Argos quarterback Kelly preparing to make first CFL playoff start

TORONTO — Chad Kelly isn't going to mess much with what's been a winning formula.

Kelly enjoyed a record-setting 2023 campaign, his first as Toronto's starting quarterback. But as he prepares to lead the Argonauts into the East Division final Saturday versus the Montreal Alouettes — Kelly's first playoff game as a starter — the plan is to merely tinker his preparation this week.

"Mentally, no," Kelly said following Toronto's practice Wednesday. "Physically, a little bit, I've got to do more (because) it's just crunch time.

"I definitely know it's do or die, it's win or go home. You must be in a different mindset to do a little bit more but you've got to treat it as if it were the same game you've been playing. Don't overlook it and just go out and execute."

Kelly was a key figure this season for Toronto (16-2), which tied the CFL record for most regular-season victories while establishing a franchise best in that category. He won 15-of-16 starts, the 93.8 win percentage being the best ever in league history by a player with at least 14 starts.

Kelly completed 270-of-394 passes (68.5 per cent) for 4,244 yards with 19 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He also ran for 248 yards and eight TDs — tied for second-most in the CFL — on 40 carries (6.2-yard average).

Last week, Kelly was named the East Division's nominee for the CFL's outstanding player award. On Wednesday, he earned the nod as the league's all-star quarterback.

With Kelly under centre, Toronto finished second overall in offensive points (29.3 per game), offensive TDs (56) and net yards (377.8). The Argos were tops in average yards per play (7.34) while allowing a league-low 19 sacks.

The unit also did a solid job of not beating itself, finishing first overall in fewest turnovers (27), interceptions (15) and lost fumbles (five). And those times when the offence struggled, Toronto's defence (68 sacks, 54 forced turnovers, both league highs) and special teams — kicker Boris Bede hit CFL-best 94.9 per cent of field goals, Javon Leake led league in punt returns (81 for 1,216 yards) and return touchdowns (four) — were always there.

"It (complementary football) is winning football, it really is," Kelly said. "All of those things together equalled points and I think we do a fantastic job of playing complementary football and it works.

"You see it here in practice where we're fighting each and every day to one-up each other."

Toronto head coach Ryan Dinwiddie doesn't want Kelly's playoff approach to differ from what made him successful during the regular season.

"I want his approach to be the same," Dinwiddie said. "It's a bigger game but when you start pressing and feeling like you have to do all these great things (is when a player gets into trouble).

"You just have to do the things that got you to this stage. Play confident, play calm and don't put too much pressure on yourself."

And trust your teammates.

"They'll play good football and make the plays that are there to be made," Dinwiddie said. "The fact it's a playoff game is no different than his last game."

Kelly does have some CFL playoff experience, coming up big in Toronto's upset 24-23 Grey Cup win last year over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Kelly replaced injured starter McLeod Bethel-Thompson (dislocated right thumb) in the fourth quarter, completing 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. Kelly became Toronto's full-time starter when Bethel-Thompson signed with the USFL's New Orleans Breakers in the off-season.

"It (Grey Cup experience) does help . . . but you definitely have to be in a different mindset (in playoffs) and keep on working," Kelly said. "There's always something you can learn from watching more and more film and doing whatever you can.

"I think (this year) I've proved I can lead, I can control my mind. Not by what I do, (or) what I say but just by my actions."

Kelly is also his harshest critic. When asked what grade he'd give his '23 season to date, a humble Kelly downplayed his accomplishments.

"I'd probably give myself a B, maybe B-minus just because I know I missed on a few things," he said. "I can remember another seven, eight touchdown passes that we could've had and I definitely could've controlled the ball a little bit more.

"But I think I made some plays that weren't really realistic some of the time. Maybe a B is being a little hard on myself but for my first year starting, I thought it was good. There's always room for improvement for a first-year starter . . . but I think there's a lot to build on."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 8, 2023.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press