Cassel is Chiefs' next hope
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Being a quarterback legend gets you a decent haircut, a corner booth at the most prominent sports bar and a nickname that sticks for four decades. In Kansas City, it makes you one in 1.9 million. "Lenny the Cool" isn't sure how his beloved Chiefs got here, stuck somewhere between Todd Blackledge and Brodie Croyle. At some point, he says, they gave up drafting quarterbacks high. He's watched one of the NFL's most intimidating venues turn half-empty, watched a town turn cynical. During rush hour one night this past December, when news broke that their general manager was resigning, Kansas Citians responded by honking their horns in glee.
"Something had to be done," Len Dawson says. "You'd like to see some hope here."
A warm front has pushed through the Plains, teasing people in these parts that this long winter might finally be over. Dawson is at the barbershop, and, for the first time in at least two years, the groans are replaced with eager men asking, "Hey Lenny, what do you think about the trade?" The enthusiasm is everywhere, from the watering holes in the suburbs to the freshly painted sheds bearing arrowheads.
Matt Cassel is coming.
Never mind that he was a career backup before filling in for Tom Brady last season in New England and that he will command at least $14 million this season for a job new coach Todd Haley claims is up for grabs. In a town that has struggled through failed draft picks, stop-gap solutions and a carousel of battered faces in last year's 2-14 season, the Chiefs might finally have a young franchise quarterback.
Is Cassel ready? Does he know what he's getting himself into? That, in a week when season ticket sales got a bump and a struggling sports city momentarily got to celebrate, doesn't need to be answered now.
"The Chiefs fan was waiting for some evidence," Dawson says. "They needed something. When Cassel came in here with that trade, right away they got very, very excited about that."
Cassel is, by early accounts, somewhat guarded. Maybe it comes from being a New England Patriot, from baring your soul on the field, then retreating behind a giant blue curtain.
His introduction to the Kansas City media comes Monday in the form of a brisk teleconference, even though Cassel is in town, and possibly even in the building at Arrowhead Stadium. In past years, under former general manager Carl Peterson, a rare big-name acquisition would have been celebrated with a news conference and a meet-the-fans event. But the normally caustic radio jocks are OK with this move, because they believe new GM Scott Pioli favors substance over flash and that it's not wise to showcase a quarterback who has yet to sign a long-term contract.
"I am excited about the opportunity," Cassel says on the teleconference.
His story is one of dogged persistence, but those closest to Cassel are hesitant to reveal many snapshots. His older brother, Jack, a pitcher with the Cleveland Indians, will take time out from spring training to talk about Matt's 2008 performance with the Patriots but declines to speak about their childhood. Same goes for his little brother, Justin, a pitcher with the Double-A Birmingham Barons.
"It's something the family respects and leave it at that," Jack says. "The job he's done on the field speaks volumes for his perseverance."
Others say Matt Cassel is an extrovert in the locker room, a prankster and a hopeless optimist who gets his personality from his mom, Barbara, a prime-time Emmy-winning set designer. Barbara cried that spring day in 2005 when Cassel's life turned. He'd spent five years as a backup at USC, sandwiched between Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. He'd been told by at least one assistant coach that there was nothing wrong with pursuing an NFL dream just as long as he didn't get his hopes up.
Cassel was at USC's pro day, one of the last athletes to perform as the scouts filtered off the field. And he couldn't miss. He zipped and floated perfect passes, and the crowd surrounding him kept getting louder. By the end of the workout, a flurry of personnel types swarmed him, scrambling to get his name and phone number.
"We saw him have his moment," USC coach Pete Carroll says. "It was obvious that everybody knew this guy had done something special on that day when he had his chance."
Unfortunately for Cassel, he hadn't had many chances at USC. In the spring of 2003, he and Leinart were locked in what Carroll calls a very close battle for the starting job, and the coach had to make a decision before they left for the summer. When he picked Leinart, the excited young quarterback told him, "You're never going to regret this." Leinart lost just one game in the next two seasons, and Cassel was lost in the shuffle.
In an attempt to get him on the field, the Trojans' coaches suggested he move to tight end.
"I can't imagine it wasn't a demoralizing thing," says former USC teammate Brandon Hance, who also joined Cassel on the line for the Northridge Knights during their Pop Warner days. "But you know what? He put on his gloves, changed his shoulder pads and was trying to blow people up at tight end.
"You could see it in his face he was not happy. But at the same time, he had the right attitude and gave it his all."
