Argos offence comes together when it matters most and nine thoughts on the East Final

Photo: Matthew Johnson/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

It was fitting that three of the four Toronto Argonauts who spoke at East Final’s postgame press conference were accompanied by a family member.

McLeod Bethel-Thompson was holding his daughter, Aziza, DaVaris Daniels came to the podium with his son, Jett, and Henoc Muamba had his daughter, Thea, with him. Andrew Harris appeared without his two kids, which was probably a good call since his youngest is only three days old.

You hear a lot of successful teams talk about being a family. They talk about love, having one heartbeat, selflessness. It’s easy to talk this way when you’re winning, but the sentiment felt legitimate when Henoc Muamba brought it up after the game.

He quoted an African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” It’s been 11 years since Muamba last played in a Grey Cup game, but it’s not about that for him.

“I got so many guys I want to play for,” he said. “Over the years, I’ve found that when you play for something greater than just yourself, you’ve got a greater passion, you’ve got a greater purpose, and you’re able to accomplish more.”

Muamba and his Argos family are one game away from accomplishing it all. Here are my thoughts on their 34-27 win over the Montreal Alouettes in the East Final.

A toss up

Toronto won the coin toss and deferred to the second half, which is common for teams to do. What almost no one does is then use their second half choice to choose a side instead of electing to take the ball, which is exactly what the Argos did.

This meant that Montreal received the kickoff to start both halves. I’ve seen this done in extreme weather, but it was a risk to give Montreal an extra possession. The wind was coming in from the open north end zone at 20 kilometers per hour with gusts twice that speed, but it didn’t seem to be impacting play. Trevor Harris said after the game that it was enough to alter a few of his deep balls, but he also threw for over 360 yards at an 80 percent clip, so it wasn’t exactly a hurricane.

The two teams combined to score 24 points with the wind and 37 points against it. So, did Toronto’s head coach Ryan Dinwiddie mishandle this? I don’t think so. The decision we’re talking about was made at halftime, not during the initial coin flip when he chose to defer.

The Argos were up by 10 points heading into the second half with a defence that had played well all season. If Montreal was going to win the game, it would likely be in the final minutes. That being the case, wouldn’t you want Montreal kicker David Cote kicking a frozen football into the wind instead of with it? In pregame warmup, both he and Argos’ kicker Boris Bede had at least an extra seven yards with the wind, and that was well before the sun went down.

Worthy of the name

Knowing they were going to be facing a celebrated returner in either Hamilton’s Lawrence Woods or Montreal’s Chandler Worthy, the Argos’ coverage teams seemed particularly focused during their well-earned bye week practices. In the game, however, Worthy may have been in their heads too much early on.

In an effort to prevent their former returner from beating them, the Argos got away from doing things they do extremely well. Boris Bede, the league leader in average kickoff yardage, pooch-kicked his first two kickoffs. The first dropped from the sky at Montreal’s 30-yard line — almost 20 yards short of his average kickoff — and Worthy was able to get it out to the 38-yard line.

The second pooch kick didn’t get enough height and Worthy brought it out near midfield. Argos’ punter, John Haggerty, who also leads the CFL in his discipline, shanked his first punt out of bounds for a net gain of four yards. After that, special teams coordinator Mickey Donovan seemed to dial his plan back a bit, allowing both men to open it up. Bede even launched a kickoff through the end zone, leading to Worthy tripping himself up as he scrambled back to field it.

The Argos have a stable of capable downfield tacklers on the special teams unit including Jack Cassar, the CFL’s leader in special teams tackles per game, and Daniel Adeboboye, Toronto’s special teams award nominee. Worthy is the East Division’s 2022 nominee for Most Outstanding Special Teams Player, but he doesn’t rank near the top of the league for either punt return or kick return average.

If Toronto altered their plan against him, what will they do for Winnipeg’s Janarion Grant in the Grey Cup? The league is full of great returners who can turn the field on any given kick, but football is a game you can’t play afraid. Hopefully, Donovan lets his players play going forward.

The Substitute

I was surprised to see middle linebacker Henoc Muamba substituted off for two second-and-long situations in the first quarter. This hasn’t been Toronto’s practice all season, but with the return of weak-side linebacker Wynton McManis and the development of Jonathan Jones during his absence, defensive coordinator Corey Mace had previously-untapped resources.

