Let me start by saying I firmly believe Scott Pioli and Todd Haley deserve at least two or three years to make their mark on this franchise before we can truly evaluate how well they're doing. And I realize that Pioli was posed with the challenge of cleaning up other people's messes.
But that doesn't change the fact that they both made critical mistakes this offseason, and those mistakes are going to delay the development of this franchise. Matt Conner had a great piece earlier in the week about the same issues. I'm going to add some opinions of my own to that.
I haven't been shy in saying that I really like the acquisition of Matt Cassel. He has the potential to be a very good quarterback in the NFL and I commend Pioli for bringing him in and locking him in to a long-term deal, but the instant he made that move, he should have made building an offensive line his top priority. It's not like we're talking about veterans like Brett Favre or Jeff Garcia here. We're talking about a quarterback who is still learning the game and needs quality reps. We're talking about a quarterback who was brought in moreso for his upside than he was for what he can do right now.
I'm about to say something that is going to make a lot of you very uncomfortable: Scott Pioli and Todd Haley have unapologetically set Matt Cassel up for failure this season. I don't know if that was ego, as Whitlock will probably tell you. Either way, it's inexcusable.
You don't have to look very far to understand how to best develop a quarterback. You're seeing it right now in New York with Mark Sanchez at the helm for the Jets, and you saw it last year with Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan. You develop a quarterback by surrounding him with a terrific running game that runs hard and often, and by giving him quality passing reps. Granted, it helped that all three of those quarterbacks were drafted by teams that were a lot further along in the rebuild than the Chiefs were, but you get the point. In each of those situations, their head coaches decided to do a few things: 1) build the quarterback's confidence by not forcing him to win games all by himself that early; 2) allow opposing defenses to play in a run-first mode, thus making it much easier to move the ball in the passing game; 3) teach the quarterback good habits by giving him the time to think through and execute plays.
Cassel isn't a rookie and you don't need to coddle him nearly as much as the above three quarterbacks, but he's still a young quarterback who has a lot to prove and a lot to learn. Pioli's number one priority after drafting Matt Cassel should have been to surround him with as good of an offensive line as he could put together. I'm not talking about long-term solutions; I'm just talking about short-term stopgaps and upgrades. It's not like that's a tall task. How hard is it really to upgrade from Damion McIntosh, Adrian Jones, and Rudy Niswanger? If we truly believe that decisions start from up top, then Pioli was the man who looked at videotape of our offensive line and decided that it was acceptable. In his defense, nobody knew that Goff, Waters, and Albert were going to be this bad, but he certainly knew that Niswanger and McIntosh would be. At least, I hope he did.
Instead, he prioritized defense over offense in his push to quickly install a 3-4 defense. Strange, given that when Pioli first started to build "the Patriot Way," the majority of his first-day draft picks were offensive players. Strange, given that when Brady first started playing quarterback, he played mostly in a role where the Pats didn't ask too much of their young quarterback. Instead, in 2009, Pioli's first three draft picks were defensive players, including a cornerback this team didn't even really need. In free agency, he picked up two defensive free agents who are currently starting. It took a few weeks into the preseason and an injured starting quarterback for Pioli to realize that maybe the offensive line was a problem.
On Sunday, we got a bitter taste of why that decision was a lousy one and it wasn't because the Chiefs were outmatched-that was going to happen anyway. It wasn't because the Chiefs lost-they were expected to lose over 10 games this season anyway. It's because our supposed franchise quarterback has to run a watered-down version of an offense because his offensive line can't hold a block. The Chiefs' offensive line was a complete embarrassment against the Eagles. Cassel couldn't even complete his dropback most of the time. On many quick-hit, short screens, Cassel was still getting destroyed. It was easily the worst performance from a Chiefs' offensive line that I've ever seen.
I've heard several people complain that Haley gave up in the second half, but anyone who paid attention to what happened in the first half knows that the alternative wasn't any better. Cassel was getting clobbered on short, 5-yard routes, what makes people think he'd have any kind of time to throw the ball downfield? Haley's only options were to run the ball or take a sack.
I don't fault Haley for the playcalling. I do fault him for a lot of other things.
Haley doesn't have any problem feeding Cassel to the sharks. I can only imagine that Cassel, like any young player, had some jitters about playing in a new offense. In order to overcome those jitters, you have to practice. A lot. The problem is, Haley hasn't given Cassel that opportunity. He's been so busy setting examples for disobedient players that he hasn't stopped to think that maybe playing musical chairs with receivers makes it very difficult for Cassel to establish any kind of working relationship with his targets. He chose to bench Bowe in a preseason game where Cassel needed quality reps, and he chose to bench his second camp target, Mark Bradley, in favor of a receiver they just signed that week. Given that Bowe was blanketed by arguably the best cornerback in the league, it's pretty unsettling that Cassel's top target against the Raiders was a receiver he had thrown to for only a few days (and keep in mind, Cassel wasn't practicing at 100% that week).
You can only hope that what he's doing now out of necessity doesn't develop into long-term bad habits, such as taking off at the first sign of trouble or locking on to a first read. The good news is, at least Cassel is learning from some good coaches. Oops. That's right. Pioli and Haley decided that it was a good idea to let Haley coach quarterbacks, in addition to his coordinating and head coaching duties. It's not that Haley is a bad quarterbacks coach; it's just that I can't imagine where in the world he'll ever find time to focus on Cassel, let alone Croyle and Thigpen. Cassel shouldn't have a selectively available quarterbacks coach; he should have one who is available to him all times of the day and week.
This season shouldn't have been about winning or losing. It should have been about Matt Cassel. I can accept wins and losses, as long as I see Cassel get better week after week after week. Unfortunately, the Chiefs are not going to have much opportunity this season to do that. And what's worse, they're letting him take the fall for mistakes they made this offseason. Here's an idea: rather than half-heartedly support your starting quarterback and spark rumors of a quarterback controversy, how about we stop playing games and start working our tails off to give him the resources to learn to become a better quarterback.
I can handle an 0-16 season. What I can't handle is the Chiefs throwing Cassel onto a deserted island and forcing him to fend for himself.