The Cassel Conundrum

No two words draw the ire of Chiefs fans like “Matt Cassel.” He may well be the most hated Kansas City QB since Elvis M. Grbac. Cassel was acquired by GM Scott Pioli, in a 2009 trade with the New England Patriots, and he’s been the Executive of the Decade’s whipping boy ever since. Some of the criticism is warranted. Cassel has posted a paltry QBR of 80 during his Chiefs tenure. Couple that with 6.4 yards per attempt and the completion of just 57% of his passes, and you quickly realize there’s much to be desired of our Sixty-Three Million Dollar Man.

I’ll spare you another “Cassel will never be a franchise quarterback” rant. Google has thousands of entries on the subject (trust me, I checked). This won’t be another Cassel defense. I’ve long retired as an apologist for #7. I now happen to think 2011 was the penultimate chapter along Cassel’s Chiefs career trajectory.  However, in this article, it’s Scott Pioli I’m concerned with. Before you applaud, I’m probably going to take a slightly different angle than you’d expect. We all know there’s a Chiefs contingent that hates Pioli with the power of a thousand suns. My thoughts here are probably not going to dovetail with the consensus of that group. In three years Pioli has turned the pathetic roster he inherited into a talented young team that should soon contend in the AFC. He deserves credit for retaining all but one of the Pro Bowl-caliber players from the previous regime and for the infusion of new talent. That said, fairness demands that he must also take responsibility for failing to solve the QB question.

I think the typical Chiefs fan that cites Pioli’s failure to identify a franchise QB tends to presuppose. There’s often a presumption about the number of viable options that were available in the past and about the position the front office was in to acquire those candidates. I’ve always had my reservations about those notions, but I’d never done enough research to settle the issue in my mind. Could those ideas be reconciled with reality or is it revisionist history to think Pioli passed on a good opportunity to improve the position? That uncertainty led me to compile a list of would-be alternatives to Matt Cassel over the past 3 seasons. I asked a group of otherwise dispassionate, knowledgeable Chiefs fans to provide the names of the quarterbacks who might’ve been better options from the start of Free Agency in 2009 until the 2012 NFL Draft.

Here are the names the group came up with (and don’t laugh):

  • Kyle Orton
  • Josh Freeman
  • Mark Sanchez
  • Andy Dalton
  • Tim Tebow
  • T.J. Yates

Is your heart beating as fast as mine is? That eye-popping list could be called the “Canton Breakfast Club.” I’ll leave it to your imagination as to why anyone would put Texans QB T.J. Yates (former fifth-round pick) on such a list. That’s either the stench of desperation for a young QB to groom or another episode of the Pioli administration being called on the carpet for the umpteenth bad decision. That’s neither here nor there though folks. For grins, I’ll humor this bunch with more than “point and laugh” behavior.

Let’s start with Kyle Orton:

The former starter in both Chicago and Denver had a 3-game stint with the Chiefs to close out the 2011 season. Orton was claimed off waivers by Kansas City after he received the ouster in Denver. For all the hopes the Chiefs faithful tried to heave upon Orton’s shoulders, it was never grounded by past performances. At first blush he’s probably a slightly better pocket passer than Cassel (between the 20’s). The rest of his game has produced a career QB Rating just shy of 80, well-documented struggles in the redzone, and a single passing TD in a red and yellow uniform. None of that suggests he was the answer. It should also be noted that he opted to be a backup to Tony Romo over the possibility of an open competition with Cassel in Kansas City. Perhaps he knew that no such competition would take place, but he’d have to know the odds of him reclaiming a starting job are longer in Dallas. He’s slated to carry a clipboard for the Cowboys in 2012, but I’m not lamenting that fact like some of my peers. Dallas is on the hook to pay Orton $5.9 million in 2012.

Josh Freeman:

The former #1 taken in the middle part of the first-round of the 2009 NFL Draft wasn’t exactly a crowd-pleaser for the Bucs’ Central Florida fanbase. In the early going, Freeman’s name was often accompanied by the word “reach.” Three years later there are still mixed reviews on Freeman, but I think he’s at least played his way out of the perception that he was taken too high. He didn’t do anything to allay those fears in his rookie season though. He threw 8 more interceptions than touchdowns and managed just three wins in nine starts. The most compelling argument for Freeman was his sophomore campaign in 2010. He posted the best single-season QBR, 95.9, of any quarterback in Buccaneer history. His 4:1 TD-to-INT ratio (25/6) compared favorably with Cassel’s 2010 Pro Bowl performance (27/7). Unfortunately his heroics couldn’t stave off a late-season collapse. After starting 7-3, Tampa Bay dropped three of their last six and narrowly missed the post-season. Freeman went on to throw a career-high 22 interceptions in his third year. That start to his young career has left us with more questions than answers. Kansas City was certainly in position to have taken Freeman at 17, but you’d be stretching the truth to suggest we’d be in better shape today had we drafted him. Stop screaming. I know he’s five years younger than Cassel, but that isn’t germane to the discussion. Freeman’s made 40 starts at this point in his Tampa Bay tenure. In 5 more years Cassel will either be a QB3 or out of football. Freeman will own a spot on a roster somewhere, but likely as a backup if he doesn’t prove himself to the Bucs over the next 1-2 seasons. I’m not convinced.

