February 22, 2023

Ferguson: Bethel-Thompson’s departure creates questions

Christian Bender/CFL.ca

When the Toronto Argonauts won the Eastern Final over the Montreal Alouettes at home last November it was due in large part to McLeod Bethel-Thompson conquering a stage he had yet been able to master.

His deep ball efficiency in the Eastern Final a year earlier against Hamilton had failed the veteran journeyman. It compounded team-wide issues on a day that ended in disaster for MBT and the Argos as Hamilton danced its way down the QEW to host the Grey Cup.

In 2022 — what we now know to be his last foreseeable season in the CFL — he refused to come off the field. In a Week 3 loss at BC, the Argos starter was pulled to his disgust as backup Chad Kelly saw his first CFL game action. In a scene which would play out a few more times before late November, Bethel-Thompson got heated on the sideline, his competitive passion on full display for all fans, teammates and coaches to observe.

Bethel-Thompson wasn’t scared to let his emotions show. It’s what allowed those around him to increasingly believe in No. 4 as Toronto’s leader through every post-practice huddle, meeting room interaction and post touchdown celebration.

As CFL social channels and fans from sea-to-sea went wild over the QB drama in Calgary, Nathan Rourke’s emergence as a Canadian superstar and the Bombers’ continued brilliance in search of a Grey Cup three-peat, MBT and his Argos just kept pushing onward towards their eventual crowning as 2022 Grey Cup champions.

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Through it all, he racked up more snaps played than any pivot in Canada (1,014). He was the only quarterback to break the 1,000-snap marker last season, which meant the Argonauts never really had to sort out who the replacement plan was, despite everyone in the loop knowing that Chad Kelly wasn’t in Toronto to be a career backup. When Bethel-Thompson announced his intentions today to step away from the CFL and remain down south closer to family while continuing to chase his football dreams Kelly’s name was the first to roll off many tongues as the likely Argos starter for 2023, but it’s far from the only option.

Kelly comes with a brash and aggressive playing style. His Week 21 start at home against Montreal — which I had the pleasure of watching live — felt like a science experiment. At any moment the added elements felt as though they could explode or fizzle and disperse, but every play was likely to elicit a response.

This is typically the case for young American passers learning the CFL game, but Kelly comes with an added level of intensity, physicality and arm talent which rarely gets a chance like that Bethel-Thompson just handed his understudy.

Due to the outcome and one glorious scramble in crunch time, Kelly is revered by many as the unquestionable fill-in. It’s easy, though, to see a limited number of snaps, many in the regular season with no stakes attached and remember the good over the bad.

Chad Kelly came up with a key run in the Grey Cup game and already has some fans buzzing about his starting potential (Kevin Sousa/CFL.ca)

If Kelly does earn the top job he’ll have to show perseverance through the nicks and cuts and highs and lows that come with playing over 1,000 snaps like MBT did last season. Not to mention that whole ‘leader of the locker room’ thing that automatically gets applied to the one player who can single-handedly change the outcome of any given game.

Further back the depth chart sits a promising young prospect by the name of Ben Holmes who will earn his keep, but likely won’t be thrust into primetime in the near future, while Dane Evans remains an intriguing fit down the road in Hamilton. All of which is dependent on Hamilton being willing to give Evans up without too much of an asking price.

Spoiler alert: Hamilton isn’t going to gift their forever foe a quarterback for nothing. Especially not if he could return on Labour Day against the man chosen to be his replacement and cause an unforgettable ruckus.

When Bethel-Thompson took to the podium after his conquering Eastern Final win last November he sat tall and proud with his daughter on his knee. It was a glimpse at a proud dad and partner who was clearly doing his best to juggle all the realities of both roles while thriving in his profession.

He has earned the right to chase any dream he wants and to do it as close as possible to that beautiful young family. His exit means that the chaos of CFL Free Agency is anything but done as we prepare to enter March.

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