Argos head coach Dinwiddie content with giving Chad Kelly chance to lead offence

TORONTO — McLeod Bethel-Thompson's decision to play in the fledgling USFL this season didn't catch Ryan Dinwiddie by surprise.

The Toronto head coach said Thursday the Argonauts have known for about a month that Bethel-Thompson wouldn't be helping them defend their Grey Cup title this season. Bethel-Thompson announced on social media Wednesday he'll play with the USFL's New Orleans Breakers in 2023, then "continue with considerable NFL interest in the fall."

But Dinwiddie said Toronto remains confident sophomore Chad Kelly will be able to cushion the blow of losing the 2022 CFL passing leader.

"We had an idea after the Grey Cup this was a possibility," Dinwiddie said. "You lose a quarterback with a lot of experience who played some good football for us and had a great year last year.

"The one thing was, though, everybody knew how excited we were with Chad and we feel he has a good chance to be our future. He's still unproven, he hasn't done a ton of it yet, but we feel like he can be that guy for us."

The six-foot-two, 216-pound Kelly came up huge for Toronto in its upset 24-23 Grey Cup win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Replacing an injured Bethel-Thompson (dislocated right thumb) in the fourth quarter, Kelly — the nephew of former Bills' star quarterback Jim Kelly — completed four-of-six passes for 43 yards.

But it was Kelly's crucial 20-yard run on second-and-15 that set up A.J. Ouellette's game-winning five-yard rushing TD.

The six-foot-four, 220-pound Bethel-Thompson threw for a CFL- and career-high 4,731 yards last season with 23 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He led Toronto (11-7) atop the East Division for a second straight season, then completed 19-of-27 passes for 299 yards and two TDs in the Argos' 34-27 conference final victory over the Montreal Alouettes.

Bethel-Thompson, 34, was 15-of-28 passing for 203 yards against Winnipeg before his injury. But his decision to play in the USFL wasn't surprising as immediately following Toronto's championship win, Bethel-Thompson — a married father of a young daughter — said family would figure prominently in his off-season consideration.

Bethel-Thompson, who became a CFL free agent Feb. 14, also won a Grey Cup his first year with Toronto, backing up veteran Ricky Ray. His decision not to return leaves Kelly and Ben Holmes, who signed with the Argos last August, as the only quarterbacks on the club's roster.

And with veterans Trevor Harris (Saskatchewan), Cody Fajardo (Montreal), Bo Levi Mitchell and Matt Shiltz (both Hamilton) having already signed free-agent deals, there doesn't appear to be any CFL-experienced quarterbacks available. Veteran Dane Evans, though, won't be an option as the Ticats dealt their former starter to the B.C. Lions on Thursday for a conditional 2024 fourth-round pick.

"There's a few (quarterbacks) we have on our radar, we'll see how it's going to play out," Dinwiddie said. "We're doing research on multiple quarterbacks right now."

Kelly made one start last season, his first in the CFL. He finished 26-of-45 passing for 297 yards with two TDs and three interceptions on the year while rushing 25 times for 137 yards (5.5-yard average) and six TDs.

"Chad has a big arm, he's a strong, athletic kid," Dinwiddie said. "He can make guys miss and not only move he chains with his legs but extend plays looking downfield to make some throws.

"You look at the great ones in this league, they're guys who can scramble around and get those chunk plays when things break down ... I think that's one of Chad's biggest strengths."

But critics will also point to Kelly's limited CFL experience.

"I think that's something everyone is going to discuss, that's just part of it," said Dinwiddie, himself a former CFL quarterback. "We have to make sure we put him in the right position to be successful.

"We're going to have to tailor our offence to his skill set and adjust from there but we feel like the kid has a huge upside. We can design some quarterback runs for Chad. Now, you don't want to do a lot of it ... but I think he gives us another element to add to our offence."

Dinwiddie feels Kelly benefited a lot from having spent 2022 with Bethel-Thompson.

"I think he (Kelly) saw the amount of studying that goes into it, the way Mac commanded the huddle and knew exactly what was going on," Dinwiddie said. "Mac knew all of the details of the offence.

"I think Chad understands those are the things he learned from McLeod ... I think he'll be more comfortable and he had a great example learning from Mac."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 23, 2023.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press