Time for Cassel to Show if He’s a Franchise Quarterback

Talk about confidence. Scott Pioli and the Kansas City Chiefs wasted no time, did they?

The overused term, “franchise quarterback” has never been uttered with such sincerity. Matt Cassel agreed to a six-year, $63 million deal with K.C. on Tuesday, ensuring that he will be a football team’s head honcho entering a season for the first time since his days at Chatsworth (Calif.) High School.

Cassel signed his $14-plus million franchise tag in January with New
England, was traded to Kansas City in February and now has inked a
long-term deal, after making just $500,000 in 2008). Not a bad start to 2009.

But from the Chiefs perspective, it’s an interesting move. They’ve
now fully committed to Cassel for the long haul, having never seen him
take even a preseason snap in a red and white uniform. Was waiting
until Week 6 to offer an extension really that outrageous, given the
circumstance?

It’s especially intriguing because of the whispered myths surrounding Cassel’s former team, the New England Patriots. Tom Brady
haters have called him a “system quarterback” all decade long. Though
most — if not all — experts consider that notion more than foolish,
Cassel’s immediate success in New England gave them some evidence with
which to play. They said that seemingly anyone could step in and win
double-digit games for Bill Belichick, and Cassel did just that. Again, not exactly a fair presumption. But it’s still impossible to disprove at this point.

One way to negate that theory would be for a third contestant to
step to the Patriots’ plate, which of course would depend on Brady’s
exit from the starting scene. The mere thought makes greater New
England’s collective stomach settle in its throat.

Another less painful way to judge the theory would be to see how
Cassel performs in a non-New England uniform, which will happen less
than nine weeks from now. The assessment will be easy: If Cassel
thrives in Kansas City, then he is in fact the real deal, thus
justifying Brady’s excellence as well. But if he stumbles, then perhaps
the Brady naysayers have a legitimate argument. It’s still not to say
that it’s right, but their statement becomes less laughable.

Ask most white clam-chowder slurpers, and they’ll tell you that
Brady is a top-five quarterback of all time, if not No. 1 or 2. To
them, the thought of his legacy being tainted by Cassel’s supposed
failure seems preposterous. But Brady has only played for one NFL team
and one NFL head coach. Aside from watching Cassel in K.C., the only
objective way to assess Brady as a non-system quarterback would be to
either watch Kevin O’Connell for a season in New
England or watch Brady drop back into someone else’s pocket. Neither
would be very appealing to Patriots Nation.

Cassel went 10-5 as a starter in Brady’s absence last season. And
yet, because of the curious aura that surrounds Belichick’s signal
callers — mainly Brady — he’s still an unproven specimen when not
playing under the reign of the hoodie, which begins now.

But what if the “system quarterback” theory is true? What if Bill Gates could win 10 games under center in New England?

If so, then Pioli and Co. may have just made a big, expensive mistake.

Who’s hot?
Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, who also shed his franchise tag this week and signed a seemingly identical contract
(six years, $63 million, $38 million guaranteed) to Cassel’s on
Wednesday, making him the highest paid linebacker in league history.

A linebacker making franchise-quarterback money. Makes sense, given Baltimore’s defensive-minded ideals. And with Ray Lewis aging by the minute, Suggs will have some big cleats to fill.

But his wallet just got filled first.

Who’s not?
Former NFL running back Travis Henry. The ex-Bill and Bronco was sentenced to three years in prison on Thursday for his involvement in a drug ring that moved cocaine between Colorado and Montana.

Roger Goodell must be thrilled.

Quote of the week
“I watched every throw Brett [Favre]
made in 2008 again over the last couple of months and what was
noticeable to me was that, unlike when he was younger, he really
struggles to throw the ball to the outside. He is still very effective
in the middle of the field, but he can’t snap off the throws that are
outside the hashes like he used to. It is clear he has some limitations
on the perimeter.”
– NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell to SI.com’s Ross Tucker

What to watch for
“Zone exchanges” — as Cosell calls them — instead of zone
blitzes in 2009. These so-called exchanges are designed to give
quarterbacks different looks while still rushing only three or four
defenders. For instance, sending an outside linebacker at the
quarterback and dropping a defensive end into zone coverage. Cosell
says that Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and Jets new head coach Rex Ryan are the leaders of exchange schemes.

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