Chiefs Roundtable: Appreciating Cassel

In this week's roundtable, we talk about Cassel's absence last week at San Diego, what moves Scott Pioli might make in the offseason and who the Chiefs might face in the first round of the playoffs.

Will the Chiefs' performance against the Chargers make the fans more appreciative of Matt Cassel?

Nick Athan: It should. He's their franchise quarterback, and he's going to be for the conceivable future. Everyone wanted to see Brodie Croyle play quarterback and we saw the results. They weren't very good.

It's interesting, though, that the fans still feel the way they do! All he's done is play at a level that has put him in the some pretty good company. He has better stats than any other NFL quarterback not named Tom Brady. Everyone needs to embrace him and should he play Sunday and lead the Chiefs to victory, then maybe we won't have to talk about this topic again.

Conor Crawford: I think a multimillion dollar contract wasn't enough to give enough evidence to Chiefs fans of Matt Cassel's importance. Yes, we all know just how frustrating his play has been over the past two seasons, but regardless, he is the most stable quarterback the team has had since Trent Green.

He's started 27 games over the past two years, and compare that to the hodge-podge streaks with Brodie Croyle, Damon Huard, and Tyler Thigpen before that. Cassel is the most stable guy on the roster, and without him for one game, his worth definitely showed for this team. No matter how mediocre or fantastic he can be from week to week, Cassel is essential to this team.

C.E. Wendler: Probably not, at least not in the long term. While many fans are now talking about how much the Chiefs missed Cassel, that will quickly be forgotten if he has a bad game, particularly if that game comes in the playoffs this season. If the Chiefs miss the playoffs, talk about how important Cassel is to his team will completely disappear.

The NFL remains a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, and that's definitely true in Kansas City, where the Chiefs haven't won anything significant since Joe Montana was at quarterback. The fact that Cassel is a better option than Brodie Croyle doesn't make him a good quarterback, and certainly doesn't solidify him as a top quarterback. It just means he's better than horrible.

Josh Scotten: Well, there is no question that Cassel deserves a little more love from the Chiefs fan base, but some are still hesitant to except him as the QB of the future. To be honest, I understand their stubbornness.

Cassel has had a great season and has really impressed me with his toughness and leadership, but let's face it: the guy is streaky. The first six games of the season, Cassel's QB rating was as low as 68.0, 46.1, and 70.5. But in the other three they were as high as 111.7, 122.9, and 144.

But Cassel is a victim of his environment to a certain degree. The Chiefs offensive coaching staff is notorious for spreading out receivers and compiling passing yards, but whatever reason we have yet to see that from Haley or Weis. Before his injury Cassel was on a role and starting to gain some respect from even the most pessimistic of Chiefs fans, and it's no coincidence that Cassel has been given more freedom on the field over the past several weeks.

It will be really interesting to see how much the offensive staff will let Cassel do this Sunday if he does indeed play. You would have to think Haley has learned the consequences of being ultra conservative by now, but with this staff you never really know what they are thinking.

Michael Ash: If Cassel continues to play well, then sure, seeing how the offense looked without him will cause fans to be more appreciative. But nobody's going to be appreciative of Cassel if he comes back, plays poorly, and the team loses.

Unfortunately, there's a very real possibility that we've already seen the best Cassel will play this season. You can't discount the physical toll of his surgery, or the effect that missing an entire game and lots of practice time will have on him. If he returns to the field and plays like he's picking up right where he left off, it would be nothing short of amazing.

If he does struggle, then hopefully the running game and the defense can pick him up like they did early in the season. But if that doesn't happen, most people won't care that Cassel has a legitimate reason for playing poorly. Their only concern will be the fact that the Chiefs' playoff chances are going up in smoke, and Cassel won't be spared from the angry rampage that will ensue.

What avenues will be available this offseason to further improve the team? Will Pioli pull off any big moves? Are there any notable free agents we could land?

Nick Athan: We've already talked a lot about Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. He has to be the top offseason target. Pioli knows that this offense, even if they keep Dwayne Bowe, doesn't have a receiver that can stretch the field. And with the investment Pioli has put in Cassel, my guess is this will be his biggest move in March.

Chargers Wide Receiver Vincent Jackson could be the price of the 2011 free agent class.
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If he can't do that, then hopefully the Chargers Vincent Jackson will be available. It's doubtful that he'll re-sign with San Diego. Outside of that I think Pioli will sign a couple of veterans. And if there is a big time free agent that he thinks can help this football team, then my guess is that he'll get the cash from Clark Hunt to land him.

Conor Crawford: I think the biggest focus for this team will be at wide receiver. Todd Haley has always been the type of coach to put plenty of focus on the receiving game, and he won't ever be satisfied with the guys he has. He's always going to strive for that perfect combination at wide receiver, and while Dwayne Bowe's long-term contract is still yet-to-be-seen, I think the Chiefs will lock Bowe up and pair him with a rookie receiver from the draft.

No matter how big we want to dream about Larry Fitzgerald coming to Kansas City, it will be much more affordable to draft a rookie and develop him alongside Bowe, especially after the Chiefs spend most of their money on keeping Bowe in the first place.

