Matt Cassel can’t play NFL quarterback.
Normally I try to finesse my way into these kinds of declarations, but not today. I think it’s important to have an earnest discussion about what happened Friday night, and what happened was a clear example of why some signal callers are taken high in the first round of the draft and others are taken low in the last.
Aside from the QB position, there are a lot of congruences between the offenses of the Rams and the Chiefs. Sam Bradford shares the backfield with one gifted back (Steven Jackson) and his two solid backups (Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood). Matt Cassel shares his with one gifted back (Jamaal Charles), his veteran Pro Bowl backup (Thomas Jones), and arguably the most threatening fullback in the game today (Mike Cox…. wait…. no…. Le’Ron McClain). Bradford has four reliable targets in the passing game (receivers Mike Sims-Walker, Brandon Gibson, Donny Avery, and Danny Amendola). Cassel has only three (receivers Dwayne Bowe and Steve Breaston and tight end Tony Moeaki), but his number one trumps any of Bradford’s four, hands down. Both play behind ascending offensive lines that haven’t put together all the pieces yet.
The difference is that one of them knows how to get the ball out of his hands quickly, and the other doesn’t.
This begs the question: Has the Kansas City fanbase been unduly critical of left tackle Branden Albert? True, he’s no Willie Roaf. But he’s also played exclusively for quarterbacks content to make him look like an asshole. It’s easy to see his bookend, Barry Richardson, gets blown off the line right after the snap. Albert isn’t getting beaten that quickly, at least not this preseason (like him or not, he really has come a long way from the rookie that was thoroughly embarrassed by John Abraham). I have to believe that if Cassel (or Huard or Croyle or Thigpen) was able to make his reads at proper NFL speed, public opinion of the beleaguered left tackle would be higher.
That said, the offensive line clearly needs help, and they need it in the form of a healthy, game-ready Jared Gaither. The dropoff in talent from linemen one through four (by order of playing ability: Jon Asamoah, Casey Wiegmann, Ryan Lilja, and the aforementioned Albert) and five and six (Rodney Hudson and Barry Richardson) is astounding, and it’s not acceptable. Hudson gets the excuse of being a rookie drafted in a labor strike summer. Richardson gets no such excuse. Still, do you take your chances with David Mims or Chris Harr in his place? Probably not. They’re not any good either. This begs the question: Brian Waters, how is your summer going, and how do you feel about learning a new position in the next 10 days?
On the other side of the ball, the issue isn’t one of a lack of talent, but rather a lack of commitment to using the players that have the most of it. Andy Studebaker is consistently outplayed by both Justin Houston and Cam Sheffield, and Tyson Jackson is consistently outplayed by both Wallace Gilberry and Allen Bailey. If the two of them remain starters into the regular season, get ready for a long autumn of getting slashed and gashed on the strong side. Jovan Belcher continues to play above expectations, but he can’t do it alone.
The positive here is that there is no long standing commitment to either player. Studebaker was the default starter. With Mike Vrabel gone, the choices were to hand the reigns to him, a rookie reportedly in need of an attitude adjustment, or a second year low draft pick that played no more than a few minutes of preseason last year before being carted off the field with a neck injury. As it turns out, the rookie’s attitude may not be as bad as initially anticipated, and the neck has healed. In Jackson’s case, he’s being given another preseason to prove that he was worth even a fraction of the money he was given. Last season, however, his anticipated playing time was largely awarded instead to sack artist Gilberry and sack master Shaun Smith. There’s no reason to believe Todd Haley and Romeo Crennel won’t be equally as eager to give away his snaps this year.
In case you’re doubting the need to replace these two, go back and study Friday’s first quarter drive charts compared to the second quarter drive charts. The only substitutions made at the beginning of the second quarter were Houston and Bailey for Studebaker and Jackson. A handful of other players rotated in (notably Gilberry, Sheffield, and defensive backs Jon McGraw and Travis Daniels), but most of the second quarter was played with nine starters plus Houston and Bailey.
On the subject of Travis Daniels, I haven’t supported the guy in the past, but he didn’t look half bad. I’ve been guilty in the past of placing too much faith in a guy after a single solid preseason performance (see: Corey Mays), but given that there are only three legitimate cornerbacks on this roster otherwise, I’ll start the season by cutting the guy some slack and hoping for the best.
By contrast, I will cut no slack to any of the following: Barry Richardson, David Mims, Chris Harr, Butch Lewis, Anthony Toribio, Demorrio Williams, Quinten Lawrence, Donald Washington, Sabby Piscatelli, and, of course, Matt Cassel. Learn to play better quickly, or kindly relocate yourself to the roster of a team I won’t watch quite so much.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I made no mention at all of the game played by Derrick Johnson. He’s looking less like a guy who played well in his contract year and more like a player who finally bought in to what his coaches were telling him to do. He led the team in solo tackles as well as assists, registered the team’s only sack, was responsible for one of four quarterback hits and one of three tackles for loss, made a beautiful leaping open field interception, and trailed only Daniels in passes defensed. If there are any high school or college linebackers out there reading this, wondering how the position is to be played, look no further. DJ just put on a clinic for you all. Address your Thank You cards to 1 Arrowhead Drive, Kansas City, MO, 64129.