Tuesday, October 20, 2015

A Thorough Examination of Matt Cassel


We often discuss the realities of the QB position in the NFL and rough estimates that would suggest that there are about 10-15 Quarterbacks who can play the sport at a top level.  This, of course, is not enough to go around and that leaves a lot of have-nots who sift through the leftovers to look for a QB who can at least hold the fort until they can find their next savior.
Once upon a time, that savior was Matt Cassel.  The Kansas City Chiefs were in desperate need of an option at the QB position and this 27-year old backup from New England was worth the price they were forced to pay.  And for parts of the next 3 years, he represented that promise that they might have their man.  He went to a Pro Bowl and the Playoffs and all of the places that you hope that QB will take you.
This was after the Patriots needed Cassel to play an entire season in 2008 after Tom Brady was hurt in Week 1, Quarter 1 (By who else?  The Kansas City Chiefs).  Cassel played a very solid year of backup-QB football (with a team that almost went 19-0 the year before) that helped lead the Patriots to 11-5 in the final year of his rookie deal.  His opportunistic timing influenced the Pats to slap the franchise tag on him, knowing in a QB-starved league, that somebody would be happy to trade them compensation for a QB who proved to be competent and at the right age.  $14m was the approximate total of the franchise tag for the 2009 season, and Cassel signed that tender the moment it was offered.  He probably couldn't believe what was happening.
This is a good spot to point out that at this very time, the Chiefs needed a new General Manager, and looked to the Patriots to hire Scott Pioli to take over for long-time architect, Carl Peterson.  Pioli was instrumental in putting together the 2007 Patriots and now he would take a job where he was sitting at the head of the table.
Pioli clearly needed a coach and a QB and hired Todd Haley to be the coach after the 2008 Cardinals went to the Super Bowl with Haley running the offense.  Now, they needed a QB because Tyler Thigpen was the closest option they presently had.  To get that QB, they would look no further than Pioli's office from a moment earlier.  Back to New England to get Cassel.
The Chiefs traded a 2nd round pick to New England for Cassel and aging linebacker Mike Vrabel.  They then agreed to a contract that replaced the franchise tag and locked up Cassel for 6 seasons at a price of around $62 million.  Over $40 million would be jammed into the 2009-2011 seasons, so Cassel would be a wealthy man, despite 15 career starts.  Fortune had smiled upon him greatly because of a series of events that feel just right with Tom Brady and Scott Pioli.
2009 was the rebuild, but in 2010, the Chiefs went to the playoffs and Pioli, Haley, and Cassel were being toasted for their work in Kansas City in short order.  Cassel even replaced Brady in the 2010 Pro Bowl.  Everything was great and Cassel was just 28. 
But, the next year, 2011, things shifted quickly for the Chiefs.  They regressed and Cassel's QB rating did, too.  After 9 starts, he broke his hand and finished the season on injured reserve.  This poor season ended with Haley being fired after Week 14 and Romeo Crennel taking over to finish the year. 
2012 was even worse, with Cassel suffering a concussion in Week 5, was benched for Brady Quinn, and the Chiefs ended the year with a 2-14 record and everyone being fired.  That season was also marred by the murder-suicide incident of LB Jovan Belcher, where Belcher killed his girlfriend and then went to the facility to thank Pioli for the opportunity to play for the Chiefs, before killing himself. 
Pioli was out.  Crennel was out.  And Cassel was out, with them.  Andy Reid took over and the Chiefs released Cassel almost immediately.  The Chiefs would then send two 2nd round picks to San Francisco for the next guy, Alex Smith.  He would now play the role of the next savior there.
Cassel was now about to turn 31 and he was relegated back to the spot where he would assist a new team with their situation, not as a savior, but as a backup.  Minnesota called (2-years, $7.4 million) and needed help because their next guy, Colleyville's Christian Ponder, the Vikings 1st round pick in 2012, was being developed as the starter.  However, Ponder was very poor in 2013, and Cassel out performed him pretty easily.  Cassel played quite a bit, which by year's end convinced the Vikings that Ponder wasn't their guy and that Josh Freeman needed a look (even!) and that in the 2014 draft, it would be time to take another QB.  But, they were pleased with their veteran backup, Cassel - so, even though he opted out of year 2 of his deal, they again signed him to a 2-year deal, this time for $10 million dollars!
2014 was the year they hired Mike Zimmer to replace Leslie Frazier as coach, then traded back into the 1st round to get their next QB savior, Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater with the 32nd pick.  This meant that they would enter the year with Bridgewater backing up Cassel and Ponder as the 3rd stringer.   They wanted the now 32-year old to show those youngsters how to prepare as a professional QB.  Everything was great in Week 1 in their win over St Louis.  But, following the game, Adrian Peterson was caught up in his child-abuse controversy and would be lost for the entirety of the season.  That black cloud would send the Vikings into yet another tailspin of chaos, with New England blowing them out in Week 2 with Zimmer trying to navigate with Cassel and core of castaways and kids.  By Week 3, in New Orleans, Cassel would break his foot and head right back to injured reserve, with Bridgewater taking over. 
