Congratulations, Matt Cassel. You have officially won me over.
Yeah, yeah, I know. Matt Cassel put in a gutsy performance coming back from an appendectomy. Believe me, I'm not trying to short-sell that effort, but he did much more than that on Sunday.
In the beginning of the season, I laid out a pretty detailed wish list of things he would need to do to be considered the Quarterback of the Future for the Chiefs. Honestly, I thought he was a long shot. A few early wins did nothing to sway my opinion. Yeah, the Chiefs were winning games with Matt Cassel, but they weren't winning many of those games because of him. His job was to avoid the big mistake and to take advantage of what the running game and defense gave him. Still, he was wildly inconsistent on third downs and had questionable pass accuracy. As the season progressed, we learned that the Chiefs' defense can be a little patchier than we thought. We learned that teams can successfully limit the run offense by committing to stopping the run. Suddenly, the wheels started to fall off the wagon. It's no longer okay for Cassel to play not to lose. He would need to start taking command of the Chiefs' offense. Of the team. That became particularly clear after the Chiefs got handled by Denver.
I thought he took charge with an almost nervous energy. The passing game started to open up out of necessity and Cassel's response was to make some plays followed by major bouts of inconsistency. Against Denver the first time around, he pretty much took the Chiefs completely out of the game by misfiring on first half throws that an NFL Quarterback needs to complete. When he came out of the locker room at halftime, he was a different Quarterback. Skeptic that I am, I chalked it up to playing out of desperation and to Denver playing Prevent defense. Little did I realize that the Chiefs' embarrassing first half performance against Denver may have been the most positive moment for the Chiefs all season. It appears to be the game where Matt Cassel learned he had to be the man.
As the season progressed and teams learned how to scheme the Chiefs, the Chiefs needed to find an unquestionable leader. Matt Cassel showed some of that the last few games. Against, St. Louis, he sent that message loud and clear. This team is his. He's got this.
I talked at length above about a checklist I made for Cassel. Here are a few things I've checked off the list over the last few games:
show some pocket presence, look off the primary read, throw with more accuracy, become more effective on third downs, prove you can rally your team late in the game, win some big games, show the team you are the unquestioned leader of the team.
The last item on the list is the one I'll be focusing on in this post. Because I actually think that crossing that item off the list makes him more likely to lead the team to victory in big games and late in games. And make no mistake, Cassel was unquestionably the guy who led the Chiefs to victory against St. Louis. It surprises me that some analysts suggest that Chiefs' win against St. Louis to lukewarm play by Cassel and stellar play by Jamaal Charles. That couldn't be further from the truth. Charles was largely a non-factor until one of the last offensive plays of the game. Anyone making that claim is relying on statistics rather than game tape.
Instead, the Chiefs looked like a team that once again didn't believe they couldn't win. Against San Diego, it was largely driven by the Quarterback situation. Against St. Louis, I don't know if it was due to the pressure of playing in a big game or fear that their Quarterback wasn't 100%. Regardless, it was there. They tiptoed through the first half--their defense played sluggish and their receivers obviously didn't feel the need to help out a Quarterback that was gutsily playing through pain.
Prior to the St. Louis game, while I believe the coaches and teammates respected Cassel, I never saw a defining moment where Cassel proved he would carry the team on his back. In many games, you would see him show visible frustration. In other games, in big situations, he would often sail a critical pass over his player's head. He seemed to be at his best when the pressure was off. That's why he looked like nails against Jacksonville last season, against Indianpolis this season down two scores, against Denver this season when they were down by a mile. But when the team looked to him for big plays this season, he's been inconsistent at best.
A defense will never specifically say it, but it makes it easier to lock down in key moments when they know their offense isn't going to squander a key stop. Nothing is more frustrating than forcing a 3-and-out or a key turnover only to watch the offense go 3-and-out themselves. That's something we saw quite a bit earlier in the year. There was a lack of a "click." In game like Houston and Oakland, the defense struggled in moments that mattered most. In games like San Diego and Denver, the defense never got off to any kind of a start... period.
Here's where I really think Cassel came into his own. Nothing worked for the Chiefs early in the St. Louis game and that wasn't Cassel's fault. I've said all year long that Cassel needs to consistently make plays on third downs. You can't do that when Bowe and Copper drop solid third down throws that were thrown right into their breadbasket. The defense, too, looked like they were going to get waxed all game long. My first reaction was: "oh God, it's Denver and San Diego all over again." It was enfuriating. You would think the receivers would respond to their Quarterback battling through pain by working twice as hard to make the job easier on him. They didn't. You would think the defense would tell their QB "We got this, we understand you're hurt." They didn't.
But on Sunday, Cassel didn't throw his hands up in the air. For a while, he was the game. He was the only player that seemed to treat the game as if it mattered. The only player who seemed to realize the stakes. While the rest of the team was suffering a hangover from the loss to San Diego, the Quarterback without an appendix was treating every snap like it was the Super Bowl. Most importantly, he kept at it. Despite the dropped passes. Despite the defense's frustrating early ineptitude. You could sense from his attitude, his demeanor, and the way he methodically continued to make good throws even if his receivers squandered many of them that he was signalling to the team that he was ready to carry the team on his back. It sure didn't hurt to see the guy willing to run the ball and get knocked around.
Some of you may disagree, but I thought the way Cassel handled himself on Sunday as a leader was unlike anything we've ever seen before. I would be shocked if his teammates didn't take notice and don't start to play with a much different attitude from this point forward. They now know they have an unquestioned leader they can depend on who is willing to step up as a guy who drives wins, as opposed to being an accessory to wins.
Crazy as it may sound, but the worst moments may have brought the best out of the Chiefs' developing Quarterback. All of a sudden, the "exposing" loss against Denver and the ill-timed appendectomy may actually have come at a perfect time. Matt Cassel is looking like a Quarterback who believes his team can win at all costs. It doesn't matter what the adversity: dropped passes, slow starts, defensive struggles. Don't worry fans, teammates, coaches... Matt Cassel's got this.