off a hugely dominant 14-1-1 regular season and looking to put an indelible stamp on their success.
Each of Edmonton’s 14 wins in 1981 were by 10 or more points. Plus, Edmonton were perfect at Commonwealth Stadium, going 9-0 including playoff games.
Having won the West ahead of 11-5 Winnipeg and 10-6 BC Lions teams respectively they waited whilst they played off. BC progressed after a 15-11 win and rode into Edmonton to face the defending champs. 52,861 fans were on hand at Commonwealth Stadium to see the Esks outlast the Lions 22-16 and set up another Grey Cup appearance.
Greatness shines through adversity for Edmonton
The 1981 Edmonton Eskimos were the biggest winners in a five year championship purple patch. But they were close, very close in fact, to being on the wrong end of perhaps the biggest upset in Grey Cup history.
The Rough Riders entered the game with the worst record ever held by a Grey Cup contender, 5-11, and were heavy underdogs. In fact, the Eskimos entered the game as 22½ -point favourites. Not surprising given that Edmonton had beaten Ottawa 47-21 and 24-6 during the regular season. But the Rough Riders gave the Eskimos their most difficult playoff game in four years.
In fact, they dominated in the first half. Ottawa led 20-0 before Edmonton picked up a single to make it an incredible 20-1 to the underdogs at the half.
The two teams fortunes would turn around in the second half as Edmonton scored 25 points and Ottawa 3 in the final two quarters of play. Even so, with 6:38 left to play, Gerry Organ kicked his third field goal of the game from 28 yards out to give Ottawa what seemed a comfortable 23-15 lead.
In the second half, once back in the game after being pulled earlier, Warren Moon led Edmonton on three touchdown drives, converted a 2 pointer and set up position for the winning Field Goal.
Moon and the surging Edmonton Offence moved the ball close enough to set up a potential game winning 27 yard Field Goal. Enter “Mister Clutch” Dave Cutler who’s missed Field Goal had delivered the only Edmonton point of the first half.
He may have missed earlier in the game. But, with everything on the line he may have been the best clutch kicker of all time in the CFL. The 27-yarder sailed through with three seconds to go and the Eskimos picked up their fourth consecutive Grey Cup with an unexpectedly hard fought 26-23 win.
It doesn’t matter that Ottawa played them so close. Big wins, close games, this Edmonton team found a way to win. Small wonder they were conidered for the greatest Grey Cup team of all time.
Worst Season – 1963
Fresher in the mind for modern fans will be the 4-14 season Edmonton ‘achieved’ in 2013. That Esks team lost six games by five or less points (five of those in a row). The best thing you could say about them was that after third-year head coach Kavis Reed was fired and replaced by Chris Jones the seeds of their 2015 title were sown.
However the 1963 squad managed the same number of defeats with 2 less wins over a shorter season. Which for me, at least statistically, makes them the worse team.
Early in the year they were hardly setting the world alight. But they could argue they had been at times competitive. A week one loss came by 3 points to Saskatchewan (19-16) & they had lost by just 2 points to Calgary (13-11) in week five. Perhaps with a few different bounces of the ball they could have been slighlty better than their 2-5 record (they were 2-3 at home).
There is the old adage however that you are what your record says you are. Nine straight defeats saw out the season on the way to a 2-14 record. The lowest points being a 40-1 beatdown by the BC Lions at home and ending the season with back to back losses to Calgary.
Not a single Edmonton player was voted to the CFL All-Star or Western All-Star rosters. Tommy Coffey stood out on the team, leadng all receivers, catching 61 passes for 1,104 yards.
They would not have a winning season again until 1967. But as we have seen above by the 1970s they had once again become a dominant force.
Banner Image: HC Hugh Campbell. His 70-21-5 regular-season record led to an 11-1 playoff record with six Grey Cup appearances and 5 titles (in a row). Image from reddeeradvocate.com