C.E. Wendler: The Chiefs need to, in my mind, hit on three major impact players to compete next year. They'll have a difficult schedule, and losses like Sunday's make it clear they need talent. I'd like to Scott Pioli find one immediate impact player in the draft, one in free agency and one via trade.

The odds of finding multiple immediate impact players - and I'm talking an impact like Anquan Boldin has had in Baltimore this season, or an impact like Tamba Hali had his rookie season - in one face of the offseason are slim. Pioli is supposedly the NFL's top personnel wizard. The Chiefs need a receiver, pass rusher and nose tackle next season. Finding two of three and watching them roar out of the gate would cement his reputation.

Josh Scotten: To this point Pioli has been hesitant to over invest in marquee type free agents. Pioli's first goal after arriving in K.C. was to establish a foundation of team first guys, or in other words "the right 53".

That plan seems to have finally come into fruition, and if the Chiefs decide to dip their toes in the free agent pool this offseason, it will come down to where Pioli believes this team is in the overall "process".

If the Chiefs finish strong, I would say a playoff spot would be a pretty good indicator of this teams progress thus far. In which case I believe Pioli's focus will first turn to acquiring Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald. That asking price may prove to be too high and if Pioli truly believes this team is ready to make a push, he already has a backup plan.

Michael Ash: I'd be surprised if Pioli didn't try to land a big fish this offseason, because he's obviously smart enough to realize that the 2010 Chiefs overachieved against a fairly weak schedule. That's not going to be the case next year, and Pioli isn't going to want the team to look like they're on a backwards slide after only one year of progress.

The problem is that most of the guys capable of making an impact have to be landed in a trade, because teams don't let their good players hit free agency these days. Nose tackle Haloti Ngata, for example, is set to be a free agent after the season, and he'd be a fantastic addition to the Chiefs. But the Ravens would have to be crazy to let him get away.

I'd definitely expect something, though, as I just can't imagine Pioli thinking the team can stand pat with tougher competition on the horizon.

Two weeks ago I didn't think the Chiefs seemed motivated enough against Denver. I thought they'd be chomping at the bit for revenge, but it never came across like that. Now after San Diego, I'm really worried. They had no fire at all. Two division games in December and they sleepwalked through both of them. What's going on?

Nick Athan: Remember, they only won four games a year ago and eventually they were going to hit the wall. And I thought the Denver game was a good performance. The effort was strong and, honestly, that's the type of games they'll be playing in the postseason.

It just wasn't Brodie Croyles day last weekend at San Diego.
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But the Chargers game was different. It's the first time players didn't try as hard. However, the coaches didn't do their players any favors. They had no sense of urgency, and with their lack of faith in Croyle they basically put up the white flag. This weekend at St. Louis with San Diego a half-game back, I think everyone will be motivated and hungry.

Conor Crawford: The team is definitely getting the wrong idea in their heads that they already own the division. With three games left, they can easily clinch the division, but now it's going to come the hard way. The Chiefs have led the AFC West for most of the season now, and it may very well have given the idea that they already have a ticket punched to postseason play.

The team needs to snap out of that mindset and realize that there are three other teams in their division that are just as determined to win it, but the Chiefs just happen to be the ones with the inside track as of late.

C.E. Wendler: The Chiefs have plenty of fire. They're just not all that talented. If you think the Chiefs weren't up for last game or that they took the Chargers lightly, you were seeing things. The same goes for the game in Denver. Todd Haley has already proven to be a good motivator. He's not going to let his team sleepwalk through any week.

When you lack talent and you're getting your butt whipped up front, it's pretty easy to appear unmotivated, though. Teams "appear" motivated when they're aggressively winning one-on-one matchups. When players are losing those matchups, as Casey Wiegmann often did to Antonio Garay against San Diego, it's difficult to "appear" like a raging beast brimming with emotion. Appearances can be deceiving.

Josh Scotten: Although its way too early to hit the panic button, I think we are finally getting a vision of who this team really is. Sure, the Chiefs are still in a good position to secure a playoff spot, which is way ahead of schedule. But when you look at this team's play on the field, they still have a long way to go.

There is a reason head coach Todd Haley refuses to address his team as good: they just aren't there yet. Assuming this young crop of rookies keeps improving into next year, this team has the potential to be great in 2011, but as of now they are consistently sporadic.

Haley has said on more than one occasion that he doesn't want yo-yo players, but right now he has a yo-yo team. One week you are going to see them beat down a playoff contender on the road (i.e. Seattle) but on any given week they can lay an egg like they did in Denver and San Diego. Until they start playing with consistency, erratic is going to be the status quo for this team.

Michael Ash: I would disagree that they didn't seem fired up against Denver. After an early stop on third down, I can remember Eric Berry mocking the "you can't see me" hand gesture the Broncos had repeatedly done against the Chiefs in Denver, and then kicking at the air, as if he was telling the Broncos to get that junk out of here.

I think they had fire, they just weren't able to build up the kind of score that reflected it because they shot themselves in the foot too many times on offense.

