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RIVER FALLS, Wis. -- Dispatches from the opening day of the 19th and final Chiefs training camp on the picturesque grounds of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls ...
I was lucky enough to catch up with new Kansas City quarterback Matt Cassel on Saturday, which was impeccable timing since it happened to be the first day of the rest of his career.
You know Cassel's deal by now. He's one of those classic overnight success stories that was years in the making. I know the Patriots didn't wind up making the playoffs last season; but for my money, Cassel winning 11 of 16 games still stands as one of the more remarkable feats in recent NFL history.
Tom Brady goes down with a season-ending knee injury midway through the first quarter of New England's opener, and in comes Cassel, the guy who hadn't ever started a game in the NFL or college. Almost everyone doubts he can do it, and when he does, almost everyone labels him a "system quarterback'' who only benefited from the Patriots' all-everything receiving tandem of Randy Moss and Wes Welker.
That's your textbook no-win situation. The only thing is, he did win. And after February's big trade, now here he is with Kansas City, trying to prove himself one more time in an entirely new setting, with a team that has won fewer games (six) the past two years than even the Detroit Lions included. (It's true. You can look it up).
I couldn't take my eyes off Cassel at Saturday's morning practice, the first of the Chiefs' three-week stay in River Falls. I kept wondering if he looked around and for the first time really realized he wasn't in Foxboro anymore and there was no Gillette Stadium in sight? Sure, there were a couple familiar faces in ex-New Englanders Scott Pioli and Mike Vrabel on hand, and that must have helped some. But there was no sign of a dour-looking Bill Belichick twirling that coaching whistle around his right hand in trademark fashion, and the play calls weren't being made anymore by coaching phenom Josh McDaniels.
I wondered if that threw Cassel in any way, or shook his confidence a bit? But I didn't wonder for long, as it turns out.
"For me, it was the first chapter of a new beginning,'' Cassel told me after lunching in the team cafeteria. "Everything's new and it's exciting. This is something I've always hoped and aspired to be, a starting quarterback in the NFL. It's finally that time where I can say this is my team.''
For better or worse, the Chiefs are indeed Cassel's team now, even if Kansas City officials are taking pains to say there will be an ongoing competition at quarterback in camp. But let's be honest: That six-year, $63 million deal that Cassel signed a few weeks back, the one that voided his $14.6 million one-year franchise-player contract, spoke volumes. This is his team, his town and his time.
And can we just once and for all bury one phony piece of groupthink that rose up around Cassel last season, the notion that he was able to guide the Patriots to that 11-5 finish because their offense works on auto-pilot with all that talent? No one wins 11 games on auto-pilot in the NFL. Ever. Case closed.
"People say, 'Oh he had Wes Welker and Randy Moss,''' said Pioli, the new Chiefs general manager and former Patriots vice president of personnel. "Yes he did. He absolutely did. And he still could have screwed it up, but he didn't. People are using that as a way to bash him, but the reality is he won and kept things going. The kid won 11 games. Tom Brady gets hurt, and think about the mental endurance it took to do what Matt did, knowing where he was and who he was playing for. That's everything you ask of a professional. The opportunity comes and you either do it or you don't do it. He did it.''
Did Cassel benefit from throwing to Moss and Welker in New England? Of course. Has Peyton Manning been all the better for having Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark as receivers? Did it help resurrect Kurt Warner's career in Arizona to have Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin in his huddle? What do you think?
"I don't care what anyone says, I know how hard it is to win in the NFL, period,'' Cassel said. "It's not an auto-pilot type thing that anybody can do. I always hear people say he's a system guy, and he can't do it elsewhere. But the funny part is early in the season, when we were struggling offensively a little bit, people were pointing at Matt Cassel, saying he can't do it. He's not the guy for the job.
"But then I started playing better and grew into the role, and the naysayers immediately said it was because I'm a system guy. When I think back about what happened last year, and what I was able to accomplish, I'd say yeah, I was pretty fired up about that.''
I didn't find an ounce of cockiness in Cassel on Saturday, but clearly his confidence grew by leaps and bounds after last season. Before last September, he hoped to be an NFL quarterback of starting caliber some day. Now he knows he is.
"Until you're actually thrown in there, you don't know,'' he said. "You can't know. Because I hadn't done it for eight years. I got a taste of success in New England. I know what the formula is to win, and hopefully we can try to emulate that and do that here.''
Though he'll never admit it, I think Cassel knows there are no 11-win seasons coming in Kansas City this year. The Chiefs were 6-26 the past two seasons, with only the Rams (5-27) faring worse over that span. In Kansas City, they've been searching for the next long-term franchise quarterback since Len Dawson retired in 1975, a half-decade after winning the Chiefs' only Super Bowl.
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