Cassel returns to K.C. with chance to seal Vikings No. 1 status
By Chris Tomasson
St. Paul Pioneer Press
Then it got worse.
Cassel, leading the Chiefs against the Baltimore Ravens, had thrown two interceptions and lost two fumbles when he took a hard hit in the fourth quarter. While he remained on the ground in pain, many in the Chiefs’ home crowd cheered — an act then-Kansas City offensive tackle Eric Winston later called “100 percent sickening.”
Cassel missed the Chiefs’ next game with a concussion, then lost his starting job to Brady Quinn. Cassel returned to start three games after Quinn was hurt, but by Nov. 18 he had played his last game with Kansas City.
Waived after his fourth year with the team, he soon signed with the Vikings to back up to Christian Ponder in 2013. But Cassel left Kansas City believing he would be a regular starter again in the NFL.
“That was my goal, and I think that (for) anybody who plays that position, that’s your goal,” Cassel said. “It’s not to sit there and watch somebody else play.”
Cassel was a late-season replacement for Ponder in 2013, and Saturday will return to Arrowhead Stadium for the first time since 2012 with a chance to lock up Minnesota’s starting job for the Sept. 7 regular-season opener at St. Louis.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer announced Monday that the 10-year veteran, who is battling rookie Teddy Bridgewater, will get his third straight preseason start in the all-important third preseason game.
Although Zimmer won’t tip his hand on when he will announce the regular-season starter, it’s definitely Cassel’s position to lose.
“It’s a great storyline for him returning (to Kansas City), and we’re going to do everything in our power to make sure he goes out and does the job,” Vikings wide receiver Jarius Wright said.
Cassel led the Chiefs to the playoffs and made the Pro Bowl in 2010, his second season there. But it all fell apart for him by 2012, when he went 1-7 as a starter and the team finished 2-14.
Cassel, 32, prefers to look at the big picture of his tenure, and said he’s “excited to be able to go back.” He isn’t sure, though, how he will be greeted.
“I don’t know at this point, but I have nothing but good things to say about Kansas City,” he said.
J.C. Pearson, a former Chiefs and Vikings defensive back who was a Kansas City radio talk-show host when Cassel played there, will be at Saturday’s game. He has an idea how Cassel will be received.
“I think it will be mixed,” Pearson said. “These fans don’t forget a lot. They remember, and they equate him for some reason with the bad times. They kind of forget about the good that Matt did here — and he did a lot of good here. But it just got so bad toward the end, and it wasn’t all Matt’s fault.
“But for some reason he became the lighting rod and the whipping boy. So I think it’ll be mixed. I think you’ll hear some of the true fans that really understand football, they’ll be glad to see him and they’ll cheer for him.”
Cassel’s Chiefs tenure began with high expectations after he was acquired in 2009 trade with New England and signed a six-year, $62.7 million contract. He became the Patriots’ starter when star Tom Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in the 2008 opener, and Cassel finished the season with a career-high 3,693 passing yards.
He was just so-so in 2009, but by 2010 he led the Chiefs to the playoffs with a 10-6 record. He threw for 3,116 yards and had 27 touchdown passes against just seven interceptions while making his only career Pro Bowl.
In 2011, Cassel suffered a season-ending hand injury in the ninth game, and followed that by accounting for 19 turnovers (including 12 interceptions) and just six touchdowns in nine games.
That season, Cassel was playing for the fifth different Kansas City offensive coordinator in his four seasons with the team.
“I think it just comes down to we weren’t as consistent as we wanted to be,” Cassel said of his tenure in Kansas City. “My second year, I went to the Pro Bowl and we had a great year and we went to the playoffs. When I got hurt (in 2011), I think we were tied for the (AFC West) divisional lead and we were starting to play some good football. But then in my fourth year, we couldn’t get it together in any phase.
“There’s ups and downs, and as a starter you take the good with the bad and you hope there are more good days than bad days.”
Oct. 7, 2012, was a very bad day. Two years later, there remains a debate as to why so many fans applauded when Cassel was on the ground.
“I don’t think the fans were cheering because he got hurt,” Pearson said. “They were cheering because there was going to be a change at the (quarterback) spot, so I think things kind of got taken out of context.
“Kansas City fans are loyal fans, knowledgeable fans. I don’t think they would cheer for somebody getting injured. It was that everything was going so badly and they wanted a change, and they were finally going to get a change.”
Cassel never lashed out about that incident, and said he has no animosity toward Kansas City fans.
“I think we’re all human,” Cassel said earlier in his Minnesota tenure. “You hear that stuff, but … you (can’t) get caught up in what people are saying and everyone’s opinion about you.
“Everybody is going to have an opinion of you, whether good or bad, and if you get caught up in that and you don’t truly believe in yourself and what your capabilities are and what you can do, I think that it’s a downward spiral from there.”
CBS analyst Rich Gannon, whose 1987-2004 tenure as an NFL quarterback included stints with the Vikings and Chiefs, wasn’t at that game, but he was part of the broadcast team in Kansas City the following week at Tampa Bay, so he had paid close attention to the situation.
Gannon’s game preparation included interviewing Winston, now with Seattle and president of the NFL Players Association. As Cassel lay injured and fans cheered, the tackle said, he was “never been more embarrassed in my life to play football than in that moment right there.”
“It was the big story of the week in the NFL that (Winston) had ripped the fans,” Gannon said. “I thought it was great that he stood up for Matt, and it tells you how (Cassel’s) teammates felt about him.”
Gannon has closely followed Cassel’s career. He said Cassel showed what he could do when he had Charlie Weis as offensive coordinator during his banner 2010 season. Weis previously had been New England’s coordinator under Bill Belichick, so he ran a system Cassel knew well.
But Weis was around only for that one season. Cassel’s other play-callers during his Kansas City tenure were Chan Gailey in the 2009 preseason, Todd Haley (also head coach) in the 2009 regular season, Bill Muir in 2011 and Brian Daboll in 2012.
“When you’re around so many different styles, I think it can be dysfunctional,” Gannon said. “It’s like me teaching you German and then you get comfortable with it and then I pull the plug and say, ‘Now, we’re going to learn Polish.’ Then, all of a sudden, we’re going to learn Spanish, and then we’re going to learn Italian.”
Since coming to Minnesota, Cassel has had to learn yet another football language, working with Bill Musgrave last season and Norv Turner this year. If you’re keeping score, going back to his New England days, that’s eight different offensive coordinators in seven seasons.
But Cassel seems to have adjusted well, completing 17 of 22 passes for 215 yards in the first two preseason games to hold on to his No. 1 position on the depth chart. Now, he’ll try to lock it up Saturday in a very familiar place.
Follow Chris Tomasson at twitter.com/christomasson.
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