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Cassel Chronicles: The Conclusion
Warning: this is long. If you don't care about Patriots games skip to the second part. There's some good stuff from Football Outsiders.
Over the last two months we’ve reviewed the best and worst of Matt Cassel during eight Patriots games. With training camp set to start Saturday, it’s almost time to move on from Cassel’s past and look to the future. But first, we’ll take one final look at 2008.
With a young team, a new offense and a whole lot of unfamiliarity, there will undoubtedly be plenty of negatives for Cassel over the next few months. So with that in mind, we’ll just focus on the positives from a few more Patriots games last season.
Then we wrap it up with a summation of Cassel and just what he brings to the Chiefs this season.
PATRIOTS VS CARDINALS
1st quarter – 1:49 – 1st-and-10
We’ve covered the difficulties Matt Cassel had last season in hooking up deep with Randy Moss, so it’s nice to see him improve, even if it doesn’t result in a completion. On this play the Patriots fake a handoff and Cassel makes Arizona’s safety bite on a pump fake. This leaves Moss one-on-one with Antrel Rolle deep and Cassel lets it fly.
The throw is magnificent. Rolle actually has decent coverage, but Moss never has to break stride and the ball is placed over his right shoulder, away from the cornerback. It falls perfectly into the receiver’s hands, only to be dropped. Daryl Johnston comments on Cassel’s great pass.
2nd quarter – 13:43 – 2nd-and-12
In the middle of a heavy snowstorm, the Patriots are up 14-0 but pushing for more, lined up in five wide at midfield. The Cardinals only rush four so Cassel has plenty of time to step up into a clean pocket, and he finds Jabar Gaffney down the middle of the field for a huge 34-yard gain.
There’s nothing all that impressive about this throw to be honest. Gaffney is wide open and there’s no pressure on Cassel. But horrible field conditions and the weather make it an impressive play. The field is absolutely covered in snow, and flakes are coming down in buckets at an angle, indicating wind. Visibility is low.
Despite all of that Cassel delivers a strike, hitting Gaffney in stride and enabling him to run after the catch for significant yardage. Also, Cassel passes up an open Wes Welker running a shallow drag route, indicating his willingness to be aggressive even in less-than-favorable conditions. Two plays later the Patriots score a touchdown.
PATRIOTS VS RAMS
1st quarter – 5:24 – 1st-and-10
After a play-action fake, the Patriots send two receivers out, trying for a big play down the field. Cassel’s first read is on the right side, with Randy Moss going deep, but he’s covered, so our quarterback comes all the way back to the left side of the field and spots an open Jabar Gaffney, running an intermediate comeback route.
The impressive part of this play comes as Cassel prepares to make the throw to his left, as a safety is barreling right down on top of him, and is right in his line of sight. It’s not easy to keep your eyes focused down the field with the pass rush closing in, but Cassel simply sets his feet and fires the ball with great accuracy for a 17-yard gain. There’s no hesitation, even though Cassel takes a shot and ends up on his butt at the conclusion of the play.
4th quarter – 10:16 – 1st-and-10
With the Patriots trailing by three and the game winding down, every play becomes more important. Fortunately, Matt Cassel delivers here and gets his offense deeper into St. Louis territory on a drive that eventually culminates in the tying field goal.
The Rams don’t blitz, but there’s pressure up the middle after Cassel completes his first read to the right side of the field. As he snaps his head around to the left, a defensive tackle is right on top of Cassel, and he has no room to step up in the pocket. He still manages to get rid of the ball on time, and even though it’s off his back foot, it’s well placed and an easy 12-yard catch for Randy Moss.
4th quarter – 9:36 – 1st-and-10
The Patriots line up in five wide as they approach the St. Louis goal line and, desperate for a stop, the Rams bring a zone blitz off the right side of the formation. It doesn’t faze Cassel even a bit, however, as he completes his drop and keeps his eyes down the field.
With two defenders barreling down on top of him, Cassel is completely focused on the throw, and it’s a beauty – a perfect 40-yard spiral, lofted toward the left corner of the end zone, right into the hands of Randy Moss, who doesn’t break stride but still drops a sure touchdown. The interesting part of this pass is that again, the coverage is solid. Cassel just makes a throw that’s indefensible.
