Josh McDaniels and Matt Cassel will catch up with each other this weekend, nine months after the idea of a reunion was first raised, changing the course of both men’s careers.
McDaniels tutored Cassel, who went 10-5 as the starter in New England last season after Tom Brady went down in the opener with a season-ending injury.
McDaniels liked the young quarterback so much that after he became head coach in Denver, he spoke with his former boss, Bill Belichick, about a three-way deal that would have brought Cassel to the Broncos and sent interception-prone Pro Bowl passer Jay Cutler to Tampa Bay.
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That deal disintegrated once Cutler learned the Broncos were shopping him around without so much as a courtesy call to let him know, and the Patriots traded Cassel to Kansas City instead.
The drama in Denver was only beginning.
Six weeks later, after Cutler refused to answer the team owner’s phone calls and McDaniels refused to make nice during a meeting with his disgruntled quarterback, Cutler was traded to the Chicago Bears for Kyle Orton and a bevy of draft picks.
“It was crazy because I was watching ESPN like you were and saying, ‘How in the heck did my name get thrown in here?”‘ Cassel said Wednesday in a conference call with Denver media.
Heading into their reunion at Kansas City on Sunday, the Broncos (7-4) have surpassed low expectations and the Chiefs (3-8) haven’t.
Still, the Broncos aren’t exactly settled at quarterback. Even if Orton leads them into the playoffs, a long-term commitment to him is no sure thing. He’s in the final year of his contract and could very well find himself bolting the Broncos next winter.
No matter who’s under center for Denver next season, the only time McDaniels and Cassel will be on the field together is for their twice annual meetings in the AFC West, a constant reminder of what might have been.
“It’s going to be a little bit different defending him rather than being on the other side of it, which I’ve been on in the last four years,” McDaniels said. “Difficult preparation, can do things with his legs, can beat you with his arm and his legs, which is unique to a few quarterbacks in this league and he certainly is one of them.”
Cassel might have had an easier time in Denver, where he would have at least been familiar with the coach and his system.
“I’ve never looked back,” Cassel said. “You can’t do that. I just look forward and I love where I’m at, I’m happy where I’m at and I think there’s a lot of great things to come here in Kansas City.”
McDaniels, whose team beat Brady and the Patriots 20-17 in overtime on Oct. 11, gushed about Cassel this week.
“He’s very bright, mobile, athletic, a big kid and he is a good leader,” McDaniels said. “I’m sure you can see the way the team responds to him in Kansas City and the way he plays. He always plays very hard. He’s always going to be ready to go and he does a lot for their team and their offense.”
Cassel returned the praise, saying McDaniels, whom he called “a great, great teacher,” helped him become an NFL quarterback despite not having started since high school.
“He’s had a major influence on my career,” Cassel said.
McDaniels insists he’s happy Cassel got financial security – a six-year deal that guarantees him $28 million – and a chance to start, even if it’s not in Denver.
Both men said their relationship never was strained because of Cassel’s name getting dragged into the drama in Denver.
Cassel’s numbers are down from last season, but McDaniels and Chiefs coach Todd Haley suggested that was to be expected from a quarterback switching teams.
“He’s improved each and every day. It’s been a big transition for him. It’s been a big transition for a bunch of the guys offensively, especially since we made the coordinator change after going through a full training camp,” said Haley, who fired Chan Gailey on the eve of the opener.
McDaniels still sounds as if he’s Cassel’s No. 1 fan. He said anyone can see the intangibles like leadership that shine through his performances and “if you let him out of the pocket, he can definitely throw on the run and make some plays that maybe weren’t there originally. He’s a good football player. He really is. He’s going to be a good football player for a long time.”
In that case, McDaniels will get a twice-yearly reminder of what once was and what might have been.