Every errant throw, bad read, fumble or interception from Matt Cassel was meaningless last year. It was meaningless when, in a Week 16 game against the Bengals, Cassel threw for only 180 yards on 37 attempts, tossed two interceptions and undermined a Chiefs team that ran for over 100 yards and held the opposition to 17 points.
It was meaningless, because the Chiefs were headed for 4-12 and a roster overhaul. Even so, it gave me pause to consider the future:
At some point the Chiefs have to hold Cassel accountable for his lousy play. It doesn't mean much right now, in Week 16 of a season that's going nowhere, but what happens against a division champion in the playoffs? What happens when KC's running game, defense, special teams and receivers play well enough to win with something on the line?
What happens when the Chiefs go to Indianapolis, their 3-0 record on the line, and hold Peyton Manning without a touchdown pass?
Suddenly, Cassel's ineffective quarterbacking has meaning. The wide open receiver he missed on KC's first possession, the 10 percent third-down conversion rate, the three consecutive three-and-out possessions with the game on the line, it all means the Chiefs are 3-1 instead of 4-0. It means Chiefs fans are already calling for Brodie Croyle, thinking about quarterback prospects in the next draft, and hoping future efforts from Kansas City's running game, defense and special teams aren't wasted.
It's clear the Chiefs have improved in all of those areas, so why hasn't Cassel? Statistically, he's no better than he was a year ago in almost every area, and worse in some. While being sacked less than any other starting quarterback, his completion percentage has dipped below 55 (30th in the league) and he's on pace to throw for over 300 fewer yards. Cassel is less productive than Rams' rookie quarterback Sam Bradford, but manages to – just barely – outclass Oakland's Bruce Gradkowski, claimed off the NFL scrap heap a season ago.
So forget Croyle – the Chiefs could sign a player off the street to do what Cassel is currently doing. That's no exaggeration. It doesn't take a whole lot of talent or preparation to hand the ball to Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones while dinking and dunking the ball around the field, far short of the first-down marker.
Against the Colts, Cassel literally did not complete a pass that traveled past six or seven yards until he hit Tony Moeaki on a 27-yard completion halfway through the third quarter. After that, he waited until the game was out of reach, when the Colts forced him to throw the ball down the field out of desperation. By then, it was too late.
Do the Chiefs have such a lack of confidence in their $15 million quarterback that they'll ask him not to lose a game against Peyton Manning? Sorry, but Herm Edwards would be proud. We saw him draw up an almost identical offensive gameplan, losing 13-10, three years ago in Indianapolis.
It's true. Herm took an overmatched 2007 Chiefs team into Indianapolis, asked Brodie Croyle not to lose the game, and produced a wonderful moral victory. The sad reality? Croyle was more productive than Cassel (169 yards passing, one touchdown), didn't have the luxury of a running game, and actually converted more than one third down. And this was against the NFL's third-ranked defense, not the helpless-without-Bob-Sanders pushovers who were ranked near the bottom of the league before facing Cassel.
Can anyone explain why Todd Haley Xeroxed Herm's 2007 gameplan and put a leash on one of the NFL's highest-paid quarterbacks? The Chiefs were supposed to be finished with that style of football. Isn't that why they fired Edwards and hired two offensive masterminds (Haley and Charlie Weis)?
Whatever the reasoning, it's difficult to argue the Chiefs couldn't be 4-0 today without more effective quarterback play. But here's the good news – Cassel has a golden opportunity to redeem himself.
Starting with the Houston Texans this Sunday, the Chiefs face four of the NFL's five worst pass defenses over the next month. Houston, Jacksonville, Buffalo and Oakland are giving up big plays by the truckload and have allowed a whopping 44 combined touchdown passes. Opposing quarterbacks are lighting up their secondaries to the tune of an average passer rating of 107.1.
The Texans, in particular, are the worst of the group, as they are on pace to field the worst pass defense in NFL history. No other defense even comes close to the 330 pass yards per game they currently allow.
Making matters worse is Houston's rookie cornerback, Kareem Jackson, who has been toasted in almost every game. According to Pro Football Focus, he's given up 29 catches at 14.7 yards per completion already. A week ago, New York's Hakeem Nicks racked up 12 catches for 130 yards and two touchdowns against the Texans, with much of it coming against Jackson. Roy Williams, who totaled one 100-yard game in the last two seasons, went off for 117 yards and two scores against Houston. He raced past Jackson for a 63-yard score.
Did I mention safety Bernard Pollard is alive and well in Houston, blowing coverages like it's 2007?
If Cassel is really worth all that money the Chiefs are paying him, he'll torch defensive backs for four weeks straight and there will be no question about the future of Kansas City's quarterback position. If KC's defense backs up his effort, the Chiefs will maintain their hold on first place in the AFC West.
In a season that appears to be going somewhere, it would have a whole lot of meaning.
Cassel Has Chance For Redemption
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