Former CFL head coach Mike Kelly calls modern Canadian game ‘bastardized NFL nickel football’

Photo courtesy: Rod Pedersen Show

Former CFL head coach Mike Kelly isn’t a fan of where the Canadian game has headed since he last coached in the league just over a decade ago.

“The CFL game looks completely different to me than from what I was taught. To me, the CFL game right now is bastardized NFL nickel football,” Kelly told the Rod Pedersen Show.

“In ’93, I think we beat Hamilton 61-10 and I’m watching Matt Dunigan throw three touchdown passes and then Sammy Garza comes in and throws one and then Tom Porras comes in and throws one and they’re all down the field. It was just a different game than what they play now, all this dink and dunk stuff. When we threw the ball it was to put a knife in your throat, so to speak. It had to mean something. The ball had to go down the field.”

Kelly served as the offensive coordinator of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers for five seasons (1992-1996) during which Matt Dunigan set a new professional football record for most passing yards in a single game with 713. This took place during the most pass-happy era in CFL history with quarterbacks Doug Flutie, Kent Austin, and David Archer all recording 6,000-yard seasons.

“Cal Murphy and Urban Bowman taught me the game. I was coaching against Don Matthews, Ron Lancaster, Don Sutherin, Adam Rita — real engrained CFL style of play. I don’t really see a lot of the concepts and philosophies that I was taught in the game right now,” said Kelly.

“I don’t know if maybe [offensive coaches] don’t feel they have the time to teach things but when we were really running things well in Winnipeg, we understood how to throw hots, we understood how to sight adjust routes, read coverages and adapt.”

CFL scoring has bounced back to 50.2 points per game this year, an increase of 14.1 percent from 2021, though it remains lower than the high-flying days of the early-mid 1990s. The league averaged 55.2 points per game in 1993 and 57.2 points per game in 1994, which is more than any number the league has posted since 2010.

Kelly is happy to see the game has remained popular in Canada, though he misses the days when teams were more interested in throwing the football deep down the field.

“It’s still entertaining. You’ve still got people in the stands, they love the game. I just look at it differently because my lens is different,” said the 64-year-old. “It’s just a different game. It’s changed. It is what it is. It happens.”

Kelly remembers his time in the CFL fondly and wears Winnipeg’s coordinates on his wrist as a reminder of the best times of his life. He claims he was “cross-haired” by “some people” while serving as the head coach of the team in 2009 but remains proud of what the team accomplished that year despite missing the playoffs at 7-11.

“My dad used to say, ‘Be careful now because they have more ink than you have anger.’ That’s really what it came down to,” said Kelly with a laugh. “I wish he was still alive when I was the head coach.”