O’Leary: MOP? Kelly focuses on the work

HALIFAX — There’s mostly all good news when it comes to Chad Kelly.

The Toronto Argonauts’ quarterback has his team sitting at 5-0 as they head into their Touchdown Atlantic meeting today with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. He leads the league in completion percentage (71.7), QB rating (116.5) and is second in the league in rushing touchdowns, with four. The Argos look every bit the defending Grey Cup champions and Kelly’s play — 91 of 127, 1,408 passing yards and seven touchdowns — are a key to their burst out of the gate in 2023.

The only bad news with any of this comes if you want him to tell you about any of that.

The days of Swag Kelly appear to be gone. The brash quarterback that dropped rhymes and threw touchdown passes at Ole Miss and with the Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts in the NFL appears to have checked that version of himself at the border. What we have today is a process-driven 29-year-old that’s playing the best football of career. Week after week through the first third of this season we’ve seen potential being realized, promise being fulfilled.

While the man responsible for that productivity isn’t in a hurry to throw some bars together to trumpet it to the world, it falls to people like me to do it instead.

Chad Kelly is a clear frontrunner for the 2023 MOP award.

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Talk with anyone in or around the Argos’ organization this season and you’ll hear someone reference going 1-0 this week. It comes from the mouths of coaches and players alike at a frequency that could replace punctuation in sentences, the way cursing does in mechanic shops, or newsrooms. The mantra meant enough to the team for them to have it engraved on their Grey Cup rings and it constantly permeates into conversation.

“My brother asked me about this (a few) nights ago, saying it’s got to be a lot of fun,” Argos’ quarterbacks coach Mike Miller said this week.

“I said, ‘You know what? It’s a workmanlike mindset here. And it’s all from (head coach Ryan Dinwiddie). He sets the tone, he sets the culture. And when he says we’re about being 1-0, honestly, this team has…that workmanlike mindset, that approach that we’re going to adjust, we’re going to get better every day. I know those things on the outside can sound very cliche-ish. But it really is true here. You’ll see that on the sidelines, you see it with each rep and practice, each series in the games we play. That’s really what makes it fun.”

When it comes to Kelly, it’s abundantly clear that he’s embraced the mentality and process. His response to the MOP question?

“I feel like we’re 1-0 and that’s what we try to do each and every day,” he said.

When McLeod Bethel-Thompson let the Argos know in the off-season that he wouldn’t be back, the team immediately shifted its focus to Kelly. The organization was fully confident in him, even with a very small sample size of real world, live action film of him on a CFL field. Kelly got his first career start in the Argos’ regular-season finale last year, after the team had locked up first-place in the East Division. Then of course, he stepped in for an injured Bethel-Thompson in the fourth quarter of the Grey Cup game and steered the Argos to a dynasty-derailing win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

“When (Bethel-Thompson) knew he couldn’t go he said, ‘Hey, this is your team right now. Go out and win us a championship,'” Miller said of that pivotal moment in the Grey Cup game, “and Chad was full speed ahead.”

While some questioned the Argos’ off-season decision to hand the keys to an inexperienced quarterback — and to go into the season with backups that are even less experienced — Kelly has shown that the Argos knew something that very few people on the outside did. Their backup was more than ready to step in and play.

“I think I’ve shown I can lead. I think you see that we’re a high potent offence,” Kelly said of what he’s shown through these first five games.

“It’s pretty remarkable to watch different receivers step up and make plays all the time and I think it’s just awesome to see that we have a great running game, a great group of receivers. Obviously, the o-line is playing great. We mix some people up on the o-line, but whoever’s in there does a fantastic job.”

The league has seen a surge of change at quarterback in the last few years, whether it’s through established players retiring, teams moving in a new direction with a younger player, or backups thrust into starting roles due to injuries. Kelly is a part of that wave of change, but has bucked the trend in how seamless his transition into a full-time starter has been. He credits an off-season of non-stop preparation and learning for that.

“I’ve worked extremely hard. Ever since I’ve been a little kid, I’ve been waiting on a moment to be a starter in a professional football league and this is my moment, I’m taking full advantage of it,” he said.

“Like I said, I work extremely hard and I still work extremely hard each and every day, whether it’s on the field or off the field. I can’t speak about what type of preparation other people put in. But I know my determination and what I want out of this  and what I want to do with my life, and this is all I do is breathe, eat and sleep football.”


That’s something the Argos’ coaching staff learned through the winter. Kelly was in constant contact with the offensive coaches, asking questions about the offence, looking for insights into film he was watching.

There are always texts, Miller said. There were also QB Zoom calls to learn the playbook. Kelly’s appetite to learn and be prepared has proven to be insatiable. Kelly said he watched thousands of hours of film through the winter in advance of this season.

“Any time you have guys that want to be coached, that have ability (is helpful),” Miller said. “When you have something special is when they’re even better people. That’s saying a lot, because this kid’s got a ton of ability and he’s fun to be around. He’s fun to coach. He wants to get better every day and I think he sets the tone for our two rookies that we have in the room, he’s a great mentor to them.”

Kelly and the Argos head into Touchdown Atlantic with their heads down, focused on going 1-0 for the sixth time this season. Asked what his favourite part of finally getting to lead a pro team as a starter has been this year, Kelly’s answer was simple and not surprising.

“Winning,” he laughed.

He’s in position to do a lot of that, and maybe collect some hardware along the way.

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