Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Cassel Finally 'The Man' in Kansas City

The biggest question for KC this season is whether 2nd year starting quarterback Matt Cassel's performance last season was a fluke, a matter of playing on the deepest team in football, or the real deal. Scott Pioli and Todd Haley seem to think he's got what it takes to excel as a starting quarterback in the NFL.

He's finally escaped the 'he hasn't started a game since high school' stigma- although we're still talking about it- and, according to word from Chiefs camp, is looking like a real leader.

Cassel's story has become familiar among football fans. His is an interesting case. We haven’t really had too many players go through what he did in college and the NFL. Ranked as the #8 quarterback in the nation by ESPN in his senior year of high school, Cassel would sit behind Heisman winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart at USC without ever starting a game for the Trojans. Bad luck, huh?

The Trojans were anxious to get the kid who had committed to their program early a little playing time before his tenure at USC was over, so they plugged him in at tight end and wide receiver and put him on the special teams squad. Cassel even started a game at halfback against Cal and played a season of baseball for the Trojans.

Over his four year college career, Cassel completed 19 or 33 passes for 192 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. Even though his career numbers look more like a mediocre single game stat line, Cassel found himself on several draft boards around the NFL. The perennial backup was taken in the 7th round of the draft by the New England Patriots. Instead of getting his chance to prove he can lead a team, he found himself stuck behind one of only a few quarterbacks whose starting job in the league is all but guaranteed for life. More bad luck.

Then Tom Brady got hurt in the '08 season opener, ironically against the Chiefs, and we all saw what Cassel could do: 63.4% completion percentage, 3,693 yards passing, 21 touchdowns and an 89.4 passer rating. Compare that to Brady's career season averages (excluding his rookie season in 2000 in which he attempted only three passes and his 2008 season in which he was hurt in the season opener): 63.0% completion percentage, 3,766 yards passing, 28 touchdown passes and a 92.9 passer rating. Nearly identical.

The difference between Brady and Cassel, however, cannot be determined in examining statistics. You'd have to examine how the team fared in each season, each player's leadership and other intangibles and that 'it' factor that Brady has clearly demonstrated but Cassel has yet to acquire. Brady has never failed to make the playoffs as a starting quarterback. In Cassel's one season as a starter, the Patriots missed the playoffs and lost the AFC East to the formerly 1-15 Miami Dolphins. Of course, we shouldn't all go out and blame Cassel, but you have to wonder if Brady would've allowed his team to lose those three point defeats at the hands of the Colts and the Jets last season. The Patriots win those two games and New England is going to the playoffs with a 13-3 record.

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Cassel can still show us that he does, in fact, have that 'it' factor that all the greats from Brady to Peyton Manning to Joe Montana have shown when it mattered most. Or he can at least prove to us that he deserves a place among the league's entrenched starting quarterbacks. The 2009 season is his time to prove that he belongs in the starting quarterbacks club and that 2008 wasn't some sort of fluke.

In the Kansas City Star's Chiefs blog on August 8, Adam Teicher notes the Chiefs' quarterback woes of the day. He writes, "None of the quarterbacks were stars in today’s intrasquad scrimmage. Starter Matt Cassel threw two interceptions and fumbled for the second straight day. It was not one of his better practices of training camp." We're not going to run Cassel out of town because of a bad intrasquad scrimmage, but two interceptions and fumbling on back to back days won't get it done in the NFL. Still, Cassel fumbled 7 times in '08 and threw 11 interceptions. Brady averages 9 fumbles and 12 interceptions a season in his 7 full seasons as a starter.

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His reaction to his dismal day at practice was pretty standard for an NFL quarterback: "I moved to my left and didn’t get anything on it," Cassel said of an interception he had thrown in the scrimmage. "The good part of this is we have 30-some days before our first game. There’s no doubt it was good for us to get out there, tackle, have the live bullets flying at you. These guys were coming hard."

Cassel entered training camp this year as the starting quarterback for the first time since summer practice at Chatsworth High School in California. How he handles the pressure of being the starting quarterback of an NFL team, a team with higher expectations than in recent years, is yet to be seen. Thus far, his teammates love his presence in the huddle and on the field, a trait he probably picked up as Tom Brady's backup for three years. Besides a poor showing in the intrasquad scrimmage, the reviews of the Chiefs' new starting quarterback have been positive. Cassel will take the field as a season opener starting quarterback in the NFL for the first time on September 13 in Baltimore.

Written By Danny Hobrock