In the spring, the Vikings felt Teddy had secured his spot and they could now flip Cassel for a pick (actually Cassel and a 6th for Buffalo's 5th and 7th) in Buffalo, as now the Bills were remodeling and had no idea who their QB was.  Rex Ryan took Cassel to compete with Buffalo's (previous administration) dubious 1st round idea, EJ Manuel - also, like Ponder, from Florida State - and then signed Ravens' backup Tyrod Taylor a week later.  Taylor was 26, Manuel 25, and old-man Cassel, 33.  Ryan knew that Cassel was a short term play, and that odds are pretty good that none of them are the long-term solution, but in training camp Taylor won the job and Cassel was available to a team that wanted to give Buffalo their picks back. 
Enter Dallas, after Romo was hurt.  On September 22, the Cowboys sent their 5th in 2017 for Cassel and Buffalo's 7th
And that, is the story of Matt Cassel from 2008 until Sunday when he starts against the Giants.  I didn't even get to the part where he didn't start a single college game at QB at USC.  It has been a bizarre trail, but he has made an amazing amount of money (roughly $60 million), clearly has always had a place at this level, and now could make even more if this goes well.
So, can he play?  
I gave him the 200-play treatment recently, to see what we could see about Cassel and what you should expect from the Cowboys new QB for the next month (most likely).  
He is very different than Brandon Weeden.  Weeden was careful and conservative.  If Cassel has a weakness (and it appears he does), it is that he often trusts his arm too much.  Throwing into coverage is something that he will do.  This gives him some wonderful moments that you just love.  But, it also sets up some "what is he thinking?" moments as well.  
I suppose, that is the the majority of backup QBs in this league who have decided they are not the type to lay-up on a Par 5.  They are going to give their WR a chance to make a play.  Sometimes, that is great and sometimes it shows that we should probably draft a QB the next chance we get. 
Let's look at some clips:
Here is a beauty against Philadelphia.  Look at him keep his eyes down the field, duck through some pass rush, and deliver a throw in stride to Greg Jennings.  That should get you excited.  Weeden had killed that play the second the pocket started collapsing.  
How about this one?
Man in his face, rollout to the right and puts a long throw right on the stride of Jennings again.  How is this guy available?  These throws are magical!
Well, he also throws these:
Play-action, with protection breaking down.  He sees an opportunity down the field and takes a hit to deliver a throw.  Unfortunately, all of that chaos causes the throw to sail and it hits the safety right in the chest.
Here he sees an opportunity to hit Jennings down the field against the Patriots and throws at Revis.  He just misses, but Revis doesn't.  Another pick for the bad guys.
But, look at this - Cassel makes a throw that any elite QB would be proud of as he hits Jerome Simpson in the back of the end zone on the post.  He can make this throw look pretty easy.
Basically the same throw above.  Again, a thing of beauty.  Accuracy is spot on and a nice big gain as he attacks the spot in front of the safeties.
And here, he sails his man, throws it into coverage, and gets the accuracy a little wrong.  These throws kill drives and often lose games.  
3rd and short, run "sticks".  Fastball to the sticks and the LB is sitting on it for a Pick-6.  Telegraphed and not what we have a veteran QB here to do.
Again, Weeden never even tries this throw.  Fantastic.  Although you can tell it takes his whole body to make this throw at this point of his career.
Again, there is nothing better than throws like this.  This wins games and makes Cassel his money.
There are 10 plays or so from this experiment that I wanted to show you.  The bottom line here is basically that he knows what he is doing.  He can challenge a defense and he is willing to get hit in the mouth to try to make a play.
However, he also makes some decisions that are not high-probability ideas and often gets his hand burned.  He is limited, because he doesn't have a gun and also will get hurt on you. 
But, he believes in himself, which is a big part of the battle.  He is not here to take repeated check downs and he is not here to play super conservative.
He is a backup QB who is a bit of a gunslinger.  I wonder about this because I know Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan usually like backups that know what they are not capable of doing.  I almost feel like this idea was somewhat imposed upon them by the front office to give a guy a chance who wants to make a play.  Weeden was being too careful and now they will get the opposite.
The realities are pretty clear.  Matt Cassel is no longer anyone's savior.  He is a backup QB who has real limitations, but the test for a backup is that if you insert him for a month with a good football team, can he get you to 2-2?  They think he gives them a better chance than Brandon Weeden.
I agree with them.  
But, we are about to find out.  

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