‘The quarterback job is earned’: Argos high on QB Chad Kelly’s potential, but won’t just ‘hand him the keys’

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

The Toronto Argonauts are high on Chad Kelly’s potential as a CFL quarterback but don’t expect the team to name the second-year backup their unquestioned starter any time soon.

“If we go that route, he’s gonna have to beat out someone in camp. I believe in competition and the quarterback job is earned and he knows that,” head coach Ryan Dinwiddie told 3DownNation at the CFL’s winter meetings.

“We feel like he can be that guy, that’s why we traded for him. We feel like he could be that guy: great skill set, he works his butt off and we’re confident that he can be that guy. But at the same stage, you’ve got to make sure guys go through the right process of deserving that opportunity and we’re comfortable doing that as well.”

The Argos acquired Kelly’s rights from the Edmonton Elks as part of the trade that sent former double blue QB Nick Arbuckle to Alberta, inking the highly-touted Ole Miss product to a two-year contract ahead of the 2022 season.

The nephew of Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Kelly attracted significant media attention as soon as he arrived in Toronto and quickly won the backup job, fading from the spotlight for much of the year.

That changed suddenly in the fourth quarter during the 109th Grey Cup when Kelly was forced to come off the bench and steer the Argos to victory. He completed four-of-six passes for 43 yards and set up the game-winning touchdown with a memorable 20-yard scramble on second-and-15, etching himself in CFL history with a 24-23 upset of the two-time defending champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Set to turn 29 in March, Kelly would like to translate that big game success into a starting job and potentially a shot at returning to the NFL. However, Toronto has not yet decided on the quarterback position for the 2023 season, with veteran starter McLeod Bethel-Thompson scheduled to hit free agency in February and he’s rumoured to be contemplating retirement.

“At this point, we’re probably as curious as you are,” admitted general manager Pinball Clemons when it came to the status of the CFL’s reigning passing yardage leader. “We probably know a little bit more on the inside, but we probably know enough to be more confused as to whether or not he’ll come back because of the different things that are on his table.”

Clemons revealed that Bethel-Thompson was already considering stepping away from the game for family reasons ahead of the 2022 season. He quickly left the team to return home following Toronto’s championship win, attending the Argos’ victory celebration at Maple Leaf Square virtually.

The 34-year-old underwent offseason surgery for the dislocated thumb which caused him to exit the Grey Cup and is expected to make a full recovery, but his playing future remains in doubt. While the Argos seem keen to keep him in the fold, the two sides have yet to engage in contract negotiations.

“With some quarterbacks, that gets pretty complicated. With McLeod, [contract negotiations] haven’t been a problem for us,” Dinwiddie said. “We feel like we can get that worked out in a day or two, sit down with his agent and make sure the numbers make sense for him if we go that route. He just knows that right now he’s got to focus on some other things and we know who he is as a football player and what he means to this organization and what he did this year.”

Should Bethel-Thompson choose to step away from the game, Kelly would be his natural successor. Although, there are those who believe that the Argos would be wise to make a quarterback switch regardless of their incumbent’s decision, betting on the physical upside of their brash backup before his patience for holding a clipboard wears out.

Kelly started just one game in 2022, 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.

With that limited sample size, the Buffalo native showed a glimpse of the traits that made him a household name while throwing for 6,800 yards, 50 touchdowns and 21 interceptions in two seasons at the University of Mississippi. Those were the reasons the Argos aggressively pursued his services a year ago.

“I liked Chad when he was playing college football, got to see a lot of it, felt like he’s a good player. Now he’s got to show it in the CFL, which he’s showed flashes but he hasn’t had a lot of opportunities as well,” Dinwiddie said. “I think the more opportunities he gets, the more he’ll prove to people that he belongs and he could be a franchise guy. Now we’ve got to go out and see it.”

Off-the-field issues, not talent, led Kelly to fall to the last pick in the 2017 NFL Draft and eventually end his career south of the border with the Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts. That has not been a problem since he arrived in Toronto and his signature bravado has been appreciated by teammates and management alike.

“He is a guy who brings people together and I think that people like being around him,” Clemons said. “He dances — I don’t want to overstate it but he’s the Joe Namath. He’s that guy who is just so full of life and so much a part of it.”

“Whereas you look at one of the greatest all time to do it in Ricky Ray and a totally different way, just subdued, almost removed, always sort of giving credit everywhere else. But Chad loves the focus. He loves to be in the media and that’s certainly not a bad thing for us in our marketplace.”

Since playing Grey Cup hero, Kelly has brought a significant degree of new attention to the Argos, appearing on the popular American sports podcast Pardon My Take and gracing the pages of the New York Post. That level of marketability would not go amiss in Toronto, where the CFL has struggled to maintain a media foothold and drive attendance.

Could Kelly at quarterback be a catalyst for ticket sales and revive interest in North America’s oldest pro sports franchise? Clemons believes it is a possibility.

“When we speak to spokespeople, he certainly has that potential but you don’t want to put too much too fast,” the Hall of Famer cautioned.

“He’s going to be himself, you don’t have to worry about that. He’s gonna do and be, and so could he be? Yes. But the reason we had him here is because he’s a good quarterback and he’s going to do those things on the football field that will keep us competitive. And further to that, there’s a good possibility that he may make us more attractive and that’s a really good thing.”

Roster decisions aren’t typically made with a social media footprint in mind while both of the Argos’ top decision-makers are willing to be patient in facilitating a Bethel-Thompson return, so long as a decision can be reached ahead of free agency. Kelly’s time will come, but it will not be rushed before it is due.

“There’s gonna be some tough decisions but we’re comfortable that Chad’s got another year on his contract. He can be that guy for us,” Dinwiddie said.

“I want to let McLeod have some time to deal with his family and Chad’s gotta be patient as well. I know Chad wants to be the guy but we’re not just going to hand him the keys to the organization. He’s going to have to go earn it but he might have the headstart to being that guy.”

Justin Dunk is a football insider, sports reporter and anchor.