Best of the Bunch?

Posted Nov 27, 2010

Pete Carroll coached a pair of Heisman Trophy winning QBs at USC, but it's their backup that's putting together a finer 2010 season

Heisman Trophies surrounded Matt Cassel at USC. While Cassel served as second-fiddle to quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart in Southern California, he saw both starters take home numerous postseason accolades get first-round phone calls on draft day.

At one point, Cassel was actually sandwiched between the two Heisman winners as the Trojans second-string quarterback in 2002. Literally, Cassel was surrounded by the Heisman Trophy.

Cassel, of course, never won a Heisman. He never even won the right to start a single collegiate game at quarterback for that matter. But Cassel did earn a chance. He received an unlikely opportunity to carve out a professional career for himself, despite his lack of playing time in college. Cassel got his shot as a low-risk flier when the Patriots drafted him in the seventh round of the 2005 NFL Draft.

By now, most everyone knows what happened next. Cassel’s story has been told many times before and it continues to write itself with the Chiefs in 2010.

But lately new chapters are emerging. The story isn’t just about a backup college QB turned NFL starter anymore. It’s now about that same backup quarterback developing into a better quarterback than the two players who received those Heisman Trophies while playing in front of him.

Five years ago, who would have thought that Matt Cassel would be having the best year out of the three USC quarterbacks? Five years ago, do you think that it crossed Pete Carroll’s mind that he’d be preparing a game plan to face Cassel quarterbacking a division leader? What do you think Carroll’s response would have been if he was told that during the 2004 season?

What were the chances? One in a million?

“He’s made such an interesting story, at least today, as he’s come through in such a huge fashion and done a marvelous job in creating a career for himself,” Carroll said. “I’m so excited for him. It’s awesome.

“It’s not a surprise that he’s been able to get it done. It’s just unfortunately that he didn’t get the chance to do it in college.”

It was hard for Cassel. He was stuck behind a number one overall pick and a quarterback who won what seemed to have been a hundred games in a row. But look at how the three compare today. Is Cassel developing into the best of the USC bunch?

Few will argue that Cassel hasn’t developed into a better pro quarterback than Leinart. The former first-round pick currently sits third on the Houston’s depth chart after being cast off by Arizona and has thrown six more interceptions than touchdowns over his five-year NFL career.

When measuring Cassel against Palmer, there plenty of room for discussion. On one hand, roughly half of Palmer’s seven NFL seasons would qualify as average performances, at best. Plus, he’s definitely struggling of late. On the other hand, Palmer has been to two Pro Bowls and given the Bengals several superb seasons and a couple of playoff appearances in the process. Through good times and bad, Palmer has been Cincinnati’s franchise quarterback.

For now, it’s comparing apples to oranges. We won’t know how Cassel matches up against Palmer until there’s a bigger sample size from Cassel. Most would tend to agree that Palmer’s full body of work is more impressive than Cassel’s to date.

But for 2010, at least, Cassel is the putting up the best season of the bunch. It’s the seventh-round draftee that’s outplaying the two former first-round Heisman Trophy winners.

How can things change so much? From the college games that Cassel could never get into, to the investment and research that teams put into the players who Cassel played behind; how can the college backup possibly develop into a better NFL player than the two All-Americans?

“Bad coaching by the college coach maybe, I don’t know,” Carroll laughed. “I think it’s about surroundings and situation. Matt has really taken advantage of that. All of those guys can play and are really good football players. It’s all about where you are and who you are surrounded by.”

Players’ surroundings generally go overlooked. The boom or bust label is usually defined by numbers, while the environmental factor often gets ignored when it comes to monitoring player development. Both Carroll and Cassel pointed to environment as a major reason for Cassel’s success at the NFL level. Chiefs head coach Todd Haley tends to agree as well.

“Matt is no different than a lot of guys that have found their way into the league and been in the right situation at the right time,” Haley said. “But most of all their hard work, preparation and diligence to get themselves ready and help their team be better is what the key is. So when you are opportunity arrives, you take full advantage and like I said there are story after story of guys that people don’t know a whole lot about that all the sudden everyone knows who they are on a first name basis. Matt took advantage of an opportunity in New England and he has continued to take advantage of that here.”

Seattle’s leading receiver, Mike Williams, was on the cusp of unemployment after entering the league as a top-10 pick with Detroit in 2005. Williams had been cut or traded three separate times before landing in Seattle this offseason. A reunion with his former college head coach has seen Williams put up more reception and yardage totals in 2010 than in his first five years in the NFL combined.

A change in scenery has turned Williams into one of this year’s greatest comeback stories. On the same token, Cassel is pointing to the current environment in Kansas City as a big reason for the year he’s had to date.

“I think everybody’s situation is different,” Cassel said. “For me it was about continuing to work hard, continuing to believe in myself and surround myself with people that believed in me and continue to push forward. I, by no means, do it on my own.”

This Sunday Pete Carroll will square off against one of his former USC quarterbacks for the first time in his NFL coaching career. Who would have ever thought that the quarterback was going to be Matt Cassel?

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