‘It’s his job’: Ryan Dinwiddie confident in Chad Kelly as Argos’ starting QB following McLeod Bethel-Thompson’s departure

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

Chad Kelly will be the starting quarterback of the Toronto Argonauts in 2023, so long as he’s up to the task in training camp.

In an interview with 3DownNation on Friday, head coach Ryan Dinwiddie said that while he insists on competition at all positions, the team is moving forward with their second-year pivot pencilled in atop the depth chart.

“It’s his job to lose. Well, really it’s his job to win, but it’s his job,” Dinwiddie insisted. “But we want some guys to push him and we want to find some guys that can push him that can be viable backups.”

Kelly’s ascension comes after incumbent McLeod Bethel-Thompson officially announced his departure for the USFL on Wednesday. Having spent most of the offseason playing coy about the rumours surrounding his starting quarterback’s future, Dinwiddie revealed that he had suspected Bethel-Thompson wouldn’t return since December. Clarity for the club came just a few weeks before the general public.

“I would say probably about two weeks ago, maybe three weeks ago, I talked to McLeod and had a good idea that that was his process and what he was looking to do for his family’s sake, so we kept it under wraps,” he acknowledged.

Speculation regarding Bethel-Thompson’s possible retirement began in advance of the Argos’ victory in the 109th Grey Cup. The 34-year-old was reportedly needed on the home front after his wife, Chinaka Hodge, was hired as the head writer for an upcoming Marvel series on Disney+ called Ironheart and he left ahead of the team’s championship celebration in Toronto, attending virtually.

Despite offseason thumb surgery, the veteran signal-caller wants to keep playing and will do so with the New Orleans Breakers, whose USFL hub in Birmingham, Alabama is just two hours away from the studio in Atlanta where his wife’s series is filmed. Bethel-Thompson also expressed hope that his time south of the border could translate into possible NFL interest, something Dinwiddie remains skeptically supportive of.

“McLeod has some NFL opportunities in his mind. Whether those come true, I don’t know but this gives him the best opportunity to do that and you never know,” he said. “Each player has their own mindset, what they want to do for themselves, which is fair, and we have to do our due diligence as far as having a plan for that.”

That plan is Kelly, who became a household name in the CFL after Bethel-Thompson suffered a dislocated thumb in the fourth quarter of the Grey Cup. He completed four-of-six passes for 43 yards after coming off the bench and set up the game-winning touchdown with a memorable 20-yard scramble on second-and-15 to upset the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

The 28-year-old started just one game in his first CFL season, going 23-of-35 for 264 yards with two touchdowns and one interception in the regular-season finale against Montreal, rushing six times for 35 yards and a score. He ran for six touchdowns as the team’s primary short-yardage quarterback in 2022.

Despite his lack of experience in the three-down game, the Argos’ believe that Kelly has the tools necessary to be an elite player at the position. It was part of the team’s motivation when they acquired his negotiation list rights from Edmonton as part of the Nick Arbuckle trade mid-way through the 2021 season.

“We’re confident in him and that’s why we made the trade two years ago. We felt like he could be that guy for us. Under 30, if he plays well, we have him for a long time,” Dinwiddie remarked.

“There’s some things we need to polish but I think the kid’s got the gifts we need to have at that position. Now, we haven’t seen it, we’ve seen a little bit of it, but I feel like the kid has upside. We feel like we can win with him.”

CFL teams rarely enter a season with so much inexperience at quarterback, however the B.C. Lions offer a recent template for success. Last year’s sophomore sensation Nathan Rourke took the reigns in Vancouver with just 82 career passing attempts to his name, translating that into a Most Outstanding Canadian trophy and an NFL contract. Kelly boasts just 52 career attempts but also has four seasons of NFL experience under his belt.

Still, the Argos were expected to add a veteran counterpart to Kelly in the aftermath of Bethel-Thompson’s departure, with many analysts tying them to former Hamilton Tiger-Cats starter Dane Evans. That changed when Evans was traded to the B.C. Lions on Thursday, a move that didn’t surprise Dinwiddie.

“You never know how that’s going to go, so you’re an outside party playing wait and see and kind of letting the pieces of the puzzle play out and you go from there,” he said.

“There’s a lot of guys that we were interested in bringing in and who knows what’s gonna happen down the line, but there’s not a lot of available CFL players right now to come in and compete at quarterback.”

Dinwiddie would not confirm or deny whether the Argos were involved in trade talks for Evans, but did admit that the team spoke with several free-agent quarterbacks. That includes former Saskatchewan Roughrider Cody Fajardo, who recently told The Rod Pedersen Show that he chose to sign with the Montreal Alouettes over interest from Toronto.

“We did kick the tires on Cody but really when Cody says that he turned us down, that was not necessarily the truth,” Dinwiddie explained. “We did talk to him, we do respect him and thought he could add some value to our club, but we felt like he and [Trevor Harris] were going to go and be starting quarterbacks with another organization.”

According to the coach, overspending on a veteran was never a priority due to their confidence in Kelly, but competition will come in the form of new recruits. Ben Holmes is the only other quarterback currently on the roster but the Argos expect to have up to four more signed in time for training camp.

The bulk of the heavy lifting will be done by the scouting department, with a keen focus placed on finding players that can match Kelly’s physical skillset.

“Chad’s got the ability to extend plays and maybe have some naked bootlegs or different things to get him on the edge, not necessarily having him drop back and throwing from a spot,” Dinwiddie said. “I think we add a guy with a similar skill set to Chad and we’ll tailor the offence from that.”

That will be a change of pace from the statuesque Bethel-Thompson, but Kelly’s combination of mobility and arm strength has served him well in the past. The nephew of Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Kelly threw for 6,800 yards, 50 touchdowns and 21 interceptions in two seasons at the University of Mississippi, capturing national attention with an upset victory over No. 2 ranked Alabama in 2015.

Despite considerable NFL attention, he fell to the final pick of the 2017 Draft due to off-the-field concerns. Kelly spent four seasons with the Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts but struggled to shake his bad boy persona following a 2018 arrest for criminal trespassing.

While he possesses the talent to fill Bethel-Thompson’s shoes under centre, Dinwiddie also believes that Kelly has matured enough to shoulder his mantle of leadership.

“Guys rally around Chad. He challenges guys. A tough personality is always gonna be welcome, maybe not so much each day, but the thing is that he’s competitive and he’s going to make these guys compete,” he said.

“The one thing I like about him is he’s got that brash personality and we’ve got to tailor that a little bit as far as coaches, understanding when to give him the moment to speak up and do those things, but the kid wants to win and he competes.”

Already earning a reputation for being one of the most outspoken CFL players, Kelly’s name generates attention on both sides of the border. The Argos are taking a leap of faith on their inexperienced backup and betting that he can deliver on both his talent and marketability.

Should he live up to those expectations, a little roughness around the edges won’t be a concern.

“If your quarterback is not the most competitive guy on the team, you have problems,” Dinwiddie stressed. “We think Chad is the most competitive guy across the league.”

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.