Mark Sanchez:

Sanchez, like Freeman, was also taken in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft by the New York Jets. The Chiefs took Tyson Jackson 3rd overall that year. Sanchez could’ve been had at that spot. It’s important to remember, though, that Pioli wasn’t hired by the organization until mid-January. The pre-spring cleaning created a truncated scouting process for the new regime. You’ll have to decide for yourself if they were properly prepared to evaluate the most important position in the NFL (and, arguably, all of professional sports) with such a short window. What can be said of Mark Sanchez, himself? Was he a viable option to help the new administration get things turned around in Kansas City? We’re all familiar with the wrap on former Southern California quarterbacks. We also know that just 16 collegiate starts at USC made him a risky pick in the Top 5. He has the physical tools, but his lack of experience was a legitimate concern for the teams that were within draft range. His three year performance in New York seems to suggest there’s fire to that pre-Draft smoke. Sanchez has completed a mere 55% of his passes, thrown only 4 more touchdowns than interceptions, and has been sacked 92 times. There are serious questions about his decision-making ability at this point. He’s as much on the hot seat in the Big Apple as Cassel is in KC. Unlike Freeman, Sanchez has had good offensive options and two Top 10 defenses. That combination produced 4 post-season victories, but the Jets defense was ranked 1st and 6th in 2009 and 2010, respectively. When the defense came back to earth in 2011 we saw that team post an 8-8 record. Sanchez did play well in his half-dozen playoff appearances. He boasts a 94.3 career QBR in the post-season. His three-year regular season QBR; however, is more than 20 points lower. At best, Mark Sanchez has been inconsistent. The kind of inconsistent that makes you second -guess a Top 5 selection three years later. Would the Chiefs be a legitimate contender with Mark Sanchez at the helm?  I think the answer again is no. He and Cassel could both be looking for new jobs come 2013.

Andy Dalton:

Dalton was taken 35th overall by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2011 Draft. The Chiefs were sitting at 55 and it would’ve taken a high Third Round pick to move up and draft him. Justin Houston wouldn’t be playing football in Kansas City if they had traded up to take Dalton. A quarterback for a pass-rushing OLB sounds like a fair trade-off, but Dalton wasn’t a coveted QB prospect. He put two impressive seasons together at Texas Christian, but there were concerns about his arm strength, his not having played in a pro-style system, and a three-quarter delivery. Dalton made the Pro Bowl (as an alternate) in his rookie campaign, but only after Tom Brady withdrew. He finished the season with 20 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, and a completion percentage under 60. That performance was good for an 80.4 QBR. We can’t crown Dalton just yet, as the jury’s still out. He simply doesn’t improve this team, not at this point. It would’ve been odd timing for Kansas City anyway, seeing how Cassel had just come off the best single-season performance of his career.

Tim Tebow & T.J. Yates:

No sense in wasting virtual space with two separate evaluations. Neither of these QB’s was in any danger of helping this football team. Both of them were projected to be drafted somewhere in the middle rounds. Denver, for some inexplicable reason, took Tebow 25th overall. 699 days later he was traded to the New York Jets. The Broncos had no use for him after signing free agent Peyton Manning. The fact that they were even interested in improving the quarterback position after winning the AFC West and the Wild Card Round of the playoffs against the then-defending AFC Champion Steelers is telling. There were no delusions of grandeur about Tebow’s future. He has a limited NFL skillset and will never be a franchise quarterback.

Yates is no different. If not for two late-season injuries to both Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart, he never would have set foot on the playing field in a live game situation. When his golden opportunity arrived, he threw touchdowns in just two of his five starts. Incidentally, those were the only games the Texans won during that stretch. Houston won a playoff game with Yates at the helm, but mainly because of the 188 rushing yards they amassed and the three turnovers that Andy Dalton committed. Yates threw for just 159 yards in that contest (with one touchdown). There’s simply nothing to see here. Both Yates and Tebow are best suited for backup roles in the NFL.

Six quarterback candidates, and none make the Kansas City Chiefs a better football team today. Another group of Chiefs fans might add names like Matt Flynn, Peyton Manning, Robert Griffin III, Christian Ponder, or Ryan Tannehill to the discussion. The names are ultimately interchangeable though and really don’t change anything. The Chiefs were either in no real position to acquire those candidates or they weren’t clear upgrades over Matt Cassel.

Now, I’d love to see a franchise quarterback in Kansas City as much as anyone else. This fanbase deserves it. But they don’t grow on trees. Depending on who you ask, there are probably only 7 or 8 of them in the league anyway. If having a franchise quarterback was as simple as desiring one, every team would have one. As it stands, the best Pioli can do for 2012 is make chicken salad and hope he can snag Matt Barkley, Tyler Wilson, Tyler Bray, or Logan Thomas come late-April of 2013. I said earlier that I wasn’t apologizing for Matt Cassel. Neither am I apologizing for Scott Pioli. He wed himself to Cassel with that $63 million dollar offer. That move was premature and he’ll ultimately have to fall on the sword if, in 2 years, his golden boy doesn’t turn out to be, well, golden. Just keep in mind that there have been limited options available since Scott Pioli took over as GM. Unfortunately for him, sometimes in the NFL those (as they say) are the breaks.

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