A few days ago, I spoke about why Matt Cassel has thusfar proven to be a disappointment. Aiken_drum had an interesting rebuttal in suggesting that Cassel's season is comparable to Tom Brady's initial Super Bowl season, but as I commented in his thread, Cassel is not in nearly the same league as Tom Brady then. Brady had a lot less experience, still would have had 600 yards on him (projecting a 16-game season) and has shown enormous improvement since he's been a pro. There's no doubting by now that we can win with Cassel, but getting to the next step and winning the games that matter most is going to be significantly harder if we don't see significant improvement in Quarterback play. Cassel in year 3 is below Brady's level as a rookie, and Cassel in year 3 is a mile away from the improvement Brady saw in year 2 and 3.
Here's a critical point I need to make before going any further: in the NFL, you absolutely, positively cannot screw up the Quarterback decision. Nine times out of ten a good Quarterback will be instrumental to your football team's success. In some cases, you ask a Quarterback to completely set the tone and tempo for the team, as Drew Brees does for New Orleans. In other cases, you ask a Quarterback to effectively manage games, as Ben Roethlisberger does for Pittsburgh. In all cases, you expect your Quarterback to be a guy who can march your team down the field in the most critical stages of the game. If you don't have that guy, you better have a dominant defense (ala the 2001 Ravens) and you better hope that the team can get some favorable bounces, because when we're talking about playoff football, you have to avoid mistakes and a Quarterback is easily the position that will help you do/not do that.
Ask yourself this simple question: if the Chiefs face a team that can put up 20+ points against them in the playoffs, do they have a fighting shot of winning? That's all it takes. Either one or two slip-ups on special teams/defense or a few lucky bounces. What makes Pittsburgh so special and what made New England special is the ability of the offense to score as many points as the defense gave them. When the defense struggled, they could put up 30, even if in most games, they were hovering below 20.
Which brings us back to the Quarterback decision. Let me put it this way: if this were the most important Poker game in his life, then Pioli gambled everything he had on his first hand, even though it was anything but a sure bet. If this were a game of golf, then Pioli is "Tin Cup." I don't care about Cassel's $63M contract or however you want to slice that up. What I care about is how that gamble may have set this franchise back several years.
As expected, finding the right guy for a position of that much importance and responsibility is difficult work. Teams are not usually willing to get rid of their franchise Quarterbacks and are willing to pay the moon, the sun, and the stars to keep that Quarterback. The draft is still the best place to find a great Quarterback and even that is extremely difficult work. So think about how screwing up the Quarterback decision sets the franchise backward. If the season were to end today, Pioli can't possibly justify moving forward with Cassel as his Quarterback. Given that the Chiefs should play themselves out of picking the cream of the Quarterback crop in the 2011 draft, do you go with a second-tier option and hope he becomes Josh Freeman or Joe Flacco? Because I don't see a top-notch prospect like Andrew Luck or Ryan Mallet falling that low. Do you trade the moon to land a surefire NFL starter like Andrew Luck? In the meantime, do you bring in a veteran Quarterback who is probably flawed like Shaun Hill? If you do go with the draft pick, which I feel like you almost have to do unless you very luckily land a star veteran (as when the Saints acquired Drew Brees), how long will it take before you can open up the entire playbook? If Sanchez's career is any indication and arguably even Matt Ryan's and Joe Flacco's, it will take more than a season. And here's the worst scenario... what if you rest the franchise on a rookie and he isn't the answer? How many years does that set you back?
Here's the moral of that long story: the Chiefs could have been almost two years into having potential answers. Instead, we threw all our eggs into one basket. Which is why I find the Chiefs' front office's arrogance to revolve their entire franchise around one guy so confusing. Scott Pioli saw Matt Cassel in practice for umpteen years as an Exec for the Patriots. His current shortcomings should not come as a surprise and there should have been more than enough of them to question whether he was absolutely, positively the guy. And if there is even a shred of doubt that you've got the wrong guy, you do not hesitate to make some moves that put you in a better position to find the right guy. I don't mind that the Chiefs traded for Matt Cassel. I just cannot understand why the Chiefs refused to get insurance.
In 2009, the Chiefs were in a position to draft Mark Sanchez. It took me a while to warm up to him, but the contrast between Cassel and Sanchez is like night and day. What's so frustrating about Sanchez's success is that he is seeing success playing in a similar type of offense making the kinds of plays that Cassel is not. Like Cassel, Sanchez has not been asked to take over games the way Brees has. He's not even been asked to be perfect in the game manager role. All he's been asked to do is make enough of the easy throws to give the running game and defense a chance to do their thing. In that role, Sanchez has been spectacular in 2010; Cassel has been been lackluster. So when I hear that Cassel doesn't have the experience or hasn't had the time, I immediately point to Mark Sanchez.
In 2010, the Chiefs were in a position to do several different things. Much as I love the Dexter McCluster pick and do not fault the organization for picking him up, drafting McCluster took away the Chiefs' opportunity to make two moves: 1) retroactively, that pick could have been used to trade for a player like Donovan McNabb, who could give the Chiefs a few years of terrific veteran play so that they don't have to panic about the Quarterback decision in 2010; 2) draft Jimmy Clausen who may not be the greatest Quarterback in the world, but he absolutely provides at least an insurance option. Retroactively, if you want to keep the Dexter McCluster pick, the Chiefs still had an option to bring in a QB prospect like John Skelton.
Right now, the Chiefs are stuck with Matt Cassel as their starting Quarterback. There are no Quarterbacks in the stable behind him worth taking a chance on. Brodie Croyle simply can't stay healthy enough to be relied on as their guy. I would love to have stuck a young QB like Sanchez or Clausen in a situation that Cassel is in right now. Okay, Mark (or Jimmy), here's the key to the offense. All we want you to do is throw for 180-200 yards, don't make any stupid mistakes, and make all the easy throws."
If we end the season knowing that Matt Cassel is anything short of a franchise Quarterback or an outstanding game manager, the Chiefs need to move on. And barring some very lucky break, they almost certainly have to do it through the draft. And so, the Chiefs' insistence on putting all their eggs into one basket puts them in a quandary: settle for mediocre Quarterback play on an otherwise outstanding team in Matt Cassel, or roll the dice for a young Quarterback who could bust just as easily as he could succeed. I would opt for the latter, but it's a decision I wish we would have made a long time ago.