Chad Kelly is aware of the situation. He is aware of the opportunity that awaits and he is aware of the work he needs to do in order to win and keep the job he wants.
And he is aware that there are doubters.
“You can’t please them all,” the sophomore quarterback says. “You’ve just got to put in the work and make everybody a believer, right?”
Kelly wants to be the starter for the Toronto Argonauts in 2023 and, indeed, that is what the team would like him to be. With established starter and the Argos’ Most Outstanding Player in 2022, McLeod Bethel-Thompson, opting for a contract with the USFL’s New Orleans Breakers, the door is wide open for Kelly.
Right this way, Chad.
“It feels exciting,” says Kelly. “But also, you know, there’s some pressure right? I mean, we just won the championship. Mac had a fantastic year, he had been an Argo for five years.”
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With MacBeth opting to stay stateside, the Argonauts do not presently have an established starter at the position on their roster. There is Kelly and there is Ben Holmes, who went through training camp with Edmonton last year and was picked up by the Argos as a free agent in August. The team announced the signing of 27-year-old Bryan Scott on Wednesday and there will be more quarterbacks brought in and Kelly knows it. He also knows that he is in a very good position to emerge as QB1 with the Argos but by no means is it a job he won’t have to earn.
“If you want it bad enough you’ll find a way,” he says.
“Obviously it’s been a long time waiting (since) I’ve been a starter and have a chance to put my foot in the door and really go in and earn the job. I’m just taking it one step at a time to really work as hard as I can. Harder than I ever had before.”
If doing great football things had come so easily for Kelly, and perhaps they did through high school and into college, the native of Buffalo has had his share of cold water tossed on any expectations that slinging footballs can be just as easy at the pro level. It’s a realization that appears to have taken root with Kelly, whose travels took him to the NFL with Denver and Indianapolis, before he spent over a year out of football, signing with the Argos last winter.
That marriage was a fortuitous one in a couple of ways. For the Argonauts, it paid off when Kelly relieved an injured Bethel-Thompson in the fourth quarter of the Grey Cup game, leading a comeback that gave Toronto an upset win over Winnipeg. Kelly showed off his wheels and toughness in that fourth quarter, converting a second-and-15 with a 20-yard run that ended with him bouncing up after being belted by Winnipeg’s Desmond Lawrence.
Two plays later, Kelly made a quick read against a Blue Bombers’ blitz, zipping a pass into receiver DaVaris Daniels’ breadbasket for another first down at the five-yard-line. The Argos scored the touchdown that would tie the game on an A.J. Ouellette rush on the next play.
For Kelly, signing with Toronto brought him into the world of MBT. The veteran quarterback left quite an impression.
“Maaaan,” says Kelly, asked to express what it is that the loquacious and contemplative Bethel-Thompson gifted to him. “It’s hard to put your finger on just one thing.”
In anticipation of this opportunity, Kelly has spent this off-season in Toronto and that, he says, has allowed him to stay connected to the organization and its football facilities. He’s digging in, he’s hunkering down. “I think it’s definitely paid off that I stayed in the city,” he says, adding, “I try to go in there every day.”
He’s working out, he says, three times a day. Does Pilates, he says, then follows up with a throwing/running session and then on to the weight room. Sometimes he hits the hyperbaric chamber he has at home.
He’s keeping an eye on nutrition and his weight, knowing that if he lets that slip, he risks feeling sluggish and he definitely cannot afford that.
“But you know,” says Kelly, offering some self-assessment, “it also is the mental side where I’ve got to get better, right? There’s still so much more I can learn. And to up my game even more I’ve gotta see things even faster, right? Having accelerated vision is what we call it.”
Kelly’s throwing sessions are done with some of his Argo teammates. DaVaris Daniels and Kurleigh Gittens Jr. are among the targets he is getting in sync with, along with Tommy Nield, Dejon Brissett and Brandon Calver, the linebacker the Argos converted to fullback last season.
“Not only are we throwing together,” Kelly points out, “but we’re watching film together too. So that’s kind of good that we’re already on the same page, speaking the same language.”
And he has, of course, lots of direction from head coach Ryan Dinwiddie, who is also the team’s offensive coordinator. That relationship, says Kelly, is growing the way it needs to. “We’re starting to really gain knowledge of what each other is thinking,” he says.
Kelly has some things in common with the man who he is attempting to replace. Like Bethel-Thompson, he has been a football nomad, looking for a place to belong, a place to prosper.
If Bethel-Thompson’s football odyssey was forced on him by scouts and coaches and general managers who never quite gave him the opportunity to stay, to assimilate and to shine, Kelly’s seemed to be more self-inflicted, with scouts and coaches and general managers wanting him to be the man, drooling at the prospect of his strong arm and quick legs propelling him to pro football stardom. Twice, though, Kelly’s progress was stymied, due to personal trouble. In Denver, he was released after an arrest on trespassing charges. In Indianapolis, he was suspended two games for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
The talent has always been there. What about the rest? Bethel-Thompson, it looks like, has played a large role in Kelly’s personal growth.
“I’m not saying that we all can be perfect, but he wanted people to strive for perfect,” says Kelly of his mentor. “He was always hungry and that’s why I think it really drove a lot of guys on the team to really push themselves, myself included.”
“He’s just a very down to Earth guy,” Kelly continues, gratitude dripping from every word. “After the Grey Cup, after everything transpired, we talked and stuff. You know, I’m glad that he’s healed up and he’s ready to go. And I still think he’s definitely hungry. He wants to prove (himself to) people and that’s what I love about Mac.
“I’m thankful that I was in the situation I was in,” says Kelly of his rookie CFL season, one that saw him on the sidelines for the most part as Bethel-Thompson took snap after snap after snap. “I learned so much about the game and just about so many other things.”
Now, in year two, Kelly has a chance to put those lessons to the test as he strives to again be what he once was, as a star in high school and college. The man.
“It means everything,” Kelly says of the opportunity. “It’s the best thing that I have going and I can’t wait to just prove my coaches right.”