I'm an optimistic guy, so I'm rooting for Matt Cassel to prove me wrong. He seems like a good kid--tries hard, works his tail off, and is coachable. I'm not ruling out the idea that he can still improve. Still, with every disappointing performance, it becomes a lot harder to be optimistic.
That's a shame because as of now, the Cassel trade stands as a blemish to an otherwise remarkable franchise turnaround. That is a decision Scott Pioli should be accountable for and one that may set this franchise backward several years (more to come later in the week). Without a franchise Quarterback, making a legit Super Bowl push becomes markedly more difficult.
I know there will be a fair share of Matt Cassel apologists, so I first want to make it clear why even they can't continue to make excuses for Matt Cassel. Later in the week, I will explain how Pioli's decision to trade for Matt Cassel can potentially set this franchise backward.
Anybody who watched the Chiefs vs. Colts game will tell you that the Chiefs rightfully earned their place as one of the better teams in the NFL. Their defense is absolutely for real. Peyton Manning was absolutely flustered. This team is absolutely a good team.
What will hold the Chiefs back in the Power Rankings and ultimately in the playoffs is that they simply cannot rely on the most important player on the field, Matt Cassel, to lead them to wins. They are being forced to win despite him. Our underperformance in the passing game is too often forcing the defense to defend after a 3-and-out and is forcing the running game to jam the ball through a crowded line. So I don't look at the 3-1 record and suggest that "it ain't broke, so don't fix it"; rather, I ask the obvious question: what if the Chiefs played like this AND got their Quarterback to play well at the same time?
The game against the Colts should have been a statement game for Cassel. His defense put him in a position to make plays, his offensive line pretty effectively neutralized Indianapolis' outstanding pass rushers, and he was squaring off against a bruised and battered secondary. During the game, we saw that the Chiefs weren't moving the ball particularly well on the ground. That's when you expect a game manager Quarterback to step up. Big Ben has done it multiple times, Tom Brady did it early in his career, and even Mark Sanchez is doing that now in New York. Cassel didn't step up against San Diego and he didn't step up against Indianapolis. You can't throw for 156 yards and expect to beat the Colts. You can't complete only 55% of your passes against a limping secondary. You absolutely can't, can't, can't lead a team that is a measley 10% on third down efficiency. Also, spin it any way you want, but to me the Chiefs' reluctance to throw downfield makes me question the coaching staff's trust in their Quarterback.
Sure, we can blame Haley for some interesting coaching decisions. We can blame Bowe for an inexcusable end zone drop. We can blame Jamaal Charles for coughing the ball up in a scoring situation. But to me, these are isolated mistakes. Cassel's mistakes occurred frequently throughout the game. So while you could argue that Bowe should have caught a pass, I would argue that Cassel should have performed well enough to overcome Bowe's mistake. And yes, average play in the passing game would have achieved just that.
I'd also like to counter the responses I expect to get:
- The winning record: Even though Cassel is 3-1, how can anyone not agree that the Chiefs won most of those games despite their Quarterback, not because of their Quarterback?
- This is a running team: All the more reason for Cassel to see success throwing the ball. Defenses are daring Cassel to throw the ball against them. Contrast that to how the Chiefs gameplanned Peyton Manning today. The Chiefs dropped everyone in coverage and dared Indianapolis to run on them. They were absolutely and completely in pass-stopping mode and it frustrated Manning. Cassel doesn't see that kind of adversity. When the defense is gameplanning completely to stop the run, your Quarterback has to, has to, has to take advantage of that.And when your completion percentage is well below 60% in a dink-and-dunk offense, you know there are problems.
- The experience issue: Matt Cassel has seen a lot more NFL practice reps as Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, or Mark Sanchez. Mark Sanchez didn't have a ton of college starts under his belt and Joe Flacco started mostly against lower competition in college. I get that he's not necessarily going to fire on all cylinders right away, but you expect to see improvement every week. Instead, he's still staring down his targets, missing his receivers, forcing them to make circus catches, and his footwork and pocket presence still seem shaky. It's year 3 for Cassel as a starter--how long will it take for the "lack of college experience" argument to no longer apply?
- The protection issue: It's not an issue. Not anymore. The Chiefs' pass protection against Indy and against all the other teams they have faced has by no means been flawless, but they have repeatedly given Cassel more than enough time to get rid of the ball.
- The lack of receivers: Donovan McNabb has had success throwing to James Thrash / Todd Pinkston. Tom Brady led a Patriots' squad featuring Jabar Gaffney / Reche Caldwell to the AFC Conference Championship games. Great Quarterbacks make the talent around them better.
So if I revert to being an optimist, these are things I want to see from Cassel in the coming weeks:
- Take Charge: This week, I don't want to hear Matt Cassel spout out the same robotic sound bites about how the Chiefs are trying to be better and how everyone is trying their hardest and how he and the Chiefs played to the best of their ability. We're not buying it. I want to hear you tell us that you can be and should be better. I want to hear you confidently tell us that the offense won't let a good defensive performance go to waste ever again. I want to hear that you're frustrated about losing and that it's eating you up inside. We heard some frustration earlier in the week, but we don't want to hear that you feel good about what turned out to be a losing performance.
- Fire Away: Here's something that we've learned over the last few weeks. This defense is going to bail him out if he makes a mistake. It's amazing how much better he is as a Quarterback when he's playing with a sense of urgency. In the closing minutes of the game, he connected on some big league passes and was firing the ball into the coverage. I want to see more of that earlier. I don't care if it leads to a pick or two, as long as it means that he's starting to get the ball into the end zone and extending drives.
- Trust His Teammates: Right now, it looks like he's playing scared. He looks like he's always hearing footsteps and he always seems to look for the safe throw. When he doesn't find his primary read, he starts to panic. Either that means staring his receiver down until there's a makeable play or starting to move his feet when he doesn't need to. The offensive line is starting to protect him--trust them and get comfortable playing in the pocket.
I'm not giving up on Cassel because he's still the Chiefs' best option, but he has to be better than this and there are no longer good enough excuses for why he isn't. It doesn't matter if the Chiefs go 4-1 by beating Houston next week. If he doesn't turn his play around, he's going to get booed at Arrowhead. You hate to see bad things happen to good people, but the unfortunate truth is that there are a lot of things that need to happen between now and then to avoid that outcome. I am certainly pulling for the kid so that that does not happen.