TORONTO (Nov. 12) — The learning curve in professional sport can be as gruesome and unforgiving as in any vocation on the planet. Just ask Chad Kelly, who turned in, on Saturday, the worst playoff performance by a quarterback in the modern history of the Toronto Argonauts. And, so unexpectedly, after an MVP–caliber regular season in which Kelly led the club to 16 wins, equaling a Canadian Football League record. But, all the anticipation and hope died quickly at BMO Field before the largest crowd (26,620) since the Argonauts moved back to the Canadian National Exhibition from Rogers Centre in 2016. And, that could be the biggest shame of all.
Final score: Montreal 38, Toronto 17. Which actually flattered the home team.
The game effectively ended just after it started. As so often during the summer and early fall, Kelly adroitly maneuvered his club into scoring position on the first offensive series. But, a short, side–arm pass from the Montreal seven–yard line went directly into the hands of safety Marc–Antoine Dequoy, who rambled untouched the other way for a 101–yard touchdown. The Argos were no match for the Alouettes after that stunning turnaround.
Kelly looked as if he’d never been on a football field, panicking in the throes of a swarming Alouette defense; throwing off his back foot. He tossed another interception for a score in the second half. In all, the morbid Argo offense coughed up the ball nine times, including an absurd four turnover–on–downs. It equaled six games worth of bumbling from the regular schedule, in which Toronto gave it up only 27 times. But, the wheels fell off at the most–inopportune juncture. As happens, it seems, every time a Toronto professional club plays for keeps. It is truly uncanny how our teams routinely sh** the bed when it matters — the Argonauts joining the Maple Leafs, Blue Jays and Raptors in what has to be, at the moment, the biggest choke city in North American professional sport.
Hardly an appealing label.
CHAD KELLY HAD THE ARGOS WITHIN EASY SCORING RANGE ON THE CLUB’S FIRST OFFENSIVE SERIES. AFTER THIS SNAP, HOWEVER, HE TOSSED AN AMATEURISH INTERCEPTION WHICH MONTREAL SAFETY MARC–ANTOINE DEQUOY RETURNED 101 YARDS FOR A MAJOR. GAME OVER.
In the CFL, however, it’s all about getting hot when it counts. Not the number of regular–season conquests.
The Argos did so last year and upset Winnipeg in the Grey Cup. This year, it’s the Alouettes, who have won seven consecutive games. Montreal will tackle the Blue Bombers next Sunday at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton for the CFL title. Remarkably, in a nine–team league, it will be the first–ever Grey Cup clash between the Alouettes and Winnipeg. Neither is it foreign for a pro sports team to lose in the playoffs after a gargantuan regular schedule (the Argos were 16–2, best record in club annals) — a recent example being the Boston Bruins of last season. Having accrued a National Hockey League–record 65 wins, the Bruins coughed up a 3–1 series lead against Florida in the opening Stanley Cup round. In 2018–19, the Tampa Bay Lightning won 62 games and got swept by Columbus in the first series. The 1995–96 Detroit Red Wings also won 62 matches, but lost to Colorado in the Conference final. And, the 2007 New England Patriots became only the second National Football League team to go undefeated (16–0) in the regular schedule, but could not defeat the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
The only other 16–2 team in CFL annals — the 1989 Edmonton Eskimos — lost at home to Saskatchewan in the Western final. That club, as with the current Argos, had nothing to play for in the final third of the schedule.
The dilemma of suddenly turning on the tap after going weeks without having to prevail is becoming increasingly clear. The Argos locked up first place in the CFL East with six games to play — or one–third of the season — winning not necessary for close to two months. Until, it was. On Saturday. And, the Toronto offense looked as you might expect on the first morning of training camp. The Bruins, last hockey season, didn’t have a meaningful game after November. They couldn’t flip the switch against Florida. The Alouettes were 6–7 after losing to the Argos, in Montreal, on Sep. 15. They haven’t since been defeated. But, there was no reasonable excuse for the Argonaut attack to dry up the way it did. As I wrote in my last blog, I figured Montreal — playing well at the right time — had a chance to upset the Argonauts. I figured it would come through the air, with Cody Fajardo picking apart the suspect Toronto secondary. Instead, the Double Blue defense put constant pressure on the Alouettes pivot. Never did I envision Kelly looking so utterly inept. For which the Montreal defense deserves abundant credit.
“A team with a 16–2 record will have trouble with sudden adversity,” said Fajardo about the Argonauts.
