I've been a pretty harsh critic of Matt Cassel this season and undoubtedly one of AP's toughest Cassel critics. Some may think I've been unfair in this criticism, but I feel I've been pretty consistent on a few key points: he needs to be efficient on third down, he needs to make big plays when the Chiefs need him, he needs to prove he can make plays downfield, and he needs to prove he can find a receiver outside of his primary read. A few simple points, but still, we've seen quite a bit of inconsistency on most of those points this season.
I don't care what his TD/INT ratio or QB rating or his yardage totals look like. Instead, I care about all those above points. Even at his most statistically productive, there haven't been many games where I could grade Cassel as above "good enough." I know there are some who are okay with Cassel being the Chiefs' version of Trent Dilfer. Not I. In the playoffs, no matter how good the defense is, they could easily have an off-game. And sometimes you can't rely on your dominant run game to move the ball consistently. In those instances, particularly in big games, you need the Quarterback to step up and take charge. Rather than be a Quarterback the Chiefs can win with, Cassel needs to be a Quarterback who consistently leads the charge toward winning games.
The good news is that in 2 of the past 3 games, I've been happy with Cassel's Quarterback play, the first being the Oakland game (even in a loss). Against Arizona, I thought he had a terrific game. Cassel didn't have happy feet, he was mostly throwing strikes and with purpose, was effective on third down, and was looking off his primary read on most plays. He still has a lot to prove, but to me, yesterday made me feel like maybe there is a Quarterback in Cassel that the Chiefs can build around.
Here's what I liked about Cassel against Oakland and Arizona. In both of these games, I thought the passing game really paved the way for the Chiefs. In both instances, we put points on the board in spite of the defense not doing their part. In many games, particularly Denver, he takes too long to get going. In other games, he'll piece together a productive drive followed by a 3 and out. There have been a lot of games where Cassel's offense hits long unproductive ruts that have given the opposing offense a chance to legitimately win a game they have no business winning. In others, the running attack has masked our passing game inefficiencies.
When I watch a lot of Cassel's unproductive passes in other games, one thing that really stands out is how afraid he sometimes looks to throw the ball. When he looks afraid, everything goes awry: he gets happy feet which screws with his footwork and he seems to finesse passes, both of which lead to inaccurate throws. It really is amazing how different of a Quarterback he is when he looks confident. And maybe that's something he's learning as he grows into the position. The offense helps. Charlie Weis is giving him a lot of quick-strike plays where reads are often predetermined. That's why I don't take as much stock in statistics and that's why I'm so interested in how he progresses as a downfield passer. You don't need to be an all-pro Quarterback to throw a designed quick-strike play.
Does this get Cassel out of the woods? No, not yet. Cassel could have eaten a sandwich in the pocket Sunday with the kind of protection he got and the Oakland defense is completely different when Asomugha is in the lineup. I want to see Cassel make very good reads against a stout secondary and prove he has the pocket presence to stand and deliver against a team that hounds him in the pass rush. I want to see him be productive against a good defense like the Chargers (or at least a defense that is significantly better than the Cardinals' defense). I want to see him lead a few 4th quarter drives when the game is on the line.
Still, this Sunday was the first time in two years where I looked at the Quarterback in the pocket and saw something the Chiefs can maybe build off of. He still has a lot to prove, but I sincerely hope that this performance represents a turning point in Cassel's career.