(Eds: Adds detail, quotes.)By DAVE SKRETTAAP Sports Writer
Matt Cassel must have felt like the odd man out, though he’s too professional to admit it.
The veteran quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs knew that the front office was actively pursuing Peyton Manning this offseason – team owner Clark Hunt even acknowledged the interest. But Cassel refused to mope about losing his job, instead standing pat while things got sorted out.
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Manning wound up with AFC West rival Denver. Cassel is back under center for the Chiefs.
”It was one of those things, the Kansa City Chiefs were very open with me,” Cassel said during a recent interview. ”(General manager) Scott Pioli and everybody was open about the fact that they were going to reach out to Peyton. For me, I don’t take any disrespect.”
Cassel was the first to admit that Manning is one of the best players ever to play the position. The all-but-certain Hall of Famer has been to the Pro Bowl 11 times, voted All-Pro five times, and the league’s most valuable player four times while with the Indianapolis Colts.
It would have been hard to make the argument that bringing in Manning, despite the injury problems that kept him off the field last season, would have been a bad idea.
Cassel understands that reality.
”Peyton Manning is Peyton Manning, and he’s one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game, so how can you take disrespect from that?” he asked. ”The fact is he didn’t end up here, and we’re going to be competing against him twice a year, which should be fun.”
It’ll be a lot more fun if Cassel performs like he did during the 2010 season, when he led the Chiefs to the AFC West title, than he did during a miserable 2011 season.
Cassel went to the Pro Bowl two years ago, throwing for 3,116 yards with 27 touchdowns and only seven interceptions – the best TD-to-INT ratio of his career. He completed nearly 60 percent of his throws while showing enough moxie to come back quickly from an appendectomy.
Most people figured he was primed for big things last season. Then came Week 1 against Buffalo.
Cassel was hurried all afternoon at Arrowhead Stadium, throwing for a mere 119 yards with a single touchdown and an interception. His abysmal quarterback rating of 64.5 in the 41-7 loss set the tone for his season – really, the tone for the entire team’s season.
Cassel ended up throwing for 1,713 yards with 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions before he was hurt late in a November loss to Denver. Cassel landed on injured reserve along with teammates Eric Berry, Tony Moeaki and Jamaal Charles – the latter two key offensive players whose season-ending knee injuries in part contributed to Cassel’s rough year.
”We like Matt Cassel, and we think Matt Cassel is a good quarterback,” said Pioli, who brought him in from New England and gave him a $63 million, six-year deal back in 2009.
Pioli said he wasn’t trying to go behind Cassel’s back with his courtship of Manning, even though most figured it was a longshot that he would land in Kansas City.
It was simply a business decision, nothing more.
”What we’ve told our player from the get-go is we’re being transparent,” Pioli said. ”Every player knows we’re going to have to go after players at every position. If we feel we can improve our 53 in some way, on the team or in the locker room, we’re going to do it.”
When the deal for Manning fell through, that gave Pioli flexibility to do just that.
The cash that he’d earmarked for one of the top free agents in league history was doled out to a succession of players who could help Cassel, the guy left calling for the snaps. Left tackle Eric Winston was brought on board, running back Peyton Hillis signed for depth behind Charles, and tight end Kevin Boss was acquired to give Cassel another set of hands.
”We have talent on this team, and I think Matt has proven he can get a team to the playoffs and win a division,” said coach Romeo Crennel, who took over last fall when Todd Haley was fired.
”He’s shown he can do it. Our task is to get him to do it again,” Crennel said. ”That’s what we’re going to try to do, try to get that done. There’s some optimism on this team about the way they feel, how they’re going to approach it, and they expect us to bring in good players.”
Hard to get much better than Manning. That’s why Cassel harbors no ill will.
He said that entire melodrama is in the past, and Cassel is focused on the Chiefs’ offseason conditioning program. That includes building rapport with the newcomers, getting reacquainted with the injured guys on their way back and proving once more he’s the leader of the team.
”The great thing about Scott and everyone here is they’re all seeking at any position to go out and bring in the best players. And I understand that Peyton Manning is one of the best players in the game,” Cassel said. ”I think it’s great for the AFC West. I think Peyton Manning, anywhere he goes is a big name, and it’ll be fun to compete against him.”