Muamba is still one of the best middle linebackers in the league, though, and he’s an underrated pass defender. He plays high-lows extremely well and most teams don’t throw drags or midrange digs against Toronto because of it.

On these two plays with Muamba out, Trevor Harris completed short passes over the middle. When I asked Muamba about these substitutions, he said he and McManis had the freedom to decide which one of them would be replaced by a defensive back in these situations. The experiment didn’t make it out of the first quarter, however, because McManis suffered a game-ending and possibly season-ending injury on the opening play of the second quarter.

Dinwiddie suggested it looked like a torn bicep but that McManis would undergo further evaluation. Fortunately for the Argos, Jonathan Jones has become something of a star since coming in to replace McManis over a month ago, but you can’t truly replace one of the best defensive players in the league, which McManis has been this season.

Ye Banks an’ Braes

Brandon Banks is possibly one of the most exciting players in the history of the CFL, but he can be frustrating to watch at times too. Both sides of Banks were on display in the East Final in which he caught only two of his five targets and returned a punt.

The punt return came at the end of Montreal’s first drive. He allowed the ball to bounce inside his own five because he didn’t get back quickly enough to field the booming 61-yard punt from Joseph Zema. The ball bounced into the end zone, and everyone on both teams assumed he’d concede a rouge giving Toronto the ball at their own 40-yard line. He didn’t.

Banks ran the ball out of the end zone and almost took it the distance. He was tripped up at Toronto’s 31-yard line after running into one of his own blockers with one man left to beat. It was an incredible play, but Dinwiddie said after the game he wanted him to concede the single – even after he got it out to the 31.

Banks caught his first target on the Argos’ opening possession, but he caught the ball with his feet after initially dropping it with his hands. That’s Brandon Banks in a nutshell. It was such a massive play and an incredibly impressive athletic feat, but it didn’t have to be that
interesting. He turned to run before he had secured the catch. This miracle of a reception converted second-and-long and was immediately followed by Andrew Harris’ first touchdown as a member of the Argonauts.

Montreal burned their challenge on the play, but more importantly, the ensuing touchdown allowed Toronto’s offence to breathe a sigh of relief. In last year’s East Final, Toronto kicked six field goals, failing to get into the end zone. McLeod Bethel-Thompson and other returning players have been carrying that with them for an entire year.

To shake that monkey off their back on their opening drive was instrumental in what would be one of their best offensive performances of the season. On Toronto’s second drive, Banks was ruled out of bounds on a catch that would have been another huge second down conversion putting them in field goal range.

It was another great throw from Bethel-Thompson and Banks had no one near him, but somehow, he let his toe drift out of bounds as he made the catch. You don’t generally see veteran receivers make mistakes like this. Of course, he followed that up by making a ridiculous sliding catch that was also ruled out of bounds, though this one might have been overturned on replay.

The Chad Kelly Package

For as much success as the Argos have had this season, I often reflect back on the fact that they didn’t score a rushing touchdown until Week 10. Week 10!

Not only that, but they couldn’t convert a second or third-and-one to save their lives. What changed in Week 10 was the introduction of “The Chad Kelly Package.” It’s not really any different from what most teams do when they send in their short yardage specialist, but Toronto had completely failed in this area until Kelly was given that role.

Since then, short yardage has been the most reliable part of Toronto’s offence. In the East Final, Kelly converted first downs on all six of his attempts, one through the air and five on the ground – one of which was on third down in Toronto’s end with under three minutes remaining in the game.

It was the one through the air, however, that broke the game wide open, putting the Argos up 21-3. DaVaris Daniels broke the huddle early lining up out wide, and with Montreal getting out of their own huddle late, none of the Alouettes picked him up. Montreal head coach Danny Maciocia explained after the game that there was confusion on that short yardage play because of halfback Wesley Sutton’s injury a few plays earlier.

Dinwiddie actually sent Kelly in with two plays. The first was a pass, but if they didn’t get the look they wanted, Kelly would kill it and run the sneak instead. He saw Daniels uncovered, but didn’t tip his hand or alert the Alouettes in any way, allowing him to make the easiest touchdown pass he’ll ever throw.

Daniels told me after the game he was doing his best to remain perfectly still as he waited for what must have seemed like an eternity for Kelly to snap the ball.

The runaround

Toronto’s defence wasn’t great statistically. They allowed Montreal to accumulate 454 yards of offence but they achieved their primary objective, which was to shut down the run.

