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Column - Jonathan Rand

Worth a look

Nov 20, 2008, 8:33:07 AM by Jonathan Rand - FAQ

thiggyThe Chiefs gave quarterback Matt Cassel his first chance to start in the NFL. They might want to consider giving him his second chance, too.

Cassel, you’ll recall, finally got the chance to unglue himself from the New England bench against the Chiefs on opening day. A tackle by safety Bernard Pollard ended the season of Tom Brady, the league MVP a year ago and who’s led the Patriots to three victories in four Super Bowl visits.

Cassel completed a touchdown pass to Randy Moss in a 17-10 victory over the Chiefs, and a week later made his first NFL start. Gloom and doom settled over New England — the new quarterback hadn’t distinguished himself even in the preseason.

Yet the Patriots stand 6-4 and Cassel has shown steady and dramatic improvement. Lest anyone thinks he’s merely been plugged into a mighty and unstoppable machine, he’s persevered despite weak protection and a banged-up backfield.

Cassel also has turned himself into a prize for next winter’s free-agent auction. Should he re-sign with the Patriots, he’d expect to return to the bench as soon as Brady returns healthy.

Tyler Thigpen, who’s started the last four games for the Chiefs, would appear their lone quarterback who’ll remain in their plans for 2009. Though Thigpen has earned the right to compete for the starting job, the Chiefs must add a high-end quarterback through free agency or the draft.

They wouldn’t have the market for Cassel all to themselves. He’s just 26 years old and pushed his stock to another level by throwing for 400 yards and running for 62 in a 34-31 overtime loss to the Jets last week. He brought the Patriots back from a 24-6 deficit and led them to touchdowns with two-minute drives at the end of both halves.

Since Pollard’s tackle of Brady, Cassel has completed 65.8 percent of his passes and thrown for 2,200 yards and 10 touchdowns with seven interceptions. That’s not too shabby for a passer who spent four seasons at Southern California playing behind Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart before taking a seat in New England behind a future Hall of Famer.

Once Brady was injured, Cassel walked into a firestorm of criticism and doubt, not to mention on-the-field problems. His blockers have given up 32 sacks, four more than the Chiefs, though the Patriots have allowed just four sacks over the last three games.

New England’s running game has remained solid despite key injuries, but Cassel had to throw, throw, throw against the Jets. He completed 30 of 51 passes, including three for touchdowns.

Granted, he gets plenty of help from receivers Wes Welker, Jabar Gaffney and Moss. And though Cassel probably won’t find that strong a group elsewhere, the Chiefs have a nice trio in wide receivers Dwayne Bowe and Mark Bradley and perennial Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez. A free-agent quarterback would have to like those targets.

Considering that the Chiefs are expected to draft high in the first round, picking a blue-chip quarterback is a distinct possibility. The rookie success of first-round picks Matt Ryan in Atlanta and Joe Flacco in Baltimore will heighten the league-wide appeal of passers fresh out of college.

And there’s no law that says a winning NFL quarterback comes only in the first round. If you have eagle-eyed scouts, a superb system, the right coaching and a little luck, you might snare a Brady in the sixth round or a Cassel in the seventh round.

But those are moves for a team that’s already set at quarterback and has the luxury of patiently grooming a quarterback. The Chiefs badly need to stabilize their quarterback situation next season and can’t afford to bank on a long shot coming in.

Week by week, Cassel is becoming a sounder bet, though definitely a more expensive one.

The opinions offered in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Kansas City Chiefs.


A former sportswriter and columnist in Kansas City and Miami, Rand has covered the NFL for three decades and seen 23 Super Bowl games. His column appears twice weekly in-season.