Chad Kelly stumbles at the worst time: 12 thoughts on Toronto’s playoff loss to Montreal

Photo: Reuben Polansky/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The Argonauts’ historic 2023 season came to a sudden end on Saturday as the Toronto offence repeatedly handed Montreal the football, completely negating an outstanding performance by their defence.

Here are my thoughts on the game.

Missing: Toronto’s offence
There was not a moment this season when the Toronto offence looked anything like the unit we saw on Saturday. This same group turned the ball over a league-low 27 times in 18 games and was on pace to set a CFL record at one point. In the Eastern Final, however, they committed nine turnovers. Nine! Chad Kelly threw four interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns, he lost a fumble, and they turned the ball over on downs four times.

The Argos couldn’t be stopped at home this season, in large part because of the offence. They averaged over 37 points per game at BMO Field, never scoring fewer than 29. On this day, they managed only three points through three quarters and finished with just 17. If the Toronto offence had just played poorly, they’d have won the game by double digits, but they actively hurt the team’s chances to win on almost every possession through the first three quarters.

Doing too much
I believe Chad Kelly was the Most Outstanding Player in the CFL this season. If I were choosing one player in the league to build my team around, it would be him. Not only did he not have a single bad game, he was phenomenal in most of them.

I don’t know where that guy was on Saturday, and I’m not sure he does either. Kelly seemed as lost in the postgame press conference as he was on the field, and honestly, I felt the same way trying to explain what I was seeing from the broadcast booth.

“This loss is on me,” said a sombre Kelly after the game. “I take full responsibility, throwing those mistakes out there, playing careless with the football, trying to do too much.”

He did look like he was trying to do too much, but I don’t know where that came from. All season, he was great at taking what the defence gave him and putting his teammates in position to make plays.

Let plays die
Based on head coach Ryan Dinwiddie’s postgame comments, I think he had concerns Kelly would try to put the team on his shoulders.

“One of the things I was trying to tell Chad going into this game,” said Dinwiddie. “is that he didn’t have to be a superhero. Sometimes we have to let plays die.”

On two of Kelly’s interceptions, he threw passes he simply shouldn’t have. He tried to force the ball in when the correct play was to either throw it away or tuck it and run.

Limited vision
Two of Kelly’s interceptions appeared to be mental mistakes that stemmed from him not seeing the field well — a strength of his all season.

It didn’t appear to me as though Montreal did anything unusual in coverage. Marc-Antoine Dequoy’s pick-six was just man coverage on Tommy Nield’s flats route, but I don’t think Kelly ever saw him. It was a run-pass option, and I believe he pulled the ball thinking Nield was uncovered.

Reggie Stubblefield’s interception appeared to come against a basic cover-four look. Kelly stared down Dejon Brissett on a dig route, allowing Stubblefield, as an underneath defender, to read his eyes and make an easy play.

He couldn’t seem to locate open receivers with the immediacy with which he had all season. In the third quarter, DaVaris Daniels got wide open up the seam but Chad didn’t see him until it was too late. Then in the fourth quarter, he didn’t pick up a wide-open Brissett until Kabion Ento was able to recover and bat the ball away. Two plays later, Brissett was jumping up and down in the endzone, all alone, but Kelly tucked the ball and ran with it for a short gain.

Bright lights
Kelly was asked if this was the worst game he’s ever played. He didn’t answer, saying instead it’s up to the media to decide that.

I’m sure it was. I can’t imagine he ever had a game like this in high school, and he certainly hasn’t at the college or pro level. I don’t think he’ll ever have a game like this again. He’s always performed well in big moments, beating Alabama in Tuscaloosa, beating Georgia, and coming from behind to win the Grey Cup in relief of McLeod Bethel-Thompson last season.

Coming into this game, Kelly only had three more career starts than Ottawa’s Dustin Crum. I think sometimes we forget how inexperienced he is because of how well he played this season.

Invisible men
Damonte Coxie and Tommy Nield were a pain in Montreal’s side all season, but both were relatively silent in the Eastern Final.

In Toronto’s three wins against the Alouettes, Coxie had 11 receptions for 188 yards and two touchdowns, while Nield had 13 catches for 166 yards in only two appearances versus Montreal. In this affair, Neild was held without a catch, his only target resulting in a pick-six, and Coxie had one catch on one target for 29 yards.

The Dark World
The one bright spot for Toronto’s skill players was A.J. Ouellette. Having sat out the last game of the season, Ouellette looked like a caged animal at practice this week, and even more fired up during the game. He led the team in carries and receptions and had over 100 total yards of offence.

Issues sneaking
Two of Toronto’s four turnovers on downs came on failed quarterback sneaks. Interestingly, Chad Kelly was left in for these two sneaks despite Cameron Dukes handling such duties for the majority of the season.

I think leaving Kelly in for these plays was the right call. It didn’t show in this game at all, but I think Kelly is better at it than Dukes. To prove both Ryan Dinwiddie and me wrong, Dukes came in for the team’s final two sneaks, both of which he converted.

I didn’t see Montreal winning this game because I couldn’t imagine their offence putting up enough points against Toronto’s defence to win. They didn’t, but I also didn’t foresee the Alouettes scoring 21 non-offensive points.

The Argos defence was sensational. They allowed two touchdowns, one of which was on a drive that started at the Toronto 13-yard-line, while the other began at Toronto’s 29-yard-line and was extended by a special teams penalty on third down. They held Cody Fajardo to 175 yards passing and limited William Stanback to 1.7 yards per carry.

The sack exchange returns
Toronto’s defensive line was dominant. Not only did they shut down Montreal’s rushing attack, but they sacked Cody Fajardo seven times and had him on the run all night. Shawn Oakman registered three sacks, while Brandon Barlow and Flo Orimolade each had two. The unit that led the league in sacks this season showed up big time.

Red flag
After getting shut on his first eight challenges of the season, Ryan Dinwiddie finally had a call go his way after he alleged that Wesley Sutton interfered with DaVaris Daniels. Unfortunately for him, the Argos turned the ball over three plays later.

Dinwiddie wished he were allowed to challenge a block in the back that went uncalled on James Letcher Jr.’s 105-yard kickoff return touchdown in the fourth quarter.

“I wish I could have challenged a block in the back there, because I thought there was one on [Jonathan Jones], they just missed it,” he remarked.

Having seen the replay, Dinwiddie’s probably right. A push from behind by Brock Gowanlock likely prevented Jones from being able to make the tackle, but that wasn’t the difference in this game.

Big crowd
Saturday’s crowd of 26,620 was the largest ever to watch an Argos game at BMO Field. Toronto’s stadium is notoriously loud, even when there are only 14,000 fans in attendance, but Montreal did a great job taking the crowd out of the game early on, and noise never seemed to be a factor for the Alouettes.

This was a missed opportunity for the Argonauts organization. A big win, or even an exciting performance on par with any of their other home games this season, would have gone a long way towards winning over thousands of new fans and potential future season ticket holders.

“We’re pretty embarrassed by the performance we gave to the city of Toronto and our fans,” said Ryan Dinwiddie. “I wish we had a better showing for them.”

Up next
Their season may be finished, but several Argos will be honoured at the 2023 CFL Awards show at Fallsview Casino’s Avalon Theatre in Niagara Falls on Thursday night. Chad Kelly, Adarius Pickett, Dejon Allen, Javon Leake, Qwan’tez Stiggers, and Ryan Dinwiddie are all finalists for league awards.

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