Fate has smiled upon Cassel after he lost out at USC
By KENT BABB
The Kansas City Star
J. PAT CARTER
Matt Cassel (above) was a forgotten man while QB Matt Leinart (below right) and coach Pete Carroll guided USC to the 2004 BCS title. Six years later, Cassel is leading the Chiefs while Leinart’s NFL career is lost.
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They say it could’ve come down to a coin flip, but futures and lives aren’t decided by such binary means.
The fact is, Matt Cassel and Matt Leinart were both struggling through the 2004 preseason at Southern California, and coach Pete Carroll had to make a decision on a starting quarterback. If neither was better than the other, then Carroll had to decide who was less bad. It was Leinart by a hair, and like that, Cassel’s career seemed to be decided.
“It’s hard to revisit,” Cassel said this week. “You didn’t know how it was all going to pan out.”
A promising young passer had his future decided by others. Now what? Stick it out or transfer? Complain about his coach’s decision or accept it?
Six years after Cassel was passed over, fate has begun to settle itself. Cassel never got his chance at USC, but now he’s the Chiefs’ starter. Leinart is the third-string passer for Houston after being released earlier this season by Arizona. Somehow, the college senior with no shot now has a firm grip on his NFL team’s future — and the other is in professional purgatory.
That, and Carroll left the college ranks after last year to join the Seattle Seahawks, whom the Chiefs will play Sunday.
“I don’t know how many times that has happened,” Carroll says. “Maybe it has, but I can’t think of any stories. I don’t know how that could’ve happened.”
But it did, and Sunday, Cassel will try to show his former coach what he missed, and the coach will try to slow what has quietly become an impressive season for the Chiefs quarterback.
Here’s the odd thing: Cassel not only doesn’t blame Carroll for benching him in 2004; he said it was the right call. And, even now, it’s difficult even to suggest that Carroll could’ve done even marginally better if he had chosen Cassel over Leinart, who had already led USC to the AP national title in 2003. The quarterback who won that preseason competition led the Trojans to that season’s BCS championship, and he also won the Heisman Trophy.
Cassel watched it all, and he admitted this week that, amid all the success, there were times that he considered transferring. He said he had a conversation with his family about moving to another school but that he remained in Los Angeles because there were other reasons to stay. He was a semester shy of graduation, and his future wife played on the Trojans’ volleyball team.
“It was in my character to just stick it out and play through it,” he said.
There aren’t many players, to say nothing of the specialized nature of quarterbacks, who sit out their college careers and then go on to a successful NFL career. Carroll and Cassel admitted that the chances were slim, and Cassel acknowledged that a certain progression of factors had to happen for him to be any pro team’s starter.
He also said that one benefit of experiencing the good and bad at USC was that the Trojans ran a pro-style offense that, even in practices, better prepared him for the NFL. Cassel said that when he arrived in New England after being a seventh-round draft pick in 2005 it “wasn’t like I was a wide-eyed rookie.”
“A lot of the drills that we were doing were very similar to what coach had already done at USC,” he said, “and so I felt very prepared going in.”
Still, he said, there was no substitute for playing. Some say that Cassel would be further along in his NFL career if he had played even one season of college football. Perhaps he would be more comfortable in the pocket, more confident in the huddle, or more finely tuned a passer.
Cassel said that, even in his sixth pro season, he’s still learning things that — who knows — he might have learned in college.
“I see things week in and week out that I learn from,” Cassel said. “Or maybe I make a mistake that you only make, really, when you’re out there on Sunday.”
Perhaps the oddest thing about Cassel’s unusual journey is that he backed up two consecutive USC passers, Carson Palmer and Leinart, who won the Heisman. Cassel’s college career, if you can call it that, passed without fanfare or even notice, and at least in 2010, he’s having the better season. Cassel’s team is 6-4, and he has thrown 18 touchdowns to four interceptions. Leinart’s career is in limbo, and the senior member of the three, Cincinnati’s Palmer, has thrown nine more interceptions than Cassel and is the leader of a 2-9 team.
Carroll said that knowing Cassel, his two predecessors’ careers likely remain in the Chiefs quarterback’s mind. And although Cassel won’t admit it, Carroll said, that could serve as motivation for the man who was once forgotten on the USC campus.
“His numbers are awesome,” Carroll said of Cassel. “In the back of Matt’s mind, I know he’s competing with all those guys. They all should be doing that. They were competing back then, and they’re still competing right now. He’s ahead a little bit.
“It’s just surroundings and situation, and Matt has taken advantage of it. All those guys can play, and they’re all really good football players. It’s who you are and who you’re surrounded by and the coaches and all that. Everything has fit together beautifully for Matt.”
Posted on Thu, Nov. 25, 2010 11:25 PM
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