Argos give youth a chance and eight other thoughts on a season-finale loss to Montreal

Photo courtesy: Toronto Argonauts

For the second time in three weeks, the Toronto Argonauts played a game that didn’t have any impact on the standings for either team.

Unlike their win in Edmonton, this time the Argos decided to rest a number of starters in order to better evaluate depth pieces and draft picks. It was like Christmas morning for Toronto’s front office staff, with a giant Chad Kelly-shaped box under the tree that couldn’t be spoiled by a 38-33 defeat at the hands of the Montreal Alouettes.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Give it a rest

I’m generally not a fan of teams resting players in the final week of the season when they’ve got a bye in the first round of the playoffs, but it was the correct decision for Toronto on Saturday.

The Argos didn’t dress 10 starters from last week, including middle linebacker and defensive leader Henoc Muamba, who came up to visit Mike Hogan and I in the radio booth during our broadcast. Muamba has talked to me before about how he hates not being out there on the field, but that was when he was forced to miss time due to an injury. He told us today he gladly accepted the rest this week because it was earned.

Like the other nine guys, he said he could have played if necessary, but there’s no such thing as a healthy football player in Week 21 of the CFL season. The rest was beneficial and he also talked about the benefit of being able to watch the players he’s been mentoring — like Jack Cassar, who started in his place at middle linebacker.

The concern in resting players for two straight weeks is that they’ll come out flat or rusty for the Eastern Final, but that didn’t seem to be the case last season. Yes, the Argos lost to the Tiger-Cats after resting almost everyone in their last game of the season but coming out flat wasn’t their problem, as they carried a 12-0 lead into halftime.

The gambler and the gunslinger

In his first career CFL start, Chad Kelly looked how most of us thought he’d look. He was exciting. He made some spectacular plays and he may also have stopped head coach Ryan Dinwiddie’s heart on a few occasions.

Kelly used his athleticism effectively, rushing six times for 35 yards and repeatedly extending plays. His arm talent is elite and he finished the day 23-of-35 for 264 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. He moved the chains by continually firing rockets to receivers running hook routes on the far side of the field until Montreal was forced to make adjustments. And for better or worse, he rolled the dice a lot.

The Ole Miss product is a gambler. His two touchdown passes came on balls that probably shouldn’t have been thrown. The first was a 27-yard pass to Dejon Brissett, who was blanketed in the endzone by Montreal halfback Najee Murray. Brissett was able to somehow create a sliver of separation at the last second and secure the football as he was falling backwards into the endzone with Murray on top of him.

The second touchdown pass was even more bananas. After a full-out sprint to his right, Kelly flicked the ball 19 yards into the endzone while flying out of bounds. Juwan Brescacin out-jumped strong-side linebacker Tyrice Beverette and reached over his head to grab the ball, before landing with his toes less than an inch from the sideline. When I asked Kelly about the throw, he said he was initially looking short but then saw Brescacin streaking across the endzone with his hand raised, so he decided to give him a shot at it.

Brescacin had his best day as an Argonaut with five catches on six targets for 48 yards and a touchdown. He and his childhood friend Brissett definitely appreciated being given a chance by Kelly to make a play.

McLeod Bethel-Thompson is a gunslinger, but not a gambler. They’re not the same thing. He wouldn’t have thrown either of those balls — correctly so, in my opinion — yet they were both touchdowns. What do I know anyway?

Fans who have been begging for more playing time for Kelly finally got to see their man in action and were surely thrilled with the results. The decision to start Kelly wasn’t for the fans, however. It was for the front office, but whose front office?

If Chad Kelly is the real deal — and I think he is — the Argos may be faced with a choice next season: Kelly or Bethel-Thompson? Bethel-Thompson is the better quarterback right now, but Kelly has a higher ceiling. Did he show the Argos’ brass enough on Saturday for them to make that call, or did he show other teams enough to make Toronto an offer they can’t refuse this offseason?

Class of 2020

The first five players Toronto selected in the 2020 CFL Draft all started on Saturday and played well.

Second-overall pick Dejon Brissett had his best game as a pro hauling in six catches on seven targets for 69 yards and his first career receiving touchdown. Fellow first-round pick Theren Churchill started at right tackle next to third-round pick Dylan Giffen. While they didn’t generate a lot of movement in the running game, they kept Chad Kelly clean all afternoon, which has to be considered a win.

