KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Three months ago, on their first night at home since returning from the hospital, Matt and Lauren Cassel awoke to the cries of their newborn daughter, Quinn.
“My wife jumped out of bed to see what the problem was,” Cassel said. “Then she started crying because she couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Our dog sleeps in our room, and it was barking the whole time.”
Cassel tilts his head back and laughs.
“It was a crazy situation,” he said. “I just kind of stood there and said, ‘What can I do?’ ”
It was a rare moment of helplessness for Cassel, who has a history of keeping his composure in tough situations. Whether it meant hiding under a kitchen table as the roof of his childhood home collapsed during an earthquake, leading his youth baseball team to the championship game of the Little League World Series, wowing scouts as a previously obscure backup at USC’s pro day or replacing an injured Tom Brady(notes) in New England, Cassel has always found a way to flourish in the face of adversity.
This year, though, he may be facing his biggest challenge yet.
As the starting quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs, Cassel is hoping to reverse the fortunes of a franchise that has gone 6-26 the last two years and hasn’t won a playoff game since the 1993 season.
“I’m excited about this kid,” Chiefs coach Todd Haley. “He’s still developing. He’s still making progress. For him to go into this year with a stable environment should make a big difference.”
A “stable environment” is something Cassel didn’t have in 2009, when the Chiefs went 4-12 in his first season under center. While some of the blame falls on Cassel, the bigger problem was the lack of depth and talent surrounding him.
Kansas City went out of its way during the offseason to address that problem. Veteran running back Thomas Jones(notes), who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards for five straight seasons, was added to bolster a ground game that also includes rising star Jamaal Charles(notes).
The team re-signed free-agent receiver Chris Chambers(notes) and selected playmaker Dexter McCluster(notes) in the second round of last spring’s draft. Ryan Lilja(notes), who won a Super Bowl ring as a starter for the Colts, was added to the offensive line along with former Pro-Bowler Casey Wiegmann(notes).
The most influential newcomer, though, has been offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who said during training camp that his No. 1 mission was to “fix the quarterback.”
Chiefs fans may not be expecting a playoff appearance – not yet, at least. But enough pieces are in place now to become a competitor.
If, of course, Cassel does his job effectively. His teammates believe he will.
“It should be a different feel for Matt now,” Chambers said. “The [management] did a good job of surrounding him with more talent and players who can make plays to take some pressure off of him.”
“Then again,” he said, “there’s always going to be pressure on the quarterback, no matter what he does.”
Peer into Cassel’s past, and it’s obvious he's able to flourish in difficult situations.
Cassel was 11 in January of 1994, when a massive, early-morning earthquake in his hometown of Northridge, Calif. sent the water from his family’s swimming pool slamming through the doors of the room where he was sleeping.
Instead of panicking, Cassel and his 13-year-old brother, Jack, hurried into the kitchen and hid under a table as the roof caved in around them. All but destroyed, Cassel’s home was condemned and, for the next few months, he and his family were forced to live in hotels while the city worked its way back from a natural disaster that killed 72 people and caused an estimated $25 billion in property damage.
The following summer, Cassel led his Little League baseball team – the Earthquake Kids – to the championship game of the Little League World Series. He would later quarterback Chatsworth High School to the city divisional football championship at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1998.
Cassel hoped to have the same kind of success at USC, but instead he spent four years backing up Heisman winners Carson Palmer(notes) and Matt Leinart(notes). At one point Cassel’s chances of an NFL career seemed so slim that he skipped spring football practice prior to his senior year so he could play for the Trojans’ baseball team.
He did well enough to get drafted in the 36th round by the Oakland A’s in 2004 but decided to return to the gridiron, where his closest thing to a collegiate highlight came when he recovered an on-sides kick to preserve a victory over rival UCLA.
Rather than mope about his lack of opportunities in college and call it quits, Cassel carried a positive attitude into USC’s pro day in 2005, and it paid off.
“On our timing day, Matt just hit it,” former Trojans coach Pete Carroll told reporters two years ago. “He was lights out. He whipped the ball all over the field. He’s got a great arm and he’s a terrific-looking athlete. Afterwards, it was like a rock star. The scouts all came up to him and wanted to get his number. A lot of guys weren’t even sure who he was. It all happened in about 20 minutes.”
Cassel was selected by New England in the seventh round of the 2005 draft and spent the next three years backing up Brady. Cassel got his chance when Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury against – coincidentally – Kansas City in the 2008 opener. He came off the bench to guide his team to a victory that day, and the Patriots finished 11-5 overall.
By the time Brady was healthy again, Cassel was nowhere to be found, as the Chiefs signed him to a six-year, $63 million contract. In one year, a guy whose last start came in a 1998 high school football game had turned into one of the hottest quarterbacks in the NFL.
Even now, when Cassel struggles with the Chiefs, Haley is quick to point out that he’s still somewhat inexperienced.
“It was overwhelming at first,” Cassel said of last season’s big contract and move to Kansas City. “Everyone is looking at you like, ‘Who are you? What are you about?’ You have to build all new relationships. Especially for a guy that’s the quarterback of the team. You have to come in and establish a leadership role.”
That wasn’t always easy in 2009. Instead of playing for a perennial Super Bowl contender like New England, Cassel was attempting to help resurrect a downtrodden franchise while adapting to a first-year head coach in Haley.
