Kelly shows off loose elbow in tight performance: seven thoughts on the Argos’ preseason loss to the Redblacks

Photo courtesy: Toronto Argonauts

On Thursday night, the Toronto Argonauts wrapped up their preseason with a 34-23 loss to the Ottawa Redblacks at Alumni Stadium on the University of Guelph campus.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

At the helm

Chad Kelly had a near-perfect outing on Thursday, which is exactly what head coach Ryan Dinwiddie was hoping to see following last week’s missed opportunity for valuable playing time due to elbow tightness.

The elbow appeared to be perfectly fine as Kelly threw with his usual accuracy and velocity. In three series, he completed four of five passes for 105 yards, putting up 10 points in the process. He hit Markeith Ambles twice on the opening drive, once for 22 yards while sitting Ambles in between zones in the middle of the field, and once for 27 yards against tight man coverage. On his second drive, Kelly found Dejon Brissett twice, once for a 46-yard gain, and then another for 10. On his third and final drive of the evening, he aired one out for Damonte Coxie and drew a 42-yard pass interference penalty. His only incompletion of the night was an ill-advised throw to a double-covered Ambles, which looked for a moment like it might be intercepted.

None of the other three quarterbacks particularly stood out, generating only two field goals over the remaining three and a half quarters. Bryan Scott probably still holds the clubhouse lead for the backup job, completing a very safe six of nine passes for 48 yards. Cam Dukes had a few nice runs but missed a wide-open David Ungerer III in the endzone on a third-down gamble.

Following a poor performance last week, Ben Holmes may have eliminated himself from contention for the backup role by completing only two of eight passes for 33 yards with an interception. If it were based on these two preseason games alone, the Argos would have Scott backup Kelly, with Dukes on the practice roster, releasing Holmes. However, Holmes has the best understanding of Ryan Dinwiddie’s offence and looked great in practice last season, so nothing would be surprising at this point.

Byrd is the word

It’s hard to imagine that B.J. Byrd didn’t earn a roster spot by scoring his third touchdown in two games. Last week, the 23-year-old Morehead State product had two receiving touchdowns, and Thursday night he added another on a highlight-reel punt return touchdown from 84 yards out. What made the return even more impressive was that the punt had great hangtime, leaving Byrd surrounded when he fielded the football. He made the first defender miss and broke two tackles on his way to the endzone.

Last season, the Argos generally dressed five American receivers, which is probably the plan once again. DaVaris Daniels and Markeith Ambles are locks to start, so if Byrd makes the roster, that leaves only two roster spots for returning players Cam Phillips, Damonte Coxie, and Jeremiah Haydel, not to mention training camp darlings Lonnie Moore IV and Rajae’ Johnson, who scored touchdowns in the Double Blue Scrimmage and last week’s preseason game respectively.

Leake in the boat

Javon Leake was Toronto’s best punt and kickoff returner last season, delivering a clutch 44-yard punt return late in their Grey Cup victory. He flashed at times as a running back but for him to make the roster again, it will have to be for his special teams play.

There’s no doubt Toronto is intrigued by the diminutive but electric McNeese State running back Deonta McMahon, who has been used sparingly in preseason action. They can’t afford to keep both on the roster, and truthfully, it may be difficult to keep either with Andrew Harris, A.J. Ouellette, and Daniel Adeboboye guaranteed spots.

If the team feels they can rely on other returners like Byrd or Colorado School of Mines defensive back Mason Pierce — who had a 68-yard kickoff return against Ottawa — Leake may be the odd man out.

Magic numbers

Last week in Hamilton’s press box, I could barely make out the numbers on Toronto’s new Cambridge blue jerseys. Given that there appears to be enough contrast and a white outline surrounding the Oxford blue numbers, I attributed this to my aging eyes and the sheer height of the Hamilton press box, by far the highest in the CFL.

However, from the home broadcasting booth at Alumni Stadium on Thursday night, not at all far removed from the playing field, the numbers were again hard to make out. That is until the sun went down.

As if by magic, once the sun set, the numbers became crystal clear. Fortunately, the Argos will only be wearing their home blues for two afternoon starts this season.

Situation room

With just a few minutes remaining in the first half, quarterback Cam Dukes was pulled in favour of Bryan Scott. The timing of this move seemed odd, but the Argos’ staff clearly wanted to see how Scott responded to this situation, having thrown Dukes into a similar situation in the dying seconds of last week’s game in Hamilton. Scott completed his first two passes for a first down, but then took a sack and completed a three-yard pass to end the drive.

Similarly, players battling for roster spots were given opportunities by the staff to show their work, whether it was in the return game, carrying the football, or as the primary target on a passing play. At the end of the game, all of these “bubble” players had opportunities. Toronto had seven ball carriers, targeted 12 different receivers, sent out four players to field punts, and had five players return kickoffs.

As much as this was just an evaluatory opportunity, when the outcome of the game was on the line late in the fourth quarter, the coaching staff and players alike seemed to respond to the urgency of the situation. With under seven minutes remaining, the Argos went from running a vanilla defence to sending pressure with regularity in an attempt to get the ball back. Offensively, Toronto was clearly attempting to push the ball downfield, even when it wasn’t there, which led to Holmes’ interception on a pass he probably wouldn’t have thrown in a tie game or with the lead.

Red Flag

In two seasons as a head coach, Ryan Dinwiddie has finished first in the East Division twice and won a Grey Cup. It might still be too early to call him great, but he’s well on the way.

Despite his obvious skill as a leader and play-caller, he remains one of the worst coaches in the league at challenging plays. Last season, he finished the year two-for-13 on challenges. On Thursday night, he lost another bewildering one, contesting that Ottawa was illegally blocking downfield on a play in which the Redblacks’ quarterback didn’t attempt a pass. The call stood and the Argos found themselves with one less timeout in a tight ballgame down the stretch.

Field of Dreams

University stadiums make for a spectacular CFL fan experience, especially when extra seating isn’t brought in as it was when Hamilton made Guelph their home during the construction of Tim Horton’s Field. There’s almost a Field of Dreams quality to the game, sitting there watching professional football in such an intimate venue.

This is the second straight season the Argonauts have hosted a preseason game at Alumni Stadium, and given the success of both events, it’s pretty safe to say they’ll continue to do so for as long as the University of Guelph remains their training camp home.

Ben Grant is the radio colour analyst for the Toronto Argonauts. He has been coaching high school and semi-pro football for 20 years.