Chiefs Head Coach Todd Haley is saying all of the right things regarding the status of the Chiefs quarterback position. Elusively, Haley posits that: "Every position is open" and that "there will be a competition at quarterback". Let me start by saying that I don't doubt this is the case. How many coaches would have had the guts to give the starting job to a nearly 40-year old Kurt Warner over young, former number one pick in Matt Leinhart? Haley may not tell you a whole lot, but there is one thing he is certainly clear about: he will play the guys who give him the best chance to win.
Although it is early, the more you look at it, there is no doubt that the guy, at quarterback, will be Matt Cassel. Now I know detractors will look at Cassel and say that he got most of his numbers by throwing screens and playing with the highly talented Patriots offense. The latter point is true. New England has exceptional talent and Cassel and the Patriots put up great numbers. On the other hand, so did the Colts, Cardinals and Steelers, yet, you don't hear anyone dismissing the numbers of Peyton Manning, Kurt Warner or Ben Roethlisberger. Really, this latter point is a ridiculous argument. Imagine if someone was commenting on what a great season that Kurt Warner just had and someone at the bar responded by saying, "Really, do you think he's that great? Take away his Boldin and Fitzgerald and see how he does." How much water does that argument hold? Football is the ultimate team sport. No quarterback is successful without a great surrounding cast. Matter of fact, to some extent, the success of a quarterback is often not as much of an indictment of his greatness as it is an indictment of the team around him. End of story.
As to the second point, that he was spoon fed the offense - and simply got numbers by making simple throws (screens, dumps, etc.) that any quarterback could have made - this simply doesn't hold water, either. The point is that as the 2008 season went along and Cassel was given the entire playbook his numbers got better, not worse. In the second half of 2008, Cassel and the Patriots were 6-2, as opposed to 4-3 in the first half. More daunting, though is the change in Cassel's numbers. In the first half of 2008, Cassel attempted 233 passes competing 67% with an average gain of only 6.72, with 7 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. This is good for a fair rating of 83.4. However, in the 2nd half of 2008, Cassel attempted 50 more passes (283) completing a lesser 61% but with an average gain of 7.52,14 touchdowns, only four (4) interceptions and a gaudy 94.4 rating. Consider, too that in the Patriots last game a snow torched affair against Buffalo that Cassel had only 8 attempts and there is really a drastic difference. In addition to these numbers, Cassel got more decisive in his decision making as the season wore on. In spite of the additional attempts, the number of sacks on Cassel was actually less (19 down from 28) in the 2nd half of 2008.
For what it is worth, Cassel's 2nd half numbers would have put him among the NFL's elite, ranking 6th in the NFL (based on his overall numbers Cassel was 10th) and 4th in the AFC (up from 5th). The fact that Cassel got better as the year went on is significant considering that it isn't uncommon for an unknown quarterback to come in and surprise his opponents and put up great numbers until teams figure out how to stop him. With Cassel, the longer he played, the more of the offense he was given, the better he got.
Better, too is that there was not a single game in 2008, where Cassel looked overwhelmed. His only poor outing in the 2nd half was a 169 yard day against Pittsburgh in which the Patriots dropped 6 passes (including three by Randy Moss), two of which would have been for touchdowns. One of his two interceptions was a nicely thrown pass to Ben Watson, which got popped up for the turnover. Hardly Cassel's fault. The point is that Cassel wasn't hot and cold, he was consistently good particularly throughout the 2nd half of 2008. This is the mark of a good quarterback. The great ones do it week in and week out.
Of course numbers alone don't tell the story. Anyone who watched Cassel play in 2008 realizes that he has all the tools. He is blessed with great size at 6-4 and 230 pounds and has a rocket launcher for a right arm. If you watch the Patriots 48-28 victory in Miami in week 12, you see a quarterback making all the right reads but also making all of the throws. A endzone fade pattern to Randy Moss is masterfully touched over the shoulder, but a deep crossing pattern to Jabbar Gaffney is rifled 30 yards on a frozen rope. What is really fun to watch, though, is Cassel's will to win. For example, faced with a 4th and inches early in the game, Cassel kept his legs driving and managed to turn a quarterback sneak into a 6-yard gain. Most impressively, though, is the way that Cassel moved his feet, made his reads and found the open receivers all day long against one of the NFL's best defenses, in their own backyard.
Now to the present. Cassel will start because of his work ethic. Right after the Chiefs signed veteran wide receiver Bobby Engram, Todd Haley commented that he had already received a call from Cassel wanting Engram's number, so they could hook up and throw. Add to that the fact that he is a leader in the weight room and you start to get the picture that this guy is a hard worker. He wants to win, he wants to play and he is willing to put in the effort to do it. This is huge fact. Remember what the big difference between Ryan Leaf and Peyton Manning was? It was work ethic. This is guy who isn't going to quit. This is a player who is going to give a hundred percent. You don't play backup for seven years without having the perseverance to stick with it. It is an admirable trait. It is the trait of a winner. How many guys would have transferred out of USC? How many guys are impressive enough to get drafted in the 7th round without having started a game? There are a lot of intangibles to Matt Cassel that start to make you realize that this is a guy who is something special.
Haley has commented that Cassel eats, drinks and sleeps football. During his time away from the weight room he is drawing up plays and watching film. This is encouraging. If you are drawing up plays one thing is for sure; you understand that game. So on top of the work ethic, Cassel seems to have the intellect to play as well. This is important since hard work without understanding can often be a simple waste of energy.
Haley mentions that Cassel seems to be liked and respected by his teammates and it easy to see why. This leads into another reason why Cassel will be the starter. He is making the Kansas City Chiefs his team. He was the first guy to show up to camp. He works harder than anyone and guys respect that. A leader cannot ask his teammates to do anything he wouldn't ask of himself. This is a concept that he seems to understand. He expects them to work hard and earn their spots and he expects to do the same.
This gives him credibility as a leader since he doesn't expect anything to be given to him. He doesn't expect special treatment. He has never gotten it before, why should it start now? But what isn't given can sometimes be earned. Matt Cassel has the desire, the work ethic, tools, smarts and leadership it takes to be a great NFL quarterback. All he has needed is the chance to earn the opportunity. The opportunity is here and the time is now and I have no doubt that come opening day 2009 - Matt Cassel will have earned the right to be the starting quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs.