There’s nothing wrong with “California Cool,” but the top quarterbacks raise their teammates’ intensity by a few degrees when needed.
Matt Cassel now understands he must be the one to fan that competitive fire in Kansas City. Otherwise, his chances for NFL success will go up in flames.
Among the lessons learned in his first season as a Chiefs starter — and there were plenty of hard ones — Cassel realized he can’t be Mr. Nice Guy all the time. Not if the Northridge, California, native wants to blaze his own trail as a franchise signal-caller like mentor Tom Brady.
“I’ve tried to show some stability in that leadership role, take on a more serious demeanor and cut out the joking,” Cassel told FOXSports.com after Monday’s training camp practice at team headquarters. “There’s a time and place for that. But at the same time, until we start winning some games, it’s really got to be all business.”
The change in attitude couldn’t have come soon enough for Todd Haley.
Kansas City’s head coach admits he’d become frustrated with Cassel’s laidback attitude during a 4-12 campaign. Haley was particularly exasperated during some of last year’s Friday practices, which serve as dress rehearsals for the upcoming game.
“That’s when you want everything operating smoothly,” Haley said. “Something would go wrong – a receiver would drop the ball or run the wrong route. I know how important Friday (practice) is, so I’m letting loose.
“Multiple times, I go to Matt, ‘You’ve got to be mad. You’ve got to be upset.’ (He would answer), ‘I am upset.’ Well, you’ve got to show it.”
Haley wasn’t the only one alarmed by Cassel’s silence. Super Bowl quarterback-turned-NFL analyst Rich Gannon also was aghast when watching Cassel stay mum following mistakes in a mid-December practice before playing Cleveland. The Chiefs lost that game, 41-34, with Cassel completing 55 percent of his passes. He posted the same mediocre average during the regular season, ranking only 27th among qualifying NFL quarterbacks with at least 224 pass attempts.
“(Gannon) comes to me and says, ‘So-and-so dropped the ball. Why isn’t (Cassel) after him?’” Haley recounted. “I said, ‘Rich, you need to sit and talk to Matt, quarterback to quarterback.’”
Gannon did, but says it was Cassel who initially approached him during a television production meeting.
“When I watch a Friday practice with Peyton Manning, the ball doesn’t touch the ground,” Gannon said. “The practices are sharp and crisp. The Friday practice I went to in Kansas City was not good. Guys couldn’t line up because of indecision and were missing throws. I could see the frustration on Matt’s face, but he didn’t do much about it. Todd was the one doing all the hollering.
“I told Matt, ‘Guys are eventually going to tune Todd out. You’ve got to be the guy. If something isn’t exactly the way you want it, you’d better say something, because eventually they’ll get rid of you.’”
Cassel had plenty to kvetch about. The offense was in disarray from the preseason when Haley fired offensive coordinator Chan Gailey and added play-calling duties onto an already full coaching plate. He said Kansas City receivers dropped more than 50 passes by his count, which was the NFL’s highest number. Only three other quarterbacks were sacked more than the 42 times Cassel went down. He also had to work with a hodgepodge of receiving talent because of injuries, roster shuffling and the four-game suspension of leading wideout Dwayne Bowe.
“I don’t think it will ever be as tough as last year — at least you hope not,” Cassel said.
Cassel, though, never griped publicly about his situation or his teammates. That impressed Chiefs management and raised his respect level in the locker room.
“He didn’t crack when he could have,” Haley said. “He could have showed signs. That would have affected his leadership now as we’re making progress and the talent level is improving. How he handled those situations is having a positive effect.
“A quarterback needs support. There are very few I’ve ever seen that can really do it on their own – very few.”
Brady’s one of them, but he’s long had a strong supporting cast. When the three-time Super Bowl winner went down with a knee injury in the 2008 season opener, Cassel guided New England to a 10-5 record in his first starts since high school. This led to his acquisition by Kansas City and subsequent six-year, $63 million contract extension for a player initially considered a throwaway 2005 seventh-round Patriots draft choice from Southern Cal.
The Chiefs have since hired one of Brady’s mentors in hopes of helping Cassel justify that mega-deal. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis recently told Chiefs media his first order of business was to “fix the quarterback.”
Weis wasn’t made available to FOXSports.com to discuss exactly what was broken, but Cassel offered his two cents.
“That’s what coaches live for — to try and make players better,” Cassel said. “I’ve never been around a coach who has said, ‘Guys, you’re playing great football. Keep doing what you’re doing.’ I’m sure what he was trying to say is that I’m working hard to make Matt Cassel a better quarterback. Maybe those comments about trying to ‘fix’ the quarterback position are misunderstood.
“Really, if you’re a good quarterback, you’re going into the offseason saying, ‘I want to work on this. I want to change this.’ If not, you’re not trying to get better.”
By improving his accuracy and getting rid of the football quicker, Cassel should better than the 69.9 quarterback rating that ranked 25th among qualifying players last year. He’s 20-of-27 passing with one touchdown, no interceptions and one lost fumble on a sack-and-strip in nine preseason series that have produced 10 points (kicker Ryan Succop missed two 53-yard field goals).
Not only is Cassel more comfortable, Kansas City’s upgraded its offensive skill-position talent with the acquisition of veteran running back Thomas Jones to pair with 1,100-yard rusher Jamaal Charles and two potential impact rookies in speedy wide receiver Dexter McCluster and tight end Tony Moeaki. Cassel’s also improved his rapport with Bowe and fellow starting wideout Chris Chambers, who didn’t join Kansas City until being waived by San Diego midway through last season.
“He’s learning how to trust his guys on the outside,” Chambers said. “We’ve been able to bring in a few talented players to help him out. I think that’s going to bring some more calm and poise to his game.”
Even if the calm Cassel is no more on the practice field.
“He’s been more vocal when he has to,” Chambers said. “He’s still a fun guy, but when he hits that field, he’s extremely serious about his craft and everything he needs to get done. It’s good to see from your quarterback.
“If you don’t get it from him, it’s kind of hard to get it from other guys around him.”