There were surely those who saw Khari Jones’ first CFL head-coaching opportunity as more of a curse than a blessing.
After all, Jones was handed the reins of the Alouettes just days before the start of the regular season. He was also handling duties as Montreal’s offensive co-ordinator, quarterbacks and receivers coach, and was taking over a team with no owners that had averaged just over five wins in each of the previous four seasons.
But the 48-year-old former CFL quarterback never saw it that way.
“Not at all,” said Jones. “And I’d heard that same thing, people saying, ‘It’s good you get a chance, but if you can win a few games then maybe that will be okay.’ And I didn’t think that. I thought we had a chance to win and I said that even at the beginning.
“Even though other people couldn’t see it, I saw the makings of a good team. I don’t know if it was just rose-coloured glasses, but I didn’t think so.”
The biggest change under Jones has been the emergence of Vernon Adams at quarterback, who lost a training camp battle to Antonio Pipkin. Adams came on in relief of Pipkin during Montreal’s opening game of the season against Edmonton, and has since blossomed into one of the CFL’s young stars.
“He came into training camp really as the No. 4 quarterback and it didn’t bother him, it didn’t change who he was. He just came to work every day and I really respected that,” said Jones. “Truth be told, he may have been ready for the No. 1 job at the end of training camp, but once he came into the Edmonton game and played the way he did, my mind was pretty clear on who was going to be that guy. He was the right age and experience and the right makeup.”
Montreal’s unlikely success this season has made Jones the odds-on favourite to be named the CFL’s coach of the year. The 6-4 Alouettes are also looking like a good bet to break a four-year playoff drought.
“I love the fact I got the job so quickly and just had to kind of step in with these guys and just be who I am – be honest and tell them what I thought,” Jones said. “I wanted to make sure the guys never saw any panic or worry in me about what the situation was because I wasn’t panicked, I wasn’t worried. I didn’t think of it as too big or too much to handle from the very beginning and I think the players could sense that.”
What about M.B.T?
Hands up if you had McLeod Bethel-Thompson as the CFL’s leader in touchdown passes thrown and second in passing yards by mid-September. Hands up if you saw this coming after the Argonauts were shut out by Edmonton on July 25, with Bethel-Thompson completing 6 of 18 passes for 90 yards and an interception before getting the hook in what ended as a 26-0 victory for the Eskimos.
There’s reason to believe that Bethel-Thompson’s following start was going to be his last if things didn’t improve. And given that it came against the then-undefeated Winnipeg Blue Bombers, well, let’s just say that the 31-year-old journeyman was about as close the edge as one can get. Or at least he was once his team got down by a 20-0 score to the Bombers and the coaching staff surely started mulling when to pull the plug on him – perhaps for good.
But a funny thing happened. Bethel-Thompson led the Argos to a late score before halftime and then a come-from-behind win over the Blue Bombers that was as unlikely as it was dramatic.
Including the Winnipeg game, Bethel-Thompson has averaged 351 yards passing per game and is riding a streak of 12 touchdown passes against just two interceptions. His 19 touchdown passes this season lead the CFL, and his 3,004 passing yards sit second only to Edmonton’s Trever Harris.
Barring injury, he seems certain to be Toronto’s starting quarterback through its final seven games of the season.
Which raises the question of just what kind of CFL quarterback Bethel-Thompson is and what role, if any, should he have in the Argos future beyond this season.
Bethel-Thompson is in the final year of a contract. While his lack of mobility doesn’t make him a prototypical CFL quarterback, it’s worth remembering that the improvement in his play began halfway through his third CFL season, which isn’t atypical.
With Bethel-Thompson, James Franklin, Zach Collaros and Dakota Prukop all on expiring contracts, the Argos are going to have to make some decisions by the Oct. 8 trade deadline and into the off-season.
Franklin, who began the season as Toronto’s starter but was injured in the Argos second game against Saskatchewan, seems the likely trade target, given that his only duty now is running the short-yardage offence.