4th quarter – 3:25 – 1st-and-10
Matt Cassel has brought his team from behind, and has marched them down the field for a potential go-ahead score, but there’s still 15 yards to go for a touchdown. The Patriots decide to put the game in their young quarterback’s hands and line up in five wide, most likely hoping to catch the Rams in man coverage.
That’s because the play is a slant-and-go to Kevin Faulk. Cassel pumps once to try and draw up the linebacker covering Faulk, and then lofts the ball towards the front corner of the end zone. Linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa actually has great coverage on the play but, again, the pass is so well thrown – Faulk doesn’t have to make much of an adjustment, if any at all - he doesn’t have much of a chance to defend it. The ball drops right in for the game-winning touchdown.
PATRIOTS VS RAIDERS
1st quarter – 8:33 – 2nd-and-11
Already up by a touchdown and threatening for another score, the Patriots run everybody out in the pattern, with Benjamin Watson going up the seam and into the end zone. The Raiders have him well covered however so Matt Cassel turns to the left and Randy Moss, who is actually, again, fairly well covered. Nevertheless, Cassel steps up and fires a dart toward the pylon, right into his receiver’s hands for a touchdown.
The interesting part of this play is Cassel’s apparent willingness to throw to a receiver who was open by only the slimmest margin. He ignored two wide open short options, and instead tried – and succeeded – to make a longer throw that required almost exact precision to complete. Rich Gannon gushes over Cassel’s accuracy in the booth.
3rd quarter – 14:26 – 2nd-and-9
When you’re as accurate a passer as Matt Cassel, sometimes the pass rush and the coverage is pretty much meaningless. That’s the case on this play, which is just an 11-yard gain, but really an unfair one.
Cassel takes the snap and as he begins his throwing motion, Randy Moss is not even four yards down the field. It’s not as if Moss is running a slant, either, he’s just running straight down the field. But Cassel’s timing and accuracy is so perfect, all Moss has to do is plant one foot and lean backwards as the ball arrives.
Of course, there’s no play for Nnamdi Asomugha despite the fact he’s on Moss’ hip the entire way. The throw is too perfect. This is the sort of ridiculous timing you see between quarterbacks and receivers like Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison. To see it from a first-year starter like Cassel is certainly impressive.
So we’ve just spent two months reviewing Matt Cassel’s games from last year. What did we learn? What are his strengths and his weaknesses? Why did the Chiefs give up a second-round pick and a wheelbarrow of Hunt money for him? How will his game, without Randy Moss or Wes Welker, translate from New England to Kansas City?
Well, we’re not exactly NFL scouts, but certain things definitely become clear if you pay enough attention. There were obvious patterns – for better or for worse - that repeated themselves in Cassel’s game over the course of the 2008 season. We can break them down into the following categories.
If nothing else, Cassel’s accuracy separates him from the average NFL quarterback. According to Football Outsiders, he was the 9th most accurate passer in the league last year at 84.6 percent. This was the percentage of his passes which were – referring to the official FO definition – “not marked as Thrown Ahead, Thrown Behind, Overthrown, Underthrown, or Out of Bounds. Does not include passes marked Thrown Away, Tipped at Line, or Hit in Motion.”
There’s no question that percentage bore itself out in Cassel’s play. It didn’t matter which receiver he was throwing to, whether it was Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Jabar Gaffney, Benjamin Watson or Kevin Faulk. He showed the ability to hit all of them in stride, and not just on short routes.
Cassel also showed the rare ability to connect with receivers who were actually well covered at the point of his release. And it’s not as if he was out there throwing jump balls around the yard like Brett Favre. Cassel was simply great at putting it where only his receiver could get it, time and again.
We can probably attribute Cassel’s near-impeccable accuracy to his consistent footwork. Time and again, he showed an affinity for resetting his feet depending on where he wanted to throw the football. It was extremely rare to see him attempt an off-balance throw, although when he had to throw on the run, it wasn’t an issue.
Where Cassel’s accuracy faltered most was on the deep passes over 30 yards, especially to Moss. Fortunately it wasn’t because of a lack of arm strength. At times Cassel actually overthrew Moss.
