Warpaint Illustrated: Tough as nails

By Nick Athan
December 19, 2010

When the Kansas City Chiefs began their warm-ups on Sunday morning in the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, all eyes were fixated on quarterback Matt Cassel.

Before Sunday’s NFL showdown between division leaders began, everyone wanted to know if the man who had surgery just eleven days ago would indeed play against the Rams.

But once doctors cleared Matt Cassel a couple of hours before kick-off, other questions began to emerge about the Chiefs quarterback. Could he absorb a hit to his abdomen? Even further, what would be the residual effect on the field, after his recent appendectomy just eleven days ago?

Well, he answered all those questions and many more as he guided his team to a 27-13 victory over the St. Louis Rams. And with the win, he might have moved into some elite NFL company.

Prior to Cassel’s start against the Rams, I bet if you took a poll among NFL players and asked them who is the game’s toughest starting quarterback, most would say that badge of honor belongs to the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger.

However, if they had seen firsthand Cassel’s performance in guiding the Chiefs to victory on Sunday over the Rams, it’s possible he might sway a few of those votes in his direction.

There wasn’t any question that the Chiefs weren’t the same team without him last weekend at San Diego. His gritty performance against the Rams, that saw him complete 15 of 29 passes for 154 yards, showed his teammates how badly he wanted to lead them to victory.

However, the day didn’t start off well for Cassel. It was clear in the first quarter that he was a bit rusty. But so were his receivers, who dropped a pair of passes in the team’s first pair of offensive possessions that would have resulted in first downs.

But things only seemed to get worse for Cassel after those miscues. Late in the first quarter with the Chiefs trailing 6-0, Cassel threw an interception that gave the ball back to the Rams near midfield.

But that turnover ended up being meaningless when Cassel’s defensive mates thwarted the Rams ensuing offensive possession. That seemed to breathe new life into Cassel.

On the next series under center, he led the Chiefs on a nine play 61-yard drive that resulted in a two-yard touchdown pass to tight end Leonard Pope. That gave Kansas City a 7-6 second quarter lead.

In fact, on that game changing drive, Cassel did it with both his right arm and his legs. The Rams did everything in their power to keep him in the pocket but Cassel showed he was fearless by tucking the ball and running downfield when the pocket collapsed. And that seemed to inspire his teammates even further.

It was at that point that they took control of the game. Still, after the game his teammates seemed to be shaking their heads in both disbelief and in their incredible pride of Cassel’s performance.

One of those players was veteran running back Thomas Jones, who became just one of 25 NFL players to surpass the 10,000 yard rushing barrier. After the game, he spoke about the guts that Cassel displayed throughout the game on Sunday.

�Yeah it’s definitely extraordinary,� Jones said about his starting quarterback. “I’m proud of him, really proud of him.”

Though statistically, even Cassel would say his performance was anything but average. But that might have had more to do with the fact leading up to this game he had limited participation in practice this past week.

For the most part, he was held to team activities that centered around making throws and operating under center only in seven on seven and eleven on eleven drills. The Chiefs decided to put off most of his conditioning drills so he could avoid irritating his surgical incisions.

That meant the Chiefs had some anxious moments until a couple of hours before kick-off. But since his return last Wednesday, he was determined to get back on the field against the Rams no matter the cost.

�Any chance that I had to play this weekend, I was going to do it unless there was some event to where the doctors told me that something really, really bad was going to happen,� Cassel said.

Thankfully for the Chiefs nothing did.

Now they can look ahead to the day after Christmas when the Tennessee Titans come to Arrowhead to face Cassel and company. Because of their win over the Rams, should Kansas City win their final two home games this season, they’ll host an AFC playoff game in early January.

And that all became possible thanks to the toughness of their starting quarterback on Sunday.