“We were all disappointed in how last year went,” Cassel said. “Coming in, with the new regime, we all had an idea that we were going to be more successful than we were.”
Not that it was all Cassel’s fault.
Kansas City’s receivers led the league in drops, and the team’s inability to run the ball during the first half of the season allowed opponents to focus more on the passing game. Cassel was sacked 42 times in 2009 – the fourth-most in the league – and he threw as many interceptions (16) as touchdown passes.
Kansas City’s offense ranked 25th in the NFL and had eight games in which it scored 14 points or fewer. That the unit showed marked improvement during the second half of the season was impressive considering the Chiefs were without an offensive coordinator, as Haley fired Chan Gailey before the first game.
“I envisioned the transition being a little more seamless,” Haley said. “For a lot of different reasons, that didn’t happen. It was no fault of [Cassel’s]. I mean, we got to a point where we were signing guys off the street and starting them on Sundays. That makes it tough on a quarterback.
“The quarterback position, when you start to change the variables, that position more than any is going to be affected by the change.”
Along with changing teams, Haley pointed out that Cassel was adjusting to a new city and meeting new teammates that needed time to adapt to his style. Even though he knew making changes to his coaching staff was the right thing to do, Haley said he realized it put Cassel in a tough position.
“He walked into a very difficult situation, and it wasn’t going to get any better for awhile,” Haley said. “That was much clearer to a lot of us early on than it was to the general public. What encouraged me is that he continued to work and get better."
Haley leans forward in his chair.
“The thing I love about Matt is that he wants to be good,” he said. “He wants to be a championship quarterback. You bring up football in a conversation with him and his eyes [light up]. He likes to talk about football.
“Most of the good quarterbacks I’ve been around, whether it’s [Tony] Romo or Kurt [Warner] or whoever, they like to talk about football. It’s their passion. And Matt is a workout warrior – very similar to those guys I just mentioned.”
That inner drive paid off when Kansas City closed the 2009 regular season with a 44-24 victory over rival Denver. Cassel threw for 207 yards and Charles rushed for 259. A week later, Chris Chambers heard from a friend who had stopped by the team’s headquarters at Arrowhead Stadium.
“All the other players were on vacation,” Chambers said, “and Matt was already back there working out, getting ready for 2010. That set a pretty good example for everyone in this locker room.”
Cassel shrugged when reminded of that story.
“We ended the year on a high note by beating Denver,” Cassel said, “but at the same time, we kind of had a bitter taste in our mouths. We were like, ‘Hey, next year, we’re going to do what it takes to get this thing turned around.’
“It all starts with me.”
Comments such as those are why Cassel continues to earn more and more praise from his teammates, who already knew he was a fun-loving guy who isn’t immune to singing Backstreet Boys songs on karaoke night or getting into “Prank Wars” with friends.
A few years ago, Brady had someone remove the tires of Cassel’s car during practice and place them in front of his locker. The following day a group of offensive linemen responded by pouring bags and bags of Styrofoam peanuts through Brady’s sunroof. Cassel vows it wasn’t his idea.
Still, while those things are important when it comes to developing team camaraderie, Cassel knows that true leadership comes on the field and in the meeting rooms.
“He wants to be on the same page with everyone on the field,” McCluster said. “He knows what’s going on with everybody. After practice, he’ll pull me to the side and say, ‘I was thinking this-and-that on this route. What were you thinking?’
“We’ve sat down and watched film together and talked a lot in the locker room. He’s very helpful. He wants to be that leader.”
“He’s a young guy that’s coming into his own,” Urban said. “He’s got one of those infectious quarterback personalities. It carries over onto the field and makes the guys willing to follow him.”
With the season-opener against San Diego less than two weeks away (on Monday Night Football, no less) Cassel said he couldn’t be happier with the direction of the Chiefs.
Along with sharing a tight bond with Haley – “we’re going to be attached at the hip,” the coach said – Cassel is continuing to enhance his relationship with Weis, who is a fiery coach just like Haley.
“We’ve provided an environment that’s very healthy – especially for a developing quarterback,” Haley said.
Haley said every signal-caller needs to have a coordinator they can “call in the middle of the night.” Cassel and Weis may not be at that point, but they’re getting there.
“It’s a work in progress,” Cassel said. “Every quarterback has to have that personal relationship with their coordinator and get to know them. That process is still ongoing, but I think we have a very healthy and productive relationship. I’ve learned a lot from him in the short time we’ve been together.”
Charles, the running back, said Weis’ tough love approach is working with Cassel.
“When we’re on the field it’s, “M.F. this and M.F. that,’ ” Charles said of Weis. “It’s business time. Sometimes Matt gets to joking and everything, but Charlie puts him back in his place. Charlie has him calm and prepared for the game and focused. He’s learning a lot from Charlie. They have a real good connection.
“It gets heated sometimes. Sometimes it’s not going to be perfect. Sometimes it’s not going to be good. It’s ugly sometimes. That’s how it is with football. It’s [about] coming together as a team.”
Still, Cassel, Charles and the rest of the Chiefs know that an early win or two would be the best way to strengthen their chemistry. This team may still be building but, offensively, Kansas City feels it has enough firepower to compete with most of the opponents on its schedule.
“Don’t forget,” Chambers said, “at the quarterback position, sometimes it takes three, four or five years to really get going. Hopefully Matt is just getting started.”