Based on Matt Cassel's performance in 2009, I never thought I'd say this, but the Kansas City Chiefs really missed him on Sunday. And oh by the way, that's not necessarily an indictment on Brodie Croyle nor is that a glorification of all things Matt Cassel.
Croyle looked out of sync, which is something you would expect from a guy who has barely seen meaningful playing time suddenly forced into a shootout. And while not having Matt Cassel on the field appeared to really hurt the Chiefs, there's no guarantee that he would have played any better than Croyle (especially given that he only threw for 68 yards the first time against the Chargers). It's all speculation. Besides, all this game really proved is that Cassel is clearly the best Quarterback on the roster. It doesn't necessarily say that the Chiefs would have done better with a quarterback other than Cassel under the helm.
We should be equally disturbed that this team as a whole, from the coaches down to players, acted like they didn't believe Brodie Croyle could win for them.
But yes, even this tough Matt Cassel critic can't deny that not having him on the field hurt the Chiefs in very visible ways. I'll explain more after the jump.
Let's put Brodie Croyle's performance aside for a second. We knew he was going to be rusty. We knew they'd have to hold him back early. The team should have been prepared for a bumpy ride. It didn't feel like that was the case. Instead, it felt like the team was prepared to lose. I didn't feel the swagger. And when Croyle didn't get off to a great start, the team looked like it gave up. They might as well have stayed in the locker room in the second half. To me, that's on the coaches. Good teams have to deal with adversity. Look at the Pittsburgh Steelers. Big Ben is, in my opinion, one of the top 3 or 4 QBs in the NFL. It would have been easy for the Steelers to fall into the "our goal should be to win half of these games in his absence" trap. They didn't. They acted like a team that wanted and expected to win.
But back to Croyle. No matter how you slice it, he did not play a good game and when the team as a whole doesn't perform well, the scapegoat is usually the Quarterback. A few weeks ago, I chewed out Matt Cassel for not getting off to a quick enough start against Denver. This week, Croyle was guilty of the same problem. It took him too, too long to get started. Granted, the coaching staff didn't give him opportunities to do anything in the first sequence--they ran the ball five times then threw a ridiculous screen pass on third and long. But past that sequence, Brodie Croyle had plenty of opportunities to throw the ball in an open offense and he simply did not execute the plays called in. I don't want to hear excuses that his poor performance was the result of poor offensive line or receiver play.
Could the offensive line have played better? Definitely. Were the receivers roaming around wide open? Sometimes, but not always. But did Croyle contribute to a lot of those problems? You bet he did. The Chargers stacked the box and dared Croyle to beat them. He didn't. Going back to the point I talk about every single week, this team is at their best when they run the football well, do enough in the passing game to extend drives and keep defenses on their toes, and play bend-don't-break defense. And it all starts on offense. When they control the game on offense, everything falls into place. When they can't pass the ball, defenses put a bullseye on the running game and the running game suffers. When the Chiefs don't run the ball, they don't drain clock and don't create makeable third down conversion situations. When the Chiefs don't have makeable third down situations, they suffer on third down efficiency and punt more often than they'd like to. When they punt too soon, they force the defense onto the field too quickly. It's a chain reaction.
And it's all the things that Croyle didn't do that set the downward spiral in motion. When the Chargers dared him to pass the ball, that's when he needs to attack that gift-wrapped pass defense and make some plays. He blew some plays by not understanding his pocket and taking unnecessary sacks. He too often resorted to a short checkdown that was a mile away from the chains. He let way too many inaccurate passes get away. And he has to learn that a receiver five yards away doesn't want a Randy Johnson fastball fired into his chest. That's just the reality that a rusty backup looked like... a rusty backup. That doesn't mean that he can't improve with experience. But on Sunday, he played poorly. No excuses.
But it also shows that fans can sometimes take for granted some of the basic things that Cassel does pretty well. While I don't think he's the most savvy at reading his pocket, I will say that he's improved considerably and has become very good at at least recognizing when to start moving to avoid the sack. I also think Cassel's technique in making all the throws is far superior to Croyle's. Cassel has really developed great footwork to throw a great screen pass, to lob the ball when he needs to, to throw a quick-drop pass as well as he throws out of a 7-step drop. He's been inconsistent this season at putting the ball in the right spot or throwing it to the right receiver, but to his credit, he is starting to do most of the pre-throw things really well.
The Chiefs ran a pretty vanilla playbook. I wouldn't call the playcalling conservative, but it didn't seem to have the same kind of trickery that we're used to seeing. I really wonder if that's due to poor scheming, Croyle's inexperience understanding the playbook, or perhaps a lack of confidence in Croyle's ability to execute those plays. Either way, the playcalling was sorely missing creativity and I am pretty convinced that that would not have been the case if Cassel was at the helm. By the way, the claim that Croyle was operating in a run-heavy offense is false. Croyle had plenty of opportunities to make plays downfield. Period.
And let's face it, Croyle's lack of a track record allowed San Diego to scheme differently. Croyle was the rusty 0-9 Quarterback. If I'm the Chargers, I ask my defense to make Croyle beat us until he proves he can. I doubt the Chargers scheme Cassel in the same way. While the Chargers would still probably scheme against the run first, I don't see them daring Cassel to throw the way they dared Croyle to. And with a looser run defense, you'd expect that Jones and Charles would have had more early yards behind Cassel. Again, this is not to say Cassel is better than Croyle. Just merely pointing out that the situation Croyle was put in allowed San Diego to make adjustments that completely shut down the running game, which then limited our defensive success.
So on the one hand, Croyle has to execute the plays that were called in, especially when the pass defense dares him to. But on the other hand, you have to wonder if the team sensed that they were doomed from the start. When the Chargers committed to stuffing the running game and the pass offense couldn't move the ball? When the Chiefs saw how much the gameplan revolved around a vanilla scheme, you have to wonder if the Chiefs' players felt that the coaching staff didn't have any confidence in their Quarterback. And when the coaches don't trust the leader to make key plays in a big game, it's easy to walk in with a defeated attitude. If you think you're going to lose anyway, sometimes it's more comforting to play half-heartedly and then later blame the loss on your lack of heart. But let me get one thing straight: that is on the coaches to make the team believe they can win. Even if they're missing their starting Quarterback. Even if they struggle early.
So yes, the team missed Cassel for obvious reasons, but it also appeared that they missed him for inexcusable reasons. You aren't going to win games against teams like the Chargers, let alone most teams in the NFL, with that kind of mentality.