Toronto’s two second-rounders from 2020 both started on defence in defensive tackle Sam Acheampong and middle linebacker Jack Cassar. Acheampong has already proven his worth as an interior pass rusher but it was a big day for Cassar, who hadn’t taken many positional snaps coming in. His play was conservative compared to how he once flew around the field at Carleton but he didn’t look at all out of place, finishing second on the team in tackles with six.

Sting like a bee

Defensive end Ali Fayad saw extended action in his first start of the season and while the former MAC Defensive Player of the Year didn’t light it up on the stat sheet — recording only two tackles — he generated a lot of pressure.

Fayad has a lightning-fast first step and gave tackles Nick Callender and Chris Schleuger fits all afternoon. On a day where the focus was on talent evaluation for next season, he may have shown enough to be a factor in the 2022 playoffs for the Argos.

4075 days ago

Return specialist Jeremiah Haydel electrified and probably shocked the crowd at BMO Field by opening the second half with an 87-yard kickoff return touchdown. It was Toronto’s first kickoff return touchdown since Chad Owens took one back 91 yards for a major in 2011.

Argos fans have been griping about the lack of a return game all season, especially after seeing Chandler Worthy succeed elsewhere, but they have to be pleased with the results over the past two games. Last week in Montreal, Javon Leake set a new season-long for the Argos with a 50-yard return, only to see Haydel demolish that number this week.

Toronto has now moved up to seventh in kickoff return average. The Argos are still last in the league in punt return average, and not by a small margin, but at least you only have to go back to 2019 to find their last punt return touchdown.

Gauging Cage

When was the last time a CFL team was concerned about having too many healthy offensive linemen heading into the playoffs? It’s a good problem to have, but one Coach Dinwiddie will need to sort out nevertheless.

Left tackle Isiah Cage played only his second game of the season on Saturday after establishing himself as Toronto’s best lineman in training camp. Unfortunately, a concussion at the end of preseason kept Cage sidelined until July 16th in Halifax. He didn’t play well in that game against Saskatchewan and his symptoms returned in the days that followed, keeping him out of action until this week. He played very well against Montreal on Saturday, and assuming he remains symptom-free, he should probably start at left tackle for Toronto in the Eastern Final.

That means veteran Philip Blake, who has been filling in for Cage most of the season can return to his more natural guard position, bumping Ryan Hunter to center. Coach Dinwiddie undoubtedly saw this as a potential outcome if Cage had a good game, which is why he put the versatile Hunter at center for the first time as an Argonaut. Justin Lawrence, meanwhile, who has been playing center very effectively all season, would likely be used as a tight end in heavy sets like he was on Saturday.

What happens if 2021 East Division All-Star Peter Nicastro is cleared to play for the East Final? I have no idea. Nicastro, who has been out with a knee injury since October 30th of last year, rejoined the team a few weeks ago but hasn’t returned to practice yet, so the Argos don’t need to cross that bridge quite yet.

Attaboy!

It was a huge day for Toronto’s own Daniel Adeboboye, who not only got the start at running back but also showed enough promise to be included in the conversation to be the Argos’ primary ball carrier next season.

The rookie second-round draft pick championed a powerful running style, dragging defenders with him as he manufactured his own yards on carries up the middle. In a training camp interview with Mike Hogan, he admitted he had to custom order pants due to the size of his quads. Apparently, those quads aren’t just for show.

Smells like teen spirit

Despite this being a meaningless game as far as the standings are concerned, the Argos drew their second-largest home crowd of the season. Hundreds of minor football players were on hand, some to see one of their own — as was the case with Jack Cassar’s Lorne Park Spartans — and others who, along with their coaches and families, participated in the Argos’ “Day in the Life” event earlier this week, which included a ticket to the game.

This event was spearheaded by former Argonauts’ defensive back Arjen Colquhoun, who now works for MLSE. His goal was to give young players a look behind the curtain of professional sports. For a league and a team with an aging fanbase, it was great to see so many young faces in the crowd. Even better still is that they got to witness the highest-scoring Argos game of the season with 71 total points scored.

13,155 fans is a small number by the current standards of the other eight CFL teams but for the Argonauts, it’s a small but important step in the right direction.

Ben Grant has been coaching high school and semi-pro football for 20 years. He has covered the CFL and the Toronto Argonauts since 2019.