EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Matt Cassel burst on to the NFL scene in 2008 with the New England Patriots, surprising everyone while replacing injured starting quarterback Tom Brady.
Now, after being a free agent for the first time in his eight-year NFL career, Cassel is content with accepting another job as a backup.
Cassel, who reportedly had a deal in place with the Minnesota Vikings just hours after being cut Thursday by the Kansas City Chiefs, believes he’s found a “perfect fit” with Minnesota as the backup to Christian Ponder. Cassel, who’s started 62 of his past 63 NFL games since filling in for Brady in 2008, understands he’s coming to the Vikings as a reserve, a point made clear to him by Minnesota’s leadership.
“They conveyed exactly that, that Christian obviously had a great year last year, he went 10-6 and that he’s their starting quarterback,” Cassel said Friday after officially signing with the Vikings on a reported two-year deal. “And that they were looking to bring someone in with experience and somebody that will come in and basically be somebody that can step in, if need be. The fact of the matter is, again, Christian is the starting quarterback. I think that we’ll have a great room. I’m there to add value. I’m there to help him out in whatever capacity that is and go from there.”
Ponder is entering a pivotal third season with Minnesota, which made him the No. 12 overall pick in the 2011 draft. But the Vikings were intent on getting a veteran behind Ponder after last year’s backup, Joe Webb, struggled during a playoff loss at Green Bay in January, the only start Webb made all season after Ponder was declared out with a triceps injury.
Cassel, who quickly became one of the top available quarterbacks after he was released, didn’t have to wait long to find a new team. Cassel and his agent got a quick call from the Vikings, and he made a trip to visit with the team — the only trip he would take.
“It felt like it was a perfect fit for me, the community and my family,” Cassel said. “But also being part of a team last year that went 10-6. It’s a team that’s young, that’s up-and-coming, and a winner, to be quite frank. I’m just really excited to be a part of the team, and that’s what made it so attractive to me.”
A report by NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport late Thursday said Cassel’s contract is for two years but is voidable after next season. The report said Cassel is guaranteed $3.7 million this season, with $500,000 in incentives.
Cassel, 30, started eight of his nine games for the Chiefs last season, passing for 1,796 yards, six touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He had a 58.1 percent completion rate and 66. 7 quarterback rating. He lost his starting job after suffering a concussion, and Kansas City fans infamously cheered him leaving the game with a head injury. Once he returned from the injury, he remained the backup to Brady Quinn.
Cassel, though, has the experience and track record Minnesota was looking for to back up and mentor Ponder. He was also a 2010 Pro Bowler after passing for 3,116 yards, 27 touchdowns, seven interceptions and 93.0 quarterback rating before injuries and coaching changes derailed his past two seasons with the Chiefs. Cassel completed 63.4 percent of his passes, threw for 3,693 yards and had an 89.4 quarterback rating the season he filled in for Brady.
Backing up Brady and being thrust in as the starter in 2008, Cassel called it the, “ultimate lesson because you never know what’s going to happen.” Brady’s was among the league’s most durable quarterbacks, and Cassel threw 39 total passes the three previous seasons as a backup.
“I think I understand the role completely, without a doubt,” Cassel said. “But at the same time, both being a starter and a backup, your preparation, what you do on a day-to-day basis, doesn’t change other than the reps you get in practice. You have to be ready to go at a moment’s notice and you have to take great pride in getting yourself ready more with mental preparations, spend some extra time in the meeting room than you would because you’re not going to get all those reps.”
Cassel, once the Chiefs’ hope for a long-term answer at the position after he was acquired in a trade from the New England in 2009, was squeezed out after Kansas City traded for Alex Smith this offseason to be the starter and then added Chase Daniel as a backup in free agency. Cassel originally signed a six-year, $62.7 million contact with the Chiefs.
The veteran QB doesn’t envision a tough transition in learning Minnesota’s offense or becoming a backup. He said he met Ponder last year when they were working out together in Los Angeles, and the two have talked since Cassel arrived in Minnesota.
Cassel sold himself to the Vikings as much as the team did to him.
“What I said is I’m a guy that’s going to come in and work hard and give you my all no matter what role I’m in,” Cassel said. “My No. 1 goal is to win games. For me, as the backup quarterback, is to whatever capacity I can to help the team get better and to win games, that’s what I’m going to do. Through my resume and my last eight years, I’ve worked hard to build that type of reputation and I’ll continue to do that to be a team player.”