But motivation definitely seemed to be lacking against the Chargers. It's easy to see how unmotivated they were because, during the brief period they did look motivated, it was like night and day. The defense came out after halftime with some renewed fire and forced turnovers on the Chargers' first two possessions of the half. That was the only time all game that the Chiefs looked particularly engaged in what was happening.

I hope it was just a one-week aberration – some combination of the Chargers having everything to play for, and the Chiefs, for some reason, deciding to employ the "live to fight another day" strategy without Cassel there. But if it's something that repeats itself against St. Louis, they're going to be in serious trouble.

Let's be confident and assume that we're going to the playoffs. Last week, Baltimore would have been our first-round opponent. Now the Jets have moved into that spot. Which of those teams would you rather see the Chiefs face?

Nick Athan: I'll play either one of them. The Jets are flawed on offense. And honestly, with the flap they've encountered over ‘Trip Gate', they don't scare me one bit. In fact, I'm not sure they're even going to get to the playoffs. The sixth spot could go to the Chargers.

It's possible that Rex Ryan's New York Jets could be a sixth seed in the AFC playoffs.
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As far as the Ravens, after what the Texans did against them on Monday night, they don't worry me either. Of all the potential AFC teams the Chiefs could face in January, only the Patriots and the Chargers pose a problem. The Chiefs run the ball well and with a healthy Cassel, they're going to be able to do more than enough on offense to keep them in games.

However, it'll be the defense that decides what Kansas City will do in the postseason.

Conor Crawford: I would rather have the Chiefs play the Jets at Arrowhead, because the Jets aren't all that they appear to be. The team is 9-0 against teams with a losing record, while they also have a 0-3 record against teams with winning records (They played Baltimore in Week One, so I didn't count that loss as either against a winning or losing team; regardless, it was another loss to add to the Jets' resume).

Baltimore, as of right now, is a serious playoff contender, if not one of the best teams in the AFC. Now consider that two of the Jets' wins came in overtime – the first against the Detroit Lions and the second coming just the following week against the Cleveland Browns. Both Detroit and Cleveland have been notorious underperformers as of late, and it just adds to the fact that while the Jets boast themselves as the "Super Bowl champions-to-be", they clearly cannot dominate their opponents.

To make a long story short, I think the New York Jets are all talk. They will be the more favorable opponent for the Chiefs in the playoffs because they can't perform well against teams who have already proven themselves. The Jets are 5-1 in away games, and while that may be some cause of concern for the Chiefs, Kansas City needs to remember that the Chiefs are currently undefeated at home.

C.E. Wendler: This may see like an easy answer, because the Jets have an inferior quarterback who is terrible in cold weather. But the fact that the Ravens have struggled to run the ball this season is intriguing. A team that struggles to run the ball isn't going to have much success at Arrowhead in January.

In the end I think you have to pick New York, though. Their running game has struggled down the stretch and their pass rush has disappeared. Those two factors, combined with the fact that Mark Sanchez would be about as comfortable as Lin Elliot at a Chiefs playoff game, makes the Jets the best pick.

Josh Scotten: Although the Chiefs could very well finish 8-0 at home – as they presumably must to make the playoffs – I just can't see the Chiefs competing with either one of these teams. Both are legit contenders in an AFC that is wide-open for the taking.

I still have fond memories of Will Shields nearly reducing Ravens' future Hall of Fame LB Ray Lewis to tears in Arrowhead Stadium, but Shields is long retired and Lewis along with the rest of the Baltimore defense has yet to lose a step. I want no part of them.

The Jets, on the other hand, are in a hefty slump after losing their past two, but Rex Ryan is a great coach and will have his guys ready for a playoff game regardless of who or where. The Jets too are strong defensively but also have a strong rushing attack that allows them to control games.

If I was forced to pick, the Jets look the most susceptible. But I don't like the Chiefs' odds against either team.

Michael Ash: I know a lot of people favor the idea of playing the Jets, based mostly on the assumption that Mark Sanchez will continue the poor play he's been showing of late. But if you want to play the Jets, I don't think you're looking closely enough at their defense. They're extremely strong against the run, and they can put Darrelle Revis on Bowe, which could easily have the same result as Denver putting Bailey on him.

Stopping the run game and shutting down Bowe would effectively smother the Chiefs' offense. If the Jets can do that, all Sanchez will need to do is avoid the big mistakes and lead his offense on a scoring drive or two. Let's not forget – Sanchez was in the AFC Championship game last year. The pressure of the postseason isn't going to rattle him. And if he can find his stride long enough, the Jets have the receiving threats to be a real problem for the Chiefs' defense. Incidentally, the Jets have also been a very strong road team this year.

Of course, none of that means playing Baltimore would be any easier. But it is worth noting that the Ravens give up 4.1 yards per carry in the run game, significantly more than the Jets do. And their aging defense has really shown some cracks this year, particularly late in games. Plus, they have the lesser of the two offenses.

At the end of the day, I think a decent case can be made for both sides. If you can guarantee me that Sanchez will cause multiple turnovers that give the Chiefs a short field, or turnovers that the Chiefs can turn into defensive scores, then I'd obviously pick the Jets. Ultimately, though, I don't really think it matters all that much. K.C. would be in for a dogfight no matter which team they play.

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