|Matt Cassel's 2010 numbers put him among the league's elite passers. (Getty Images)|
And they did.
Matt Cassel is having the best season of his career a year after he, the Chiefs and general manager Scott Pioli took heat for Cassel's underwhelming play -- with one local columnist so outraged that he characterized Cassel as "horrible."
Um, maybe not. Cassel has the Chiefs on top of the AFC West. He's won more games (7) in 11 starts than the club won the past two seasons (6). He hasn't lost at home. He leads the league in touchdown percentage. He's second only to Tom Brady in ratio of touchdowns-to-interceptions. And he's fourth overall in passer rating, ahead of luminaries like Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan.
"Matt Cassel keeps setting the bar higher and higher," coach Todd Haley said after Kansas City's latest victory.
I'll second that. It's not just that the Chiefs continue to win under Cassel's direction; it's what Cassel's done to put them in that position, and the envelope, please: Over his last seven starts Cassel has 18 touchdown passes and one interception. Let me repeat: 18 and 1, a ratio that is better than anyone -- including Tom Brady -- over that period, and tell me that shouldn't put this guy front and center of the national spotlight.
It should. Only it hasn't. And one reason it hasn't is because there's a lingering feeling that Kansas City is overachieving and, well, that the Chiefs will eventually get caught by San Diego anyway. I don't buy into the overachieving argument, but after watching San Diego dissect Indianapolis the other night I do believe the Chargers, not the Chiefs, are the team to beat in the AFC West -- basically because the schedule falls their way in December, a month where they have won their last 18.
But that's a projection. Let's look at what we know, and what we know is that Matt Cassel is everything Pioli and the Chiefs envisioned when they acquired him. OK, so it took offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and a system with which Cassel was comfortable for him to flourish. But that happens. It took Brees four seasons before he started to feel comfortable in San Diego.
No question about it, Cassel struggled last season, but let's be honest: There were an abundance of reasons. One was the change of offensive coordinators immediately prior to the season, with Cassel forced to learn on the fly. Another was the Chiefs' mistake-prone receivers, with Kansas City two flubs away from tying an unofficial record for most drops in a year (51). Still another was the team's inability to run the ball until Jamaal Charles stepped into the huddle midway through the schedule.
Now fast forward to 2010, with Weis refining Haley's system to add a few wrinkles that Cassel might have known or practiced when he was with New England. It was there that Cassel first became a starter, stepping into the lineup for the first time in nine years when Brady was hurt in the 2008 opener. And it was there he was supposed to flop. Only he didn't, leading the Patriots to an 11-5 finish.
Surprising? Yes. But that was the guy Kansas City thought it was getting when it traded for Cassel. And that is the guy it has.
Look, I don't know what kicked in this season, but it's hard to ignore the results. What I do know is that Haley worked with Cassel on being more precise in his drops within the pocket, and Cassel has responded. I also know that having the league's top-ranked running game -- with the Chiefs shredding Seattle for 270 yards -- has helped. And I know the emergence of wide receiver Dwayne Bowe -- one of those guys who last season looked more like a backboard than a pass catcher -- has been a huge plus.
In the end, though, it comes back to Matt Cassel. The Chiefs had Larry Johnson to run the ball in 2007-08, and they couldn't win. They had Tony Gonzalez to catch it then, too, and they couldn't win. And they couldn't win because they didn't have someone, anyone, at quarterback to throw the right passes, avoid the big mistakes and make the smart decisions.
Now they do.
"I think he's an NFL starting quarterback you can win with and win championships with," Pioli said at training camp last summer. "Matt adjusted to a lot of change, showed his competitiveness, resiliency and his ability. Beyond the mental and emotional (aspect) and his competitiveness, he showed the physical ability to be able to win."
Pioli was right. Kansas City is not where it is today without Matt Cassel, and it's high time the club, its G.M., its head coach, its assistants and Matt Cassel himself are recognized for what is working with the Chiefs. And what is working is their quarterback.
Adding Matt Cassel not only was a good move; it was a necessary one. And it has the Chiefs where they haven't been in years. Good for them. Good for Pioli. And, most important, good for Matt Cassel.