Commentary

Chiefs' Cassel embracing new role

Originally Published: April 18, 2009
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

Matt CasselGetty ImagesMatt Cassel's targets in New England included stars Randy Moss and Wes Welker. He'll work with a much younger group in Kansas City, especially if TE Tony Gonzalez is traded.
KANSAS CITY -- Matt Cassel is off to a pretty good start with the Kansas City Chiefs this offseason. He's at their headquarters every weekday morning at 7:30, so he can train with the first group of players going through the team's offseason program.

He's also making his teammates see how badly he wants to earn their respect and trust. What Cassel is proving is that he clearly understands how to operate as a young starting quarterback.

"You need to show [your leadership] by example instead of by what you say," Cassel said during a break in the Chiefs' voluntary minicamp on Saturday. "Once you do that, then you can open your mouth a little more."

It's nice to see that Cassel gets it. That attitude will serve him well as the Chiefs try to change the culture of a team that has won just six of its past 32 games.

When the Chiefs acquired Cassel in a trade from New England in February, he was the best solution to their obvious questions at quarterback. And so far he's shown his understanding that off-field behavior at this time of year is just as critical as what happens in practice.

You could see that much in the way Cassel shook reporters' hands and introduced himself at his first news conference with local media. He wants to make a strong impression. He wants people to know what he's about. Just as in the locker room, Cassel sees the benefits in letting people see he's simply a laid-back, outgoing native Californian who's trying to help his team win games.

In fact, one of the most important points that Cassel made Saturday involved the approach that he'll bring to the game in Kansas City. He survived seven years as a backup -- four at USC and three more in New England before he replaced an injured Tom Brady in last year's season opener -- by staying focused and working hard. Now that he's one of the faces of this franchise, he sees no reason to do more than he's already done.

"I've always approached the offseason the same way," he said. "I had the chance to learn from Tom Brady and he's a guy who never took anything for granted. I'm trying to do the same thing."

One thing Cassel will have to do is alter his expectations. Instead of throwing passes to prolific wide receivers such as Randy Moss and Wes Welker, he'll be trying to establish chemistry with younger targets Dwayne Bowe and Jeff Webb. There's also no guarantee that some of the Chiefs' more established offensive players will be around this fall. Two already have asked to be released or traded (running back Larry Johnson and Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters) while Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez has been the subject of recent trade rumors.

Cassel could afford to just go out and do his job in New England. In Kansas City, the temptation to do more than he should will be there from the first snap he takes in the season opener. It's a natural issue that any young quarterback could face in Cassel's position. You give a player in that spot more money, more expectations and more scrutiny and you're quite likely to see a kid start pressing.

The good thing about Cassel is that he seems to have a little bit of Brady's relaxed confidence in him. He also has the advantage of knowing the expectations of general manager Scott Pioli, the man who drafted Cassel in the seventh round of the 2005 draft. Another positive is the offense that Cassel will run under new Chiefs head coach Todd Haley. Since it's the same system Cassel learned in New England, he won't need nearly as much time getting up to speed with his new coaches.

On top of all those things, Cassel has his work habits. Despite all the legitimate questions about whether he'll succeed in Kansas City, he deserves credit for the resilience and wherewithal he displayed while riding the bench for so many years. He's tough enough to handle whatever happens in his new job.

"He had the ability to keep working and preparing like he was going to be playing [in New England]," Haley said. "That's a great testament to him."

The key for Cassel now is maintaining his confidence and managing the expectations around him. Chiefs wide receiver Bobby Engram, one of the team's recent veteran free agent additions, already has talked to Cassel about this point. Engram was in Seattle when the Seahawks acquired quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in a trade with Green Bay. Engram also saw firsthand how Hasselbeck had to go through some arduous growing pains before he became a consistent starter for that franchise.

That's why Engram has urged Cassel to play within himself and to keep leading by example at this time of year.

"Guys respond to actions," Engram said. "And though Matt might not admit it, he knows that people are watching him. But all he has to do is be himself. He's not the only guy on this team with a job to do."

True. But Cassel does have the most important job in the Chiefs' locker room. And the good thing about him is that he's not out to prove that last year's success in New England was a fluke or that he deserves a big contract. He simply wants to show his teammates that he'll do everything possible to help them win. At this time of year, that's all the Chiefs need to see.

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.