Inexplicably, Cassel also had a tendency simply to flat miss a throw at times. It didn’t matter if he was throwing on the run or standing still in the pocket. Occasionally, he would just throw up a duck for no apparent reason.
How will Cassel’s accurate passing benefit the Chiefs? The fewer circus catches Dwayne Bowe has to make, the better. And it goes without saying that if Bowe can catch more passes in stride, his yards after the catch average will skyrocket.
Tyler Thigpen, by the way, was ranked 28th in quarterback accuracy by Football Outsiders. It’s also worth noting that Cassel’s completion percentage could have been even higher. The Patriots dropped 30 passes last season, the 12th highest mark in the league (again, we tip our hats to FO).
There’s no question Cassel’s smarts helped him succeed despite his inexperience last season. How else do you explain his low interception percentage? But what may not be so obvious is just how rarely he was truly fooled by a defense.
Cassel threw 11 interceptions in 2008, which is already a low number, but in watching the games we discovered that at least four of those interceptions were caused by the receiver (I’m looking at you, Randy Moss). And we didn’t watch every game, so the number of turnovers Cassel was actually personally responsible for may be even lower.
The low turnover rate is pretty easily explained – Cassel simply didn’t throw into tight coverage or take chances with the ball that often. He didn’t have to, because he constantly went through his progressions and found the open man again and again.
Even when defenses blitzed Cassel relentlessly, or stacked the line of scrimmage with defenders who dropped out into zones, usually he read the coverage correctly. Early in the season there were a few cases of “happy feet,” the usual symptom of indecision in a quarterback.
But as the weeks wore on, Cassel looked more and more like a quarterback who knew exactly what he was doing on every snap. There weren’t many signs of confusion. He was in control.
The first thing that really became obvious about Cassel was his athleticism. For a 6-foot-4, 230-pound quarterback, he can really move, and racked up 270 rushing yards in 2008.
But those stats don’t tell the whole story. While Cassel was sacked 47 times last season, and has been accused of “holding onto the ball too long,” it really wasn’t as big of a problem as it’s been made out to be. Early in the year the Patriots had issues on their offensive line, and at times Cassel had no chance. Calling on Football Outsiders again, the Patriots ranked third in the NFL in blown blocks, with 25 in 582 pass plays.
When New England sorted out their protection issues around midseason, the sacks drastically dropped, and Cassel’s mobility really helped out at times. Even if he wasn’t scrambling for a first down, he was great at moving outside the pocket and buying time for his receivers (although he rarely needed to do so, because the Patriots executed on offense so well).
But it’s important to note that Cassel was never at any point a run-first, pass-second quarterback. Too often this is an issue with young passers, but in Cassel’s case, most of the time running was a last resort after he went through his progressions and didn’t find anyone open. And frequently he showed decisiveness in escaping the pocket in such situations.
Occasionally, Cassel’s mobility got him into trouble. There were times when he escaped pressure and decided to throw across his body or attempt a throw that required a stronger arm than he possesses. But these instances were infrequent.
As was already noted, Cassel was sacked 47 times a year ago, but he was also hit 88 times, the third-most in the league behind Kurt Warner and David Garrard. Despite that he was never seriously injured and never became gun-shy. He was always willing to stand in the pocket and take a hit to make the play.
Likely, this is an aspect Head Coach Todd Haley really appreciated if he had any say in bringing Cassel to Kansas City. After all, it was Haley who coached Warner last season in Arizona.
Cassel’s toughness also showed up when he ran with the ball. He wasn’t afraid to lead with his helmet when he needed a first down, and though that can be dangerous, his large frame and thick lower body often prevented defenders from laying any serious hits. Actually, at times he was successful in breaking tackles, although no one should compare him to Daunte Culpepper.
Clearly this is an attribute that will be needed in Kansas City. The Chiefs have had their problems on the offensive line, and if the receivers struggle at all this year, Cassel may need to hold on to the ball a little longer than he did in New England.
PROJECTED 2009 SEASON – FOOTBALL OUTSIDERS
WPI “HOMERVISION” ADJUSTMENT