EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Even after four years with the Kansas City Chiefs, one of the things Matt Cassel is most known for was his time as a backup to Tom Brady with the New England Patriots.
Cassel’s started 62 games in his career, 47 the past four seasons for Kansas City and has made the Pro Bowl. Cassel’s career got started, in earnest, when he filled in for an injured Brady and led New England to a 10-5 record in 2008 after three years as Brady’s backup.
As he returns to a reserve role with the Minnesota Vikings, Cassel is ready to share with Minnesota starter Christian Ponder what he’s learned in the NFL. Cassel doesn’t mind being the mentor.
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“Well, I taught Tom everything he knows; I don’t know what you guys are talking about. But I thought he really started to flourish once I got there,” Cassel joked at the start of May while attending the Vikings’ offseason conditioning program. “No, you know, it’s one of those things. I’ve been in the role, but again the room itself… a lot of people don’t understand how much time we spend together. And so it’s important as a room as a whole to be together and be good teammates and then when you have a good room it makes everybody better in the room so that’s what it’s all about.”
Cassel seems at ease in Minnesota as Ponder’s backup.
When the Chiefs released him in March, he wasn’t unemployed for long. The Vikings quickly signed him to a two-year, $7.4 million contract to be the veteran backup that’s been lacking behind Ponder, who is going into his second full year as the starter.
Cassell, who turns 32 on Friday, might have seen the situation in Minnesota as one with an unproven starter in Ponder. But publically he understands he comes in as a backup, a situation he is OK with.
“I just want to come in, work hard and add value whatever way that I can,” Cassel said. “Whether it’s in the meeting room or out on the field, I can compete and make Christian better and try to make the team better in whatever way that I can.”
Ponder’s previous backup, Joe Webb, struggled mightily in his one start last year, the playoff loss to Green Bay. Webb has always had immense physical talent, but never became an NFL-caliber quarterback. A report this week said Minnesota is moving Webb to receiver full-time, where he was originally drafted to play before the team saw him throw and decided to keep him at quarterback.
Now with Cassel, the Vikings have the veteran backup who, for all his struggles the past two seasons in Kansas City, is still an established quarterback in the league.
Cassel filled in for Brady in 2008 and passed for 3,693 yards, 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He made the Pro Bowl in 2010 when he threw for 3,116 yards, 27 and just seven interceptions, while leading the Chiefs to a 10-5 record in his starts. But things began to fall apart, mostly because of injuries the past two seasons. He was limited to nine games in 2011 and then last season, he completed just 58.1 percent of his passes for 1,796 yards in nine games with just six touchdowns to 12 interceptions while losing his starting job.
He lost his spot on the team entirely when new coach Andy Reid came in and traded for San Francisco 49ers backup Alex Smith.
“It’s one of those things that you can never put your finger on one thing,” Cassel said of last season. “It’s a team effort, and anytime you go 2-14 you’re part of the problem. But at the same time there was a lot of problems on that team. Like you know in this league, when you’re not winning and things aren’t going right, well you’re going to go in a different direction. That’s what they did. But at the same time I feel very fortunate and blessed to have another opportunity here with the Minnesota Vikings, and I’m excited to get going, and I’m going to work hard and do whatever I can to contribute.”
Cassel willingly accepts the role as mentor. And the work between he and Ponder has already started.
“We talk about leadership,” Ponder said. “We talk about offense specifically. We watch film. We talk about how receivers should be running their routes. There’s just a lot of communication going on between us. It’s great. It’s good to have a guy like that to bounce ideas back and forth. He worked with Tom in New England and started in Kansas City, so he’s got a lot of knowledge that I can soak up.”
The team has made it clear that Cassel enters as Ponder’s backup. But Ponder is also facing a pivotal third season since being a first-round draft pick in 2011. Cassel gives Minnesota a trusted backup should Ponder be injured and maybe provides a competent bridge if the team decides Ponder isn’t the franchise quarterback he was drafted to be.
For now, Cassel returns to a backup role, where he first learned the league.
“I’ve been in the role before, and I understand it,” Cassel said. “At the same time, your preparation can’t change. You always have to be prepared to play because the minute you take a day off or you start to complacent is the day that you get called upon, and your team is counting on you, and you’ve got 53 other guys on that roster who are all looking for you, if something was to happen to Christian, to step in and play well.”