Raise your hand if you're convinced that Matt Cassel is a Quarterback who can lead the Chiefs to a Super Bowl. Put your hand down.
Now raise your hand if you're convinced that Matt Cassel is NOT a Quarterback who can lead the Chiefs to a Super Bowl.
My guess is that there are a few of you in the first camp, a few of you in the second camp, and a huge chunk of you in the "neither" camp. Good--that's where I am too. I thought Matt Cassel showed signs toward the end of the season that he could be the guy, but he still has a lot to prove. He has to prove he can consistently beat elite competition and that he can win in big situations, particularly in the playoffs. Giving up on him would undermine the massive improvements he made in 2010. Yet, my sense is that many in the "neither" group have explored the alternate possibility: becoming too confident in a Quarterback that may not be the answer could set the franchise back several years.
So before I really dive into the post, let me throw out the following disclosure: my opinion that the Chiefs need to draft a Quarterback early does not in any way suggest that the Chiefs need to draft a replacement for Cassel. Instead, the Chiefs need to draft an extra option.
More after the jump.
If there's one thing we've learned as football fans, it's that having an elite Quarterback increases your team's chances of winning by a million-fold (unscientifically). It's not a coincidence that teams with consistently outstanding play from their Quarterback, like the Colts, Patriots, and Steelers, are consistent playoff threats. While it's possible to build a "Trent Dilfer" type team where the team has an outstanding cast to support a "good enough" Quarterback, those teams are fewer and further between and it requires a whale of an effort to build that kind of a supporting cast.
A Drafted Quarterback Can be a Valuable Backup
For starters, we saw how important the backup Quarterback can be. The Chiefs lost their starting Quarterback in the middle of an important playoff hunt and got negative play from his replacement. Had Cassel not rushed back from injury, more than likely the Chiefs would have lost to the Rams, which probably would have taken the Chiefs completely out of the playoffs.
On the one hand, the Chiefs could bring in a good enough veteran Quarterback whose only job is to hold the clipboard and come in at a moment's notice. Here's where I take issue with that: for me, with a young team that is rebuilding, those snaps would be better served going to a younger Quarterback with upside potential. If Matt Cassel suffers a season-ending injury, does that really do anything for the Chiefs if Vinnie Testaverde comes in and leads the team to a 6-10 season? Quarterback of the Future, he is not.
Meanwhile, a young Quarterback can come in and, who knows, maybe he surprises you. If he does, you either build a legit Quarterback competition that should hopefully raise the level of Cassel's game, you name his as the starting Quarterback, or you build up the young Quarterback's stock so you can trade him later. In the event of a trade, because you got a pick back, you didn't really lose anything.
A Drafted Quarterback Provides Insurance
What is an insurance policy? It's something you buy "in case" something bad happens. "In case" you wreck your car, your insurance will cover you. Maybe you end up wrecking your car and maybe you don't. Even if you don't ever wreck your car, it's still easy to see the value of insurance.
What does drafting a Quarterback have to do with insurance? That draft pick is made "in case" the most important player on the field isn't the guy. "In case." So let's assume that Cassel is not. Let's say he struggles mightily against next year's tough schedule. Suddenly, you have to wait a year to bring in a replacement. Contrary to popular belief, free agent steals like Drew Brees don't come by every day. That means that more than likely, the Chiefs would have to draft a replacement for Cassel. That Quarterback is almost certainly going to take at least 2-3 years to develop. In other words, if Cassel isn't nails in 2011, suddenly, a team on the cusp is now about 3-4 years away from being a legit contender.
On the other hand, if you drafted a Quarterback just "in case" and Cassel isn't the guy, you at least have a young guy in 2012 with a year of NFL coaching and maybe some in-game opportunities throughout his rookie season to see if he can cut it. If he doesn't cut it, you cut him, but at least you tried.
One vs. Twenty:
I'm bothered when people say the Chiefs can win a Super Bowl with a game manager. "Can" and "likely will" are two completely different terms. The Chiefs "can" win a Super Bowl with a game manager, but it's likely going to require an elite supporting cast or some very, very lucky bounces to get the Chiefs there. Meanwhile, Peyton and Brady and Brees put their teams in a position to be competitive even if half of the team is out with injury.
When you're building an offense, a Quarterback can make every single player on that unit better. He makes the offensive line better by recognizing blitzes and getting rid of the ball quickly. He makes his running game better by forcing defenses to spread out. He makes his Wide Receivers better by hitting them in stride with a catchable ball the split second after he breaks open. When you're building around a game manager, suddenly you have to build an offensive line that can protect a guy who's probably going to hold onto the ball longer than he should. You suddenly have to ask your Running Backs to run against 8-man fronts. You have to bring in elite receivers who are freakishly good at getting open and who can position their body to catch a misplaced ball. Finally, you should probably have an elite defense that can consistently play lights out for a full playoff run.
So we can talk all day long about stacking the house with Larry Fitzgerald and 2 or 3 pro bowl Offensive Linemen, and a monster defense, or we can demand that the one most critical piece be good enough to make the other 21 starters better. Obviously, the latter option is much easier.
Give Me an Example....
Let me throw out a few interesting examples. Kevin Kolb, to me, walked into the 2010 season in a similar situation as Cassel. Philly was so convinced he was the answer that they traded their franchise Quarterback away to a division contender. I don't think Kolb ultimately lost his job to Vick because he was disappointing; rather, Michael Vick was very surprising.
In the Rams' Super Bowl season, the team originally started the season out with Trent Green. After an injury, they found a replacement in Kurt Warner who ultimately led one of the most dominant offenses in football. Finally, and most obviously, the Patriots built their entire franchise around Drew Bledsoe. When he missed significant time due to injury, the Pats learned that Tom Brady was a franchise Quarterback in his absence. The reason those Quarterback situations worked is because they had a competitive backup who, when given the chance, proved they were better than the starter. I think most would agree that Brodie Croyle and Tyler Palko are probably not going to be those kind of diamonds in the rough.
So there you go. Maybe Matt Cassel is Aaron Rodgers and just needs a solid supporting cast to bring the team to the promised land, or maybe he's Drew Bledsoe when what the Chiefs really need is a young version of Tom Brady.
If Pioli Does Not Draft a Quarterback, His Legacy Rests on Cassel
Scott Pioli has done a lot of positive things for the franchise. The Quarterback decision is entirely his and so far, he has put all his eggs into that one basket. If the Quarterback in any way holds the Chiefs back from being a Super Bowl winner, that's on Pioli. That's why Pioli and the Chiefs can't afford to treat the backup Quarterback position like a luxury position. They have to have an option in case Cassel isn't the guy.
In my opinion, the Chiefs would be making a huge mistake if they walked out of this offseason without a Quarterback who they believe can legitimately compete for a starting Quarterback position.