It was Toronto’s only home loss of the season… and only defeat, anywhere, against an East Division opponent.
ALL EYES WERE ON CHAD KELLY AS HE STRETCHED DURING THE WARM–UP. HE HAD NOTHING ONCE THE GAME BEGAN.
For Kelly, it was a brutal, demoralizing afternoon. Elite professional athletes often have to learn from tough losses early in a career. Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers were humiliated by a far–inferior Los Angeles team in the first round of the 1982 Stanley Cup playoffs. Then, were easily swept by the New York Islanders in the ’83 Cup final. After that, there was no stopping the Edmonton juggernaut (except for a Steve Smith own–goal, in 1986).
Given his caliber of play, it was easy to overlook that Kelly hoarded 15 wins as a 29–year–old rookie in the CFL. Knowing his competitive nature, the Argos quarterback will benefit from the appalling experience of his first playoff start; the worst performance, by many miles, in his young career. He is undoubtedly good enough to bounce back. On the opposite side, Fajardo had to be feeling quite peachy after knocking off the team with which he began his CFL tenure, as a back–up to Ricky Ray, in 2016 and 2017. After stops in B.C. and Saskatchewan, Fajardo joined the Als and enjoyed a terrific 2023 season, passing for 3,847 yards with a superb, 71.6 completion percentage.
Much more difficult to comprehend is why Toronto sports team of the current era repeatedly come up small in the playoffs, belying a good regular season. The Leafs have made a cottage industry of wilting in the clutch. The Blue Jays embarrassed themselves, and the city, in their past three playoff opportunities. And, the Raptors, after sending Toronto into a frenzy with the 2019 National Basketball Association championship, couldn’t make a bloody free throw in spitting up a big lead at home against Chicago last April. Is it something in the local air? Or, just happenstance; a dreadful confluence of results? Whatever the case, the Argos most–definitely joined their Toronto sports brethren in the choke parade. That it occurred — finally — in front of a near sellout at the CNE had to be particularly galling for owner Larry Tanenbaum, president Bill Manning and general manager Mike (Pinball) Clemons.
Drawing close to twice as many fans as they averaged during the regular season, the Argonauts put on the worst show imaginable. There were audible snickers in the third quarter when public–address announcer Adam Gosse read a promotion for 2024 season tickets. It’s doubtful that many of the non–regulars who took in Saturday’s debacle and almost filled the upper deck on the east side of the stadium (closed during the season) will return. The home team could do nothing with the ball, other than watch Montreal players romp to long touchdowns — the 101–yard interception followed, later, by a 105–yard kickoff return. Whatever nightmare Argos management may have feared prior to the game quadrupled once Kelly put the ball directly into the arms of Antoine–Duquoy, who may be the best coverage back in the CFL. The game was essentially over after the first Toronto series.
The Alouettes won a playoff match here in Toronto for only the second time in 40 years.
In 1973, Montreal outscored the Argos 22–0 in overtime at old CNE Stadium and romped, 32–10, in a Conference semifinal. It was Joe Theismann’s last game in the CFL; he joined the Washington Redskins as, primarily, a punt returner in 1974 and ultimately quarterbacked the club to Super Bowl XVII (January 1983), in Pasadena, over Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins. In 2005, after Damon Allen and the Argos bolted to an early 14–0 lead in the Eastern final at Rogers Centre, Anthony Calvillo brought the Alouettes back to a 33–17 triumph. Montreal coach Don Matthews had a brilliant afternoon against counterpart Clemons and the defending Grey Cup champions.
FINALLY, THE ARGOS HAD CLOSE TO A SELLOUT CROWD AT BMO FIELD. ONLY TO GAG… ALL DAY.
THE ARGO PLAYERS WERE FIRED UP BEFORE THE KICKOFF. BUT, THEIR PRE–GAME PRAYERS WENT UNANSWERED.
SADLY, RUNNING BACK ANDREW HARRIS (33) WILL HAVE A SOUR MEMORY OF HIS FINAL GAME IN THE CFL. HE AND BACKFIELD PARTNER A.J. OUELLETTE WERE PERPLEXED ALL AFTERNOON.
THE FIRST OFFENSIVE PLAY (TOP–LEFT) WENT FOR BIG YARDAGE, AS KELLY HANDED THE BALL TO OUELLETTE. BUT, THE ARGONAUTS PIVOT WAS DISCOMBOBULATED ALL GAME AGAINST THE MONTREAL DEFENSE.