Cassel moved back to quarterback as a senior -- "He was not a tight end," Carroll says -- and dutifully took his spot behind Leinart. He never complained and formed a tight bond with Leinart, Hance and the other backups. Cassel was the locker room cutup, scribbling caricatures on the grease board and doing drop-dead impersonations of the coaches. To this day, Carroll still jokingly grumbles about the one Cassel did of him. "I thought it was in poor taste," Carroll says. "But the players loved it."
Cassel and Hance roomed together on road trips, wrestling during the down time before night games, knocking down mirrors, kicking in walls by accident. One day, Hance showed up for the game with a giant knot on his head. It was from Cassel.
Quarterback competitions are cutthroat, Hance says, especially when the battles are as tight as they were at USC. But Cassel clicked with everybody. When the Trojans' season ended in early 2005, Cassel got to work. He ran with a track coach in the morning, lifted weights, then trained with former NFL quarterback Ken O'Brien.
"The guy just doesn't quit," Hance says. "Even going back to wrestling, the guy was a martial artist. Ninety-nine out of 100 people would've said, 'OK, I'm done, I'm out of here.' He is the poster boy for persistence."
One career began; one season sank. It's odd now, how the Chiefs and Cassel converged on that first Sunday in Week 1 of the 2008 season, altering their futures. Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard hit Brady, Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury, Cassel sprung into action. He led the Patriots to a shaky win that afternoon, which was sort of a microcosm of Kansas City's season. Tantalizingly close, but always short.
Here's how quickly things can change in the NFL -- in August, Croyle, a young Alabaman, was expected to be the Chiefs' quarterback of the future. And Cassel, after a rough preseason, was surrounded by talk that he might get cut.
It all was forgotten Sept. 7. When Cassel slipped on his helmet, Gillette Stadium still was gasping over the image of Brady limping off the field. Cassel launched his first pass from the Patriots' end zone, a perfect 51-yarder to Randy Moss on third-and-11. It was just like pro day, Cassel delivering as if his future depended on it.
The Patriots scaled back their offense, and the first half of the season was filled with the high of beating Brett Favre in Cassel's starting debut and the low of Cassel's getting sacked four times in a 30-10 loss at San Diego.
But by Week 11, it was clear the Patriots' sturdy 230-pound quarterback was blossoming. Cassel had back-to-back 400-yard games against the Jets and Miami, and finished the season with 21 touchdown passes and nearly 3,700 yards.
"What he did [last] year with that team they won 11 games, right?" says Bills defensive backs coach George Catavolos. "He was as instrumental as anybody else on that football team in getting those victories. If he plays like he did last year, he'll be a top quarterback.
"There was a lot of pressure to come in after an athlete like Tom Brady goes down. I think -- I know -- he showed the maturity to take that pressure and do an outstanding job."
Does one good season in New England translate to a career in Kansas City? Chiefs owner Clark Hunt doesn't know. But one of the franchise's priorities was to find a young quarterback to build the team around, a quarterback who could be the face of the team for a six- to eight-year run. The Chiefs haven't had that in decades. There were flashes, like the Joe Montana days, when Kansas City was gaga over the future Hall of Famer. But that ride lasted only two seasons.
Drafts have been futile. They picked Blackledge in 1983 over Jim Kelly and Dan Marino. They've drafted 8 quarterbacks in the past 25 years, and that list has produced just nine starts and zero victories.
"Building a championship team is a process," Hunt says. "It's one that is not accomplished in one year. I actually believe several moves we've made over the last couple of years will end up being very beneficial to where the team goes in the future."
Dawson's booth is hopping at the 810 Zone, a bar in suburban Kansas City, and Miller Lites flow as fans talk about the Chief's' being the 2009 incarnation of the 2008 Dolphins, going from the bottom to the playoffs.
Some realists think it's silly. Others are careful not to pin too much hope on a 26-year-old quarterback. They know what happens in Kansas City. John Jenia Jr. walks into the bar with his Chiefs jacket and gives a painful dissertation on the past. He'd come here some days and see Croyle eating dinner with his wife. He'd never walk up and say it, that he knew Croyle would never make it in Kansas City. He called him "Brittle Croyle" for his injury-prone career.
"He gets hit," Jenia says, "and he gets knocked down."
Last week, Jenia got laid off at his job at Sprint. But he says he'll be OK. It's happening all over. Behind him is a poster with Dawson throwing a football. Jenia wants to order some wings. Across the bar, Jimmy McGuire, one of the managers, is hopeful. He says the place has been buzzing since last weekend.
He looks over to Dawson's booth, which is full of young women oblivious to the history.
"Dawson was so long ago," McGuire says. "We're looking for the next Len Dawson. The next jersey up there, we want it to be Matt Cassel."Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.