Argonauts prove the depth of their greatness and eight other thoughts on Toronto’s stunning Grey Cup victory

Photo: Arthur Ward/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

What makes the 2022 Toronto Argonauts a great football team?

And they are great, by the way. This team closed the season by winning nine of their last 11 games, including the Grey Cup. But they’re definitely not great in a conventional way. They only had three CFL All-Stars and didn’t win a single league award. Those weren’t mistakes, the Argos just weren’t that kind of team.

Their three All-Stars were very deserving, but did they carry the team to a Grey Cup victory? Linebacker Wynton McManis was injured, receiver Kurleigh Gittens Jr. didn’t have a reception, and cornerback Jamal Peters dropped an interception after leading the league in that category and appeared to have a bust in coverage allowing Winnipeg to get into field goal range at the end of the game. It didn’t matter. That’s just not how they win games.

The Argos are not a team of stars, they’re a team with depth. Astonishing depth, really. Eric Rogers, Juwan Brescacin, Isiah Cage, Robertson Daniel, and Peter Nicastro were supposed to be part of the team’s core this season, yet all were healthy scratches for the Grey Cup. Their quarterback, who played the best game of his career last week, completed 53 percent of his passes and didn’t finish the game due to injury. Again, it didn’t matter because on a team this deep, there’s always someone else waiting to step up.

Here are my observations from Toronto’s Grey Cup win:

Missed opportunities

I felt very strongly that for Toronto to beat Winnipeg in this game, they couldn’t afford to make any big mistakes or miss a single opportunity. I was wrong.

As well as they played at times, the Argos threw away more chances in the Grey Cup than they did in any single game all season. They dropped three easy interceptions and a couple of passes, failed to recover both quarterback fumbles, whiffed on two sacks and had two others taken away by penalty, missed three field goals including one that was blocked, set both their timeouts on fire, and allowed the longest punt return touchdown in Grey Cup history.

Somehow, that was all offset by playing outstanding defensive football and making the big plays in the biggest moments on offence and special teams. Football is truly wild sometimes.

Kick off your Sunday shoes

The Argos seemed very loose all week for a team playing in the Grey Cup against the two-time defending champions. In part, I think that’s because they weren’t expected to win so there was no added pressure on them, but it’s also just how they’re wired.

I’ve never seen a team dance so much at practice. They’re always laser-focused while running drills and taking reps, but a lot of the guys dance from station to station and there are often impromptu dance-offs — the Hagerty vs Haggerty clash a few months back was epic. Despite all the extra attention this week, there were the usual dance-offs at practice and players were just having fun being around one another.

That’s why I was surprised to see the Toronto offence come out tight. After being virtually unstoppable last week, McLeod Bethel-Thompson looked uncomfortable early on and overly cautious. He missed three of his first four throws, and Markeith Ambles barely brought in the one completion, pinning it awkwardly to his neck.

Fortunately for the Argos, their defence didn’t come out tight at all. After allowing the Alouettes to march up and down the field last week, they played one of their best games of the season, shutting out the Blue Bombers in four first-quarter drives. Winnipeg managed only one first down and Zach Collaros completed just three of his seven first-quarter pass attempts for 29 yards.

A run on passes

The Argos were successful running the ball with both A.J. Ouellette and Andrew Harris in the first quarter, averaging 6.7 yards per carry as a team. In the second quarter, however, neither back logged a single carry.

Toronto head coach and offensive play-caller Ryan Dinwiddie was criticized by a lot of intelligent football people from TSN and this site for getting away from the run in the second quarter. I happen to agree with them, but I can also offer an explanation for what occurred.

Toronto ran 16 offensive plays in the second quarter. One was a quarterback sneak and five others were on second-and-10 situations, so we’ll ignore those. We can also cross out the last two snaps, as they both came with under thirty seconds left in the half as the Argos maneuvered into field goal range. Of the remaining eight plays, four were facing a seven-man box, one was an RPO Bethel-Thompson pulled, and one may have been a run but was audibled at the line after reading the defence on a simulated snap. That leaves us with a dropped screen pass to Kurleigh Gittens Jr. against a blitz and a nine-yard completion to DaVaris Daniels.