With Hamilton and Winnipeg (and potentially Edmonton) in need of experience backups, there would seem no shortage of places to send him.
Collaros, meanwhile, remains a question mark. It’s looking ever more likely that he won’t play again in 2019.
There is expected to be a number of emerging young quarterbacks on the free agent market this winter, so Toronto may be tempted to go after a player like Calgary’s Nick Arbuckle or Winnipeg’s Chris Streveler if they become available.
But as unlikely as it might have seemed six weeks ago, Bethel-Thompson may be the Argos best option for 2020.
Coaching cap implications
This is normally the time of year when speculation begins about potential coaching or management changes for teams that have failed to live up to expectations.
This season that spotlight falls on the Toronto Argonauts, Ottawa Redblacks and BC Lions.
The Redblacks are one year removed from playing in the Grey Cup, so let’s assume their head coach and GM are safe.
But in Toronto and B.C., decisions will be heavily influenced by the CFL coaching salary cap that went into effect before this season.
Under its terms, teams can fire an individual and immediately erase his remaining salary from the books once every five seasons. Beyond that, whatever remains unpaid on a dismissed coach’s contract is amortized over the next five years and comes off the cap.
So if the Argonauts want to move on from Corey Chamblin or the Lions part ways with DeVone Claybrooks – both of whom signed three-year deals before the season – it’s going to mean using up a mulligan or having a bite taken out of future coaching budgets.
Understandably, the coaching salary cap, meant to control the growing number of coaches and overall expenses of CFL staffs, has not been popular with everyone, mostly notably coaches.
There have been complaints that it makes in-season staff changes too difficult and is too restrictive in other ways, such as limiting teams to 11 coaches, even though they might rather spread the same money over 12.
But a few tweaks is more likely than an overhaul this off-season as the league and its teams are expected to review in detail what has worked and what hasn’t. While the cap has its shortcomings, it’s done the one thing it was intended to do – keep teams on budget.
Bo on record-setting pace
It’s not a surprise that Bo Levi Mitchell is the winningest quarterback in Calgary Stampeders history. What’s amazing is that he’s done it by age 29.
It makes you wonder just how many Stampeder records Mitchell will own when all is said and done, and to what degree his name will be etched in the CFL record book.
Make no mistake, Mitchell’s path towards becoming one of the CFL’s all-time greats was no small part of what led him to turn down off-season contract offers from three NFL teams, fearing he’d waste away with a clipboard in hand while he could be building his legacy.
But it’s not hard to imagine that even Anthony Calvillo’s pro football record of 79,816 career passing yards could someday be in sight.
Calvillo had 18,556 yards at the end of the season in which he turned 29. Mitchell has 25,517 with almost half a season left to play.
And with a healthy Mitchell back under centre, the Stamps look poised to challenge for a fourth consecutive Grey Cup appearance.
NCAA players dominate fall scouting list
The CFL’s Scouting Bureau’s early rankings have never been taken as scientific, and the methodology behind such measurements has often come into question.
That said, it’s hard not to notice the domination of NCAA players among this year’s fall list, which was released on Thursday. The top six, and eight of the first 10 players listed, all come from NCAA schools, including Penn State, Notre Dame and Oklahoma.
That isn’t to suggest the draft will play out that way, since players like Oklahoma’s Neville Gallimore or Notre Dame’s Chase Claypool are expected to find their way to the NFL.
But coming after a year in which 10 of the first 18 picks were from NCAA schools, it’s more than just a blip, according the TSN’s CFL Draft guru Duane Forde.
“Absolutely, more of the best guys are down there,” said Forde. “And it’s not just the number of kids that are there, but the schools that they are at. When you’ve got two of the best kids as a starter at Oklahoma and another at a skill position at Notre Dame, that tells you something.
“It’s gotten to the point where you turn on TSN to watch NCAA football, and there is at least one prominent Canadian in every game. It’s noticeable. We’ve come from a time when most of the Canadians were at mid-majors, now they are at big-time schools. Times have changed.”