Chad Kelly is a breath of fresh air for a Canadian Football League forever in need of football oxygen.
He’s a star in a league searching for stars. He’s a quarterback with moxie at a time when there are too few quarterbacks across the country you even know by name.
He’s an Argo, which by itself is unusual, and he will be one for the next three seasons, after Thursday’s announcement of his contract extension
This usually isn’t how the Argos operate — or certainly how they’ve operated for most of the past 40 years.
They won a Grey Cup with Condredge Holloway and Joe Barnes playing quarterback in 1983, ending the drought of 31 years. Holloway learned his craft playing with the Ottawa Rough Riders. Barnes was in Montreal and Saskatchewan for seven seasons before coming off the bench in Toronto on championship Sunday.
The Argos won in 1991. Matt Dunigan was the quarterback. It was his ninth year and his third team. The Argos brought him in because they couldn’t find a quarterback of their own making.
They did the same five years later, getting the CFL to alter its salary-cap rules so they could pay Doug Flutie more — way more — than anyone else in the league. The same kind of look-the-other-way deal was made when they brought in Rocket Ismail to play in ’91. The CFL likes it when Toronto is strong, even if it means cheating to get it done.
Flutie won two Grey Cups in two seasons with the Argos — but he already had won four Most Outstanding Player awards with the Calgary Stampeders and before that the B.C. Lions. This was the end of his CFL time.
And in a city forever starving for championships, where the Maple Leafs haven’t won since 1967, the Blue Jays haven’t won since 1993 and the Raptors had one miracle championship season. But over the past 40 years, it is the vagabond Argos who have celebrated eight Grey Cup championships. This year could be nine.
Chad Kelly makes that possible.
The Argos won in 2004 with Pinball Clemons coaching and the ancient one, Damon Allen, playing quarterback. By then, it was Allen’s seventh team and 18th season. The Argos have rarely been known for developing quarterbacks to start here. Over the years, it seemed easier to buy finished products from elsewhere.
They did that in 2012, stealing the understated but brilliant passer Ricky Ray from Edmonton, where he had already emerged as an all-star. Ray won twice with the Argos.
Those seven Argos Grey Cups were won by quarterbacks who were well-known before they ever wore Double Blue.
It’s so different now with Kelly, This is his first CFL stop after bouncing around from college to college, from NFL camp to NFL camp. This is his first chance to be the guy.
And there is a freshness to his style, a loud, bold, declarative way. He’s not Dunigan, but he has a lot of Dunigan’s fight in him. And a lot of the battle of his uncle, Jim Kelly, the great Buffalo Bills quarterback who always seemed to be part-linebacker and part-QB.
And like Dunigan, more than any of his Argos predecessors, there is fearlessness to the way he plays. The job became his when McLeod Bethel-Thompson surprisingly walked away from the Argos.
Bethel-Thompson made fans and his coaches nervous. He looked most weeks like he was an interception away from losing at any time. On the field, he didn’t look like the kind of quarterback that will win you a game when you’re down six points with a minute to play.
It took Bethel-Thompson getting injured in the fourth quarter of the Grey Cup for Kelly to give the CFL its first real peek at his bravado. He didn’t win last year’s Grey Cup for Toronto, but he sure made it possible. He made a miraculous 20-yard run and then threw the go-ahead touchdown pass to A.J. Ouellette for the unlikely win over Winnipeg.
Right now, he’s the best player in the CFL. Halfway through the season — his first full season — he’s the favourite to be Most Outstanding Player. Normally that comes years after interning. In games in which he has started and finished this season, the Argos are 8-0. In the game he didn’t finish because of injury, the Argos lost.
Toronto Argonauts agree to 3-year extension with starting quarterback Chad Kelly
Canadian wide receiver Jared Wayne waived by Houston Texans
Toronto leads the CFL in scoring at 34 points a game. That’s more than Flutie’s Argos scored in 1996 and two points fewer per game than the Lights Out offence of ’97. And this is Year 1 for Kelly as a CFL starter at the age of 29. He’s not an NFL prospect. They don’t have 30-something projects at quarterback down south, as much as Kelly might want the opportunity.
Kelly’s wise enough to understand all that in signing the deal which will pay as much as anyone makes in the CFL, he knows where he will be the next several seasons.
Flutie didn’t sell a whole lot of tickets in Toronto, even with a team that went 34-6 in two seasons. He became more popular after he left the Argos than when he played here. And there’s no certainty Kelly will have any more success at the turnstiles than Flutie had.
But if he can’t bring people in to watch this great team and this great quarterback in this great stadium, then no one can.