Could some of these plays have been Harris and Ouellette runs? Certainly, but while their plan didn’t work, the Toronto staff clearly saw an advantage in the passing game with Winnipeg loading the box on first down. There are other ways to get backs involved, but the Blue Bombers were sitting on the one screen pass Dinwiddie dialled up for Harris in the second quarter.

Today’s Special

Toronto’s special teams coordinator Mickey Donovan went on an emotional rollercoaster the TSSA would never approve. Obviously, it worked out well in the end and he’s a Grey Cup champion, but he’s probably going to wake up in a cold sweat every night for the next month.

His unit allowed the longest punt return touchdown in Grey Cup history, had a field goal blocked and missed two others including a 36-yarder. I believe Donovan to be well-regarded internally but had this been the extent of his night — and had the Argos gone on to lose — there’s a chance he’d be out of a job.

Everyone will remember Robbie Smith’s field goal block to win the game, but what might have saved Donovan is how he schemed up huge returns for Javon Leake and the punt return team. The Argos came into the Grey Cup dead last in punt returns, averaging 7.1 yards per return with a long of 35. The issue has been slowing down opposing gunners and the rest of the coverage team more than the returners themselves, and Donovan fixed that Sunday. Leake returned six punts for 116 yards — an average of 19.3 per return. He evaded a number of tackles to be sure, but he had time and space unlike anything the Argos have been able to muster all season.

More important was the timing of his best punt return, which was also his last. With Winnipeg up by six in the fourth quarter, Leake fielded a punt at the Toronto 35-yard line. He hurdled the first would-be tackler and then followed a beautifully blocked wall up the sideline for a 44-yard return. Dejon Brissett, Brandon Calver, Daniel Adeboboye, and Benoit Marion all had key blocks to spring Leake all the way down to the Winnipeg 31-yard line. The Argos were in the endzone five plays later for the go-ahead touchdown.

Achilles thumb

No CFL quarterback over the past two seasons has taken as many bone-crunching hits in the pocket as McLeod Bethel-Thompson. I’ve called him the toughest player in the league because his ability to pop right back up every time defies explanation.

I’ve talked to McLeod about this a few times and his view is that if him taking a hit leads to his receiver getting open then it’s worth it, so he’ll sometimes hang onto the ball until the last possible second. He took two huge hits in this game that he seemed to barely notice but in a twist of fate reminiscent of Achilles, what finally knocked Bethel-Thompson out of a game wasn’t being landed on by a 300-pound tackle or folded in half by a blitzing linebacker. Rather, he simply caught his thumb on Jackson Jeffcoat’s arm.

It happened with the Argos trailing by nine less than a minute into the fourth quarter. Somehow Markeith Ambles ended up trying to block Jeffcoat and the big defensive end extended his arm as Bethel-Thompson floated a deep ball out to Brandon Banks. He looked at his thumb but stayed in the game, completing his next pass — though it sailed high — to Cam Phillips. A late hit that saw him once again driven into the ground added another 15 yards and after a short run from Ouellette, Bethel-Thompson would throw his last pass of the game.

It was clear something wasn’t right. The ball fluttered out of his hand way over the head of Banks. On the sideline, they diagnosed him with a dislocated thumb and tried to tape him up, but he simply couldn’t grip the ball and adding a glove didn’t help at all. So he stood on the sidelines and watched as the fate of the team was transferred onto the shoulders of the man he’d groomed all season.

Next man up

Looking back, perhaps the most important thing to happen to the Argos all season was wrapping up the East Division in Week 20. That allowed head coach Ryan Dinwiddie to start Chad Kelly in a meaningless Week 21 game against the Alouettes.