William Stanback ended up with 84 rushing yards on 12 carries, but most of that came on his 52-yard touchdown run. That play was the result of a miscommunication that left the Argos without a contain man, further compounded by Chris Edwards and DaShaun Amos both taking the outside against a single blocker, allowing Stanback to cut back inside untouched.

If you take that play away, they held Stanback and Montreal as a team to under three yards per carry.

KGJ

Kurleigh Gittens Jr. looked every bit the all-star he is, hauling in nine catches on nine targets for 97 yards and a touchdown. He made some clutch contested catches to move the chains on second down, but his piece de resistance was the 31-yard touchdown catch he made at the end of the third quarter on a skinny post.

It wasn’t so much that it was a great catch or that it was the winning touchdown, it’s that he was double covered. Wesley Sutton was in a trail position and Tyrice Beverette had him over the top, but Gittens Jr. shook Beverette with a jab step and head turn to the corner. He’s always had hands and speed but since his senior year at Wilfrid Laurier, KGJ has really improved his route-running.

He didn’t get to showcase much last year as the outside receiver to the wide side of the field, but this season, as a featured slotback, he’s been able to show off a full arsenal of crisp routes like this one.

Dance with the one that brought you

The offensive line picked a heck of a time to play their most complete game of the season. Coming into this one there was some question as to whether or not we’d see changes up front for the Argos. Isiah Cage, considered by some to be the team’s best tackle, is finally healthy, and 2021 East Division all-star centre Peter Nicastro looked in good form at practice this week returning from a knee injury that kept him sidelined all season.

The coaching staff ultimately decided to go with the guys who got them here and it paid off. Montreal didn’t record a single sack and McLeod Bethel-Thompson was barely touched all afternoon. They also continued to run block effectively, with A.J. Ouellette and Andrew Harris combining for 80 yards on 15 carries, averaging over five yards per attempt.

The coach and the quarterback

This was unquestionably Coach Dinwiddie’s best game as an offensive coordinator and play-caller, and both he and McLeod Bethel-Thompson agreed it was MBT’s best career game as a quarterback. That both men were able to achieve this on the same day under the brightest of lights is poetic for a duo that has been unfairly criticized by fans and members of the media alike over the past two season.

Their critics can say what they will but in his second season as a head coach, Ryan Dinwiddie finished with the best record in his division for the second time. And in his first CFL season as the quarterback of an offence that wasn’t designed for someone else, McLeod Bethel-Thompson led the league in passing yards and got his second straight East Division all-star nod. Now they’’e both going to the Grey Cup.

Dinwiddie did a fantastic job designing an offensive plan that featured both Andrew Harris and A.J. Ouellette. They were both on the field for many of Toronto’s explosive plays early on, often with one serving as a decoy while the other got the ball. Dinwiddie often designs second half plays that play off tendencies he intentionally establishes in the first half.

In the East Final, only one of these two plays hit, but they were both set up perfectly. One was on a fake receiver screen to the outside in which DaVaris Daniels ran at the corner as if blocking and then turned up-field. It went for 41 yards.

The second played off the “all hooks” concept Toronto had been running throughout the first half. In the fourth quarter, Bethel-Thompson pumped as Daniels hooked, then Daniels spun back up the sideline. Bethel-Thompson’s ball looked on the mark, but Daniels came out of the turn awkwardly and couldn’t get to it. The play was there, though, and it would have put the game away with Toronto already up by 10 points.

Bethel-Thompson completed over 70 percent of his passes for 299 yards and two touchdowns, but those numbers don’t do him justice. By my count, he missed three throws. The rest of his incompletions were dropped balls or receiver errors. In the most important game of his career, he simply didn’t make mistakes.

When asked after the game if he wants to tell off his critics now that he’s made it to the Grey Cup, he paused for what seemed like a lot longer than the seven seconds it was. He was looking at his daughter.

He finally answered, “No one’s more critical of me than myself. It was about [making] this little one proud more than anything.”

And on the fact that he was the first person to run off the bench in celebration following Chad Kelly’s touchdown pass, he said, “It’s not about me, it’s not about you. Whatever this team needs to win the game, we all came together, there was a collective belief. This team has really gelled. His success is as much my success and my success is as much his success. That’s what it’s all about.”

Family.

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.