109th Grey Cup hero Chad Kelly threw just 52 passes in his first CFL season but Toronto Argonauts head coach Ryan Dinwiddie believes he has what it takes to be the team’s starting quarterback next season.
“I think he can be,” Dinwiddie said during the Argos’ championship rally at Maple Leaf Square in downtown Toronto. “I told him, I don’t think we’ve had all the champagne we’re gonna have yet. I think we’ll all sit down Monday, we’ll look at where we’re gonna be at as an organization, have some conversations with management and go from there.”
Kelly came off the bench in the fourth quarter of the 2022 CFL championship game, completing four-of-six passes for 43 yards. He set up the game-winning touchdown with a memorable 20-yard scramble on second-and-15, steering his team to a 24-23 upset of the two-time defending champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
The 28-year-old pivot entered the league with plenty of hype, promising to throw for 6,000 yards and become the face of the league. He eventually earned the Argos’ backup QB job and held a clipboard while being highly engaged throughout the season. A dislocated thumb suffered by veteran McLeod Bethel-Thompson forced him into action during the biggest game of the season. Kelly believes he has proven himself ready to take over the top job.
“1,000 percent,” he said confidently. “And I’m gonna work as hard as I can to be that guy.”
Kelly arrived in the CFL with an impressive resume and a checkered past. He was dismissed from Clemson University for conduct detrimental to the team, then went the junior college route before finding success at the University of Mississippi, famously leading the team to an upset over the University of Alabama Crimson Tide in his first month as a starter at Ole Miss.
Despite his high degree of physical talent, injuries and off-the-field concerns led Kelly to fall to the final pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. He spent two seasons with the Denver Broncos before being released after an arrest for criminal trespassing. He landed with the Indianapolis Colts, spending two more seasons south of the border.
Following his Grey Cup comeback, Kelly stated he was a better quarterback the 50 percent of starters in the NFL. He stood by that comment at the Argonauts’ championship rally.
“I feel like I love the game enough, that I study the game enough,” Kelly insisted. “I feel like my presence in the huddle, talking to those guys, getting them guys prepared, I feel like I bring the whole team up, to be honest with you. I feel like everybody gets better when I’m out there.”
Highly coveted in CFL circles due to his drool-worthy physical tools, Kelly was originally Elks property but he refused to sign with the team. According to the 28-year-old, he only had one northern destination in mind.
“I wanted to play for this team. When I told them that I wanted to be traded, I told them I want to be traded to the Toronto Argonauts and they did it, they made it happen,” Kelly said. “It’s a surreal moment right now that I’m in this situation.”
Dinwiddie was a driving force in an October 2021 trade to acquire Kelly’s negotiation list rights from Edmonton in exchange for QB Nick Arbuckle. The 41-year-old was high on his abilities and helped him learn the Canadian game during his rookie season north of the border.
“We felt like Chad could be a starter when we traded for him from Edmonton,” Dinwiddie said. “We decided to trade Arbuckle and you take a chance at losing your backup quarterback right in the thick of things last year, that’s how much we believe in Chad.”
Kelly started one game this year, the regular season finale against the Montreal Alouettes. He finished 23-of-35 passing for 264 yards with two touchdowns and one interception while rushing six times for 35 yards and a score. As the team’s primary short-yardage quarterback, he rushed for six touchdowns in his first season in Canada.
The Argos showed remarkable faith in Kelly come the post-season. He threw a touchdown in the East Final on a fake sneak and when coming off the bench in the Grey Cup, Dinwiddie did not call a single play that was on the quarterback’s wristband.
Retirement rumours have surrounded the Argos’ 34-year-old incumbent Bethel-Thompson, which could open up the door for Kelly to take over in 2023. However, if such a move happens, Kelly wants a significant bump in pay next year.
Kelly earned $79,000 in hard money last season and collected another $12,333 in bonus cash, bringing his total regular-season earnings to $91,333. His deal increases to $87,000 in hard money next season, with the potential to earn $3,333.33 each time he takes 51 percent or more of Toronto’s offensive snaps and an additional $10,000 if he starts ten or more games. He also gets $500 each time he makes the active roster as the club’s primary backup quarterback.
The burgeoning pivot can collect $1,500 if he passes for 1,000 yards, $3,000 if he passes for 2,000 yards, $5,000 if he passes for 3,000 yards, $10,000 if he passes for 4,000 yards, and $15,000 if he passes for 5,000 yards. He will also receive $5,000 if he finishes top three in CFL touchdown passes and another $5,000 if he finishes top three in CFL passing yards.
The six-foot-two, 216-pound passer will receive a $2,500 bonus if he is named an East Division all-star, a $5,000 bonus if he is named a CFL all-star, and a $15,000 bonus if he is named the league’s Most Outstanding Player.
Added up, Kelly can earn a maximum of $224,000 next year if he produces a dominant season, still significantly less than almost any other starter in the league.
“Hopefully we can come to something that’s team-friendly, for sure, because we have a lot of guys that are ballers,” Kelly said, before referencing his Pro Football Hall of Fame uncle Jim Kelly.
“We really have a lot of guys that you can put a real championship team together if you really want to. My uncle was fortunate enough to go to four straight Super Bowls, they kept a lot of those guys together and I now foresee that happening with this team.”
While the quarterback remains interested in NFL opportunities, he has fallen in love with Toronto and is focused on pursuing his best path to the field. However, it is far from a foregone conclusion that Kelly would take over even if Bethel-Thompson chooses to move on from football.
The Argos have been linked to pending free agent Bo Levi Mitchell, who was wearing a blue suit coat at the CFL awards in Regina. Dinwiddie worked closely with Mitchell as quarterbacks coach for the Calgary Stampeders. Kelly is aware of the possibility that the two-time league MOP could come to Toronto but the confident Buffalo native remains unfazed.
“Whatever’s in the team’s best interest, I’m with it,” he said. “If it’s me, if it’s him, if it’s anybody, I’m ready to go.”