A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Cassel the Trojan Horse

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Matt Cassel, a player on the Kansas City Chief...

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The story of the year in the NFL is clearly Michael Vick.  Big star has big comeback, hard to top that.  As much as a press magnet Vick is though, Matt Cassel is a magnet for narratives like very few guys in recent history.  And while Vick can argue to have been one of those guys back when his dog fighting habits were exposed, he can’t compare to Cassel in 2010 simply by coming back.  Quite the feat for someone with such small celebrity.

All narratives involving Cassel begin with assumptions made based on the fact that he was a back up through out his entire collegiate career.  With the powerful meme that is “the system quarterback”, any backup who has success as a starter immediately creates a narrative that diminishes both his success, and the quarterbacks who have played on the same teams he has.  Cassel kicks things up another notch by literally having far greater success at the pro level than he ever did at the college level.

This initial narrative shift crossed over in 2008 when Cassel took over for the injured Tom Brady and led the New England Patriots to a solid season.  This was used to knock Brady and his record breaking 2007 season.  What was particularly odd about this line of thinking was that the Patriots actually won 5 games less than they had the previous season, and didn’t put up anywhere near the same passing numbers.  One would think that any quarterback that could claim to have improved his team by 5 games as doing something extraordinary, but that was not the dominant narrative.

Cassel is now putting up a great year in Kansas City complete with one missed game in which the Chiefs fell apart without him.  So now, it really should be clear that he’s no system quarterback.  He’s just damn good.

Meanwhile of course, the guy who beat out Cassel for starting status, and eventual superstardom, at USC (Matt Leinart) isn’t doing anything in the pros.  Kind of begs the question of whether then USC coach Pete Carroll made the right call in favoring Leinart.  Now my opinion, I’m sure Carroll had valid reasons for his choice, and I certainly wouldn’t assert that Matt Cassell at USC would have resulted in even greater success.  Cassel’s superior NFL career is undoubtedly due to some combination of luck, perseverance and attitude – none of which was found lacking in Leinart at the college level.  However, I also have a hard time believing that we’d have seen any major fall off in USC had they been forced to rely upon Cassel’s abilities instead of Leinart’s.

Getting back to Brady, one would think that Cassel’s year would have put the last nail in the coffin of the narrative of Brady as a system quarterback, but it hasn’t.  People are still using Cassel’s success in New England as a reason for why Vick is more valuable this year.  Completely bizarre given that the drop off from success with Brady to success with Cassel is actually quite a bit greater than how much Philly has improved this year now that they have Vick as quarterback.  This goes to illustrate two points:  1) Even a good new narrative “New England discovered another diamond in the rough with Cassel”, won’t totally kill off a disprove narrative immediately and completely, and 2) People really like to think that running quarterbacks are contributing far more than standard pocket quarterbacks.  With the latter point, I don’t disagree in some cases such as Randall Cunningham on the Eagles, and quite a few college QBs like Vince Young and Cam Newton.  However in general, we still see no great trend of running quarterbacks thriving consistently in the pros.

For a bit more on the Cassel/Brady/Vick triangle, check out this solid analysis.

In the end for Brady, what this season is doing, between Cassel’s success and Brady’s own all-time great level performance, is erasing question marks that could have forever dogged him in the comparison with Peyton Manning and other great quarterbacks.  If the Mannings of the world go down in history as superior to Brady it will be because they simply accomplished more, not because of the belief that any college backup could have led the Patriots to titles.

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Written by Matt Johnson

December 30, 2010 at 8:29 pm

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