Kelly handled himself well that day and gained valuable confidence, which was crucial since his previous non-short yardage snaps hadn’t gone well at all. Suddenly being forced into action in the fourth quarter of a Grey Cup game isn’t ideal, but he didn’t look unsettled. Kelly completed three of his first four passes, and though he’d only complete one more pass for the rest of the game, his pocket awareness and athleticism contributed to Toronto’s go-ahead score.

Facing a second-and-fifteen from the Winnipeg 36-yard line, Kelly dropped back, eluded giant defensive tackle Ricky Walker, and flew up the middle of the field for a 20-yard gain and a key first down. Ouellette’s second touchdown of the game followed a few plays later.

I never know… well, anything, but I suspect Chad Kelly will be the starting quarterback in Toronto next season. He might have been anyway, but his clutch performance on the league’s biggest stage either gave Argos’ decision-makers a bit more confidence, or drove their asking price up significantly for other interested teams.

Red flags

Toronto’s bench boss finished the season 2-for-13 on challenges after losing yet another ill-advised one on Sunday. It’s a stunning number.

Dinwiddie did well not to throw his challenge flag on the Argos’ second offensive snap when DaVaris Daniels appeared to take early contact. I’ve seen him challenge similar plays in the past even though they never get overturned. He did eventually challenge an equally futile play midway through the fourth quarter when Cam Phillips went down at the Winnipeg three-yard line in pursuit of a deep pass from Kelly, but there wasn’t any clear interference from Jamal Parker. It was a big moment in the game made even bigger by Brandon Banks being penalized for arguing the non-call so I understand what he was thinking, but desperate challenge flags should only be thrown when the game is otherwise lost, and that wasn’t the case here.

Dinwiddie made matters worse when he blew his remaining timeout trying to get Winnipeg to jump offside on a third-and-two with just over two minutes remaining in the game. Everyone watching knew Toronto wasn’t going to run a play, so the most disciplined team in the league certainly wasn’t going to jump. Timeouts are so valuable in the CFL and while it didn’t ultimately matter in this game, there’s an alternate universe where Winnipeg hits their go-ahead field goal and Dinwiddie snaps his clipboard in half because he doesn’t have any timeouts left.

The Phoenix

I’ve either coached or coached against a number of Toronto Argonauts. No one ever gave my offence more trouble than defensive end Robbie Smith, and it’s not particularly close.

With a minute to go in the Grey Cup, I felt absolutely crushed for Smith. He’d been a machine all night but luck wasn’t on his side. An early offside penalty negated a Shawn Oakman sack on second-and-10, and ended up leading to a Winnipeg touchdown. He also seemed to be the guilty party who lost his lane on Janarion Grant’s punt return touchdown, and he took a point off the board with a holding call on John Haggerty’s rouge. Then, with time ticking down in the fourth quarter, he appeared to end the game, sacking Zach Collaros on back-to-back plays, but he was called for a facemask penalty. On the very next play, Winnipeg found themselves in field goal range.

I immediately thought about how Smith would relive these moments for the rest of his life. Little did I know, he would forever be remembered for a positive moment that had yet to come.

As Winnipeg’s Marc Liegghio planted to kick what would be the game-winning 47-yard field goal, Smith somehow willed himself through the C-gap in the Bombers’ line and fully extended to get a hand on the ball as it sailed towards the uprights. It was a beautiful redemption story for Robbie Smith, but he owes at least some of it to Chris Edwards.

On the previous play, Edwards tipped a pass intended for a wide-open Nic Demski. Had Demski caught the ball, the field goal attempt would have been much shorter. At 47-yards, Liegghio had to put everything he had into it. Obviously, he was trying to make the field goal, but down a point, with the wind at his back, he needed to be sure the ball made it through the endzone for a game-tying rouge — similar to Boris Bede’s game-winning rouge in Montreal a few weeks ago. But unlike Bede, who was able to sail it over the uprights, 61 yards through the back of the endzone, Leigghio would have to drive it lower which allowed Smith to make the block that will live on in CFL lore.

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.