Matt Cassel has the playmakers to put up big numbers, but can his blockers hold the line?
Matt Cassel has the athleticism to escape the rush, but the Chiefs quarterback refuses to run from his past. Instead he stands tall in a figurative pocket, stares down his intended target and admits he made a mistake in 2009 when he tried to live up to the expectations attached to the six-year, $63 million contract he signed after being dealt by the Patriots. "When you get the big contract, you're held accountable more than anybody else," the 6'4", 230-pound Cassel says. "I felt that when I first got here. I put that on my shoulders."
There are plenty of reasons why Kansas City is in the playoffs for the first time in four seasons: the maturation of second-year coach Todd Haley, who was the offensive coordinator for Arizona when it reached the Super Bowl; the addition of respected coordinators Romeo Crennel (defense) and Charlie Weis (offense), who won Super Bowls as assistants with New England; the NFL's best running game; a solid defense; and extensive contributions by a deep rookie class. But it's Cassel's decision to shut out everything else and just play football that has been the biggest factor in this year's success.
He'll need particularly big blinders after ending the season by throwing two interceptions and no touchdowns in a 31--10 loss to Oakland that dropped the Chiefs to the fourth seed. Whether that meltdown, which ended a 10-game stretch in which Cassel threw 23 touchdowns and just two picks, was due to poor protection or the knowledge that Weis will leave after the season to become offensive coordinator at Florida is up for debate. What is certain is that Cassel must be on his game for the Chiefs to beat the Ravens and earn their first postseason victory since the 1993 season.
Cassel has shown this year that he can move on from adversity. In 2009 he threw picks in eight games. In five of those he was intercepted multiple times. This year he has thrown multiple picks just twice. He also had seven games with a passer rating of 100 or better after reaching that mark just twice in 2009.
Some of that improvement can be traced to Haley, who relinquished play-calling duties to Weis in the off-season, giving the head coach time to focus on Cassel's technique and mental approach to games. And those elements will be crucial if the Chiefs are going to make it out of the first round of the playoffs. Above all Cassel will have to continue to keep his mind on the task in front of him, and block out the rest. "Last year we were a struggling team, and that was tough in itself," Cassel says. "But then you add the difficulty of dealing with the media and everybody's outlook on you, and the perception is, 'Look, they paid you all this money. Why aren't we winning?' I'm just going to try to focus on the things that I can control."
HOW TO BEAT THE CHIEFS
Discipline with gap responsibility along the line will slow the league's No. 1--ranked rushing attack. The speedy Jamaal Charles is an exceptional cut-back runner who can go the distance—his 6.38 yards per carry were .02 of a yard short of Jim Brown's single-season record. Keying on him and Thomas Jones will allow opponents like the Ravens to pressure Cassel, whose protection was terrible against the Raiders on Sunday.
The Chiefs look to stop the big play (only five teams gave up fewer gains of 20-plus yards) under the theory that most offenses are too impatient or turnover-prone to sustain long drives. Opponents who have been physical and patient with the running game have succeeded, in part because that opens passing lanes downfield.
How AFC fourth seeds have fared since 1990
2 Won Super Bowl
2 Lost Super Bowl
1 Lost conference championship game
8 Lost in divisional round
7 Lost in wild-card round
PETER READ MILLER
MIND GAME The Chiefs QB proved an efficient passer—when he blotted out distractions.