In a quarterback-driven league, the starters for the Minnesota Vikings and St. Louis Rams on Sunday will be driven by survival that has served them well in their elongated careers.
Matt Cassel for the Vikings and Shaun Hill for the Rams haven’t reached dinosaur status yet with their NFL service – Cassel in his 10th season and Hill in his 13th – but they have survived better.
Cassel was a seventh-round draft pick, this year the only seventh-rounder slated to start in Week 1 in the NFL. Hill was an undrafted rookie when he was signed by the Vikings in 2002 out of Maryland, the alma mater of former head coach Mike Tice. Hill lasted until 2005 with the Vikings, the same season that was the last for Tice as a head coach.
Both have been kicked around a little in their careers but always found a way to survive – maybe even thrive – for various stretches.
Hill started his career with the Vikings in 2002, but it took a special connection to get him there. He was relatively off-the-radar having played at Maryland, but between Mike Tice always looking for a connection from his alma mater and Hill performing a throwing session in front of Tice’s brother and tight ends coach at the time, John Tice, Hill made an impression.
“I don’t think that hurt at all for sure,” Hill said. “I wasn’t invited to the (NFL Scouting) Combine or anything, so you had to have a coach or somebody that was familiar with what you did in college – of course, him being a Maryland guy, he watched a lot of our games and was able to kind of keep up on me. Without the exposure of the Combine and all that predraft stuff, that’s kind of what it took was to have somebody that had a knowledge of my situation.”
Hill still went undrafted and spent four seasons with the Vikings. The only surviving teammate from his time in Minnesota is long snapper Cullen Loeffler.
“He did a tremendous job when he was here. Great player and consummate pro and you could see that he had a lot of ability,” Loeffler said. “It was just at that time Daunte (Culpepper) was rolling.”
Hill’s only stats with the Vikings were two kneeldowns, a fact that he approached with humor when asked which one his favorite.
“Probably the first one. A lot of excitement about that first kneeldown. The second one, it was kind of over,” he said with a laugh.
“I thought, ‘Well, if this is the end of my career, then I’m going to have the world’s shortest highlight film.’”
Hill spent one offseason getting game action in NFL Europe, and when Tice was fired as head coach after the 2005 season, Hill left, too. But that was hardly the end of his career; he was allowed to increase his highlight film elsewhere.
He spent the next three seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, where he started 16 games over three years. Then on to Detroit, where he spent the next four seasons, with 10 starts in 2010.
Cassel had a similar experience at the start of his NFL journey. After a collegiate career as a backup at USC, Cassel was a seventh-round draft pick of the New England Patriots. He said Hill has had a “tremendous career” and he has “a lot of respect” for him given their comparable backgrounds.
“You’ve got a bond right there, staying in the league for a while. Again, I wish him nothing but success, except for when he plays us,” Cassel said.
Hill is in first year with the Rams and is now in a starting position after a season-ending knee injury to Sam Bradford.
He will be making his first start since 2010 with the Lions. In his career, he has appeared in 34 games with 26 starts, completed 591 of 954 passes (61.9 percent) for 6,381 yards with 41 touchdowns and 23 interceptions for an 85.9 passer rating. The last time he started a season opener was in 2009 with the San Francisco 49ers.
“I try to take those reps in practice as if they’re live reps. If I’m running scout team, I will try to apply that play to a play we have in our offense and I’ll call it that way in the huddle for our guys: ‘Hey, this is like our whatever.’ I’ll call that play in the huddle instead of guys just out there running (scout-team) cards and we’re getting live reps at our own offense against the No. 1 defense. That’s the approach I always took at practice to stay sharp.”
Cassel can relate to that, too. Last year, he started the season as a backup and twice had starting stints as the Vikings replaced Ponder with the veteran. Cassel appeared in nine games, including six starts. Since being that seventh-round pick by New England in the 2005 NFL Draft, Cassel has played in 87 games – making 68 starts – with the Patriots (2005-2008), Kansas City Chiefs (2009-2012) and Vikings (2013).
Quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, whom Cassel started to back up in 2005, will get more ink, but Cassel and Hill are the survivors of the NFL.
They aren’t among the 17 first-round picks that will start on opening weekend, including seven No. 1 overall selections. Instead, they are among the six quarterbacks selected in the sixth round or later (a list that includes Brady) or went undrafted. They are also a part of the group of 17 starters this weekend that are 30 years or older.
Loeffler, who is 33 years old and been in the league 11 years, can respect that.
“He’s become a complete quarterback,” Loeffler said of Hill. “He’s worked through being the third-string guy when I was first here to now being a starter. Everywhere he’s been, he’s come in and did a great job. We’ve lost to him while I’ve been here before. … His last time against us, we lost. That sticks out in my mind and we’d like to change that.”
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
Hill, Cassel may not thrive, but they survive
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