Matt Cassel versus Zombies versus Unicorns

Although the Chiefs makeover as the Patriots of the Midwest hasn’t always been smooth, Kansas City has steadily stockpiled talent during the reign of Scott Pioli. As we embark on 2012, they’re easily the most talented team in the AFC West – although that may be damning with faint praise – as long as you exempt one position.

Unfortunately that position is the most important in team sports.

While Matt Cassel is to Scott Pioli what a legion of terrible personnel decisions are to Mike Holmgren, there were rumblings in the offseason that the Chiefs were finally going to give up on the embattled starter. Romeo Crennel seemed to throw his weight behind Kyle Orton at the end of last year, but Orton immediately fled to Dallas in free agency. Owner Clark Hunt publicly expressed interest in Peyton Manning, but Manning opted to take his mummified corpse to Denver instead. (Manning is definitely Team Zombie.)

An Inconsistent Truth

When Matt Cassel rode to the rescue of the 2008 Patriots and effectively reprised the role of Tom Brady in the video game numbers department, it seemed like we might have another Kurt Warner story on our hands. Pioli immediately brought him to the Chiefs but the two of them were forced to leave the rest of their compatriots behind. Cassel started his Chiefs tenure behind an atrocious offensive line with little other than Dwayne Bowe to throw to.

Then Todd Haley happened.

2012 should be a new beginning for Cassel. The return of Jamaal Charles and Tony Moeaki will provide a massive talent infusion. The potential emergence of Jonathan Baldwin combined with the decision to franchise Dwayne Bowe over Brandon Carr provides Cassel with multiple legitimate targets for the first time.

Beyond the players, the coaching change could make a big difference for Cassel. In the last four years, Cassel has played in a Patriots-style offense twice. In 2008, he obviously played for the Pats and in 2010 Charlie Weis was his offensive coordinator. Consider the ridiculous splits between those two seasons and the two seasons where Todd Haley micromanaged the play-calling:

2008/2010 – 61% completions, 7.1 yards per attempt, 24 TDs, 9 INTs.

2009/2011 – 57% completions, 6.1 yards per attempt, 13 TDs, 12.5 INTs.

Fortunately for Cassel, the Chiefs seem poised to return to a Patriots-style attack. Brian Daboll came out of the New England system and has had deceptive success. Both Chad Henne and Matt Moore were coming off of disastrous seasons in 2010, but they played inspired football last season. Not only that, they played aggressive football.

PFF has just unveiled a new and helpful stat: average depth of target. Among quarterbacks with at least 300 attempts last season, Moore led the entire NFL. You read that right: The QB who’s lost his job to Jimmy Clausen and Ryan Tannehill was the most aggressive passer in the NFL. (Moore was also successful on deep throws. Ranking 9th in deep accuracy, he finished ahead of players like Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, and Ben Roethlisberger.)

The Cleveland Browns are still muddling around at QB after Daboll’s scheme made Colt McCoy look surprisingly competent. Following Daboll’s departure, McCoy’s completion percentage and yards per attempt cratered.

Matt Cassel will probably have one final chance to prove he can be a starting NFL quarterback and the stars seem aligned to help him succeed. Is he good enough to get the job done?

Team Unicorn

Cassel has developed a reputation as a limited game manager, but he’s been more successful with aggressive game plans. Cassel has three career 400-yard passing games, the same number as Tom Brady and Philip Rivers. Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre, and John Elway all trail him in this category.

Cassel is a slightly above average NFL QB in most situations. According to Pro Football Focus, his 2011 overall accuracy percentage of 69.9% – PFF removes drops, throwaways, and spikes – is better than QBs like Roethlisberger and Palmer, and well ahead of names like Jay Cutler, Joe Flacco, Sam Bradford, and Mark Sanchez.

For those who believe playing quarterback is purely about winning, Cassel has led his team to double digit victories in 50% of his seasons.

Team Zombie

Cassel has some clear limitations as a passer, and those limitations manifest themselves in ways that are especially detrimental in the contemporary NFL. Cassel is a bottom-third passer in deep accuracy. His numbers stand in sharp contrast to those of Aaron Rodgers whose accuracy percentage on deep balls led the NFL by a wide margin. The Packers’ 2011 scorched earth campaign stemmed from taking West Coast principles and morphing the scheme into a vertical passing attack.

To truly illustrate the problem with a lack of deep accuracy, one needs only look to Matt Ryan. Ryan has been widely acclaimed in NFL circles since he burst on the scene as a rookie. PFF is also on the bandwagon, rating him as their No. 1 QB in 2010. Unfortunately, prior to this season, the Falcons have always been a far cry from fielding an elite offense. The fault lies either at the feet of Mike Mularkey – now head coach of the Jaguars – or with Ryan. If it is Ryan, a glaring lack of downfield accuracy is the explanation.

The other area where Cassel struggles is quite familiar to Chiefs fans. He does not handle pressure well. According to PFF, Cassel struggles in both sack percentage and accuracy under pressure. It would be less of a concern if Cassel’s struggles were a single season anomaly, but that isn’t the case. In fact, Cassel was even worse in this regard during his breakout season with the Patriots.

Those Who Do Not Learn From History. . .

The best method for creating historical quarterback comparisons uses Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt. ANYPA translates TDs, INTs, and Sacks into yardage. It’s a clean stat which is both descriptive and predictive when it comes to a quarterback’s per play value.

I generated the list of comps for Matt Cassel two ways. Because of his unique path to starting in the NFL, Cassel’s learning phase overlapped with his peak athletic years. In order to see what Cassel’s future performance should be like, we want to see which quarterbacks had a similar start to their careers and which ones had a similar profile during their age 26-29 seasons. We’ll start with his early career comps. Since the NFL has changed so much in relation to the passing game, we’ll limit our scope to the past 20 years.

Matt Cassel‘s Early Career Comparisons

Games Passing
Player From To G GS Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Rate Sk Y/A SkYds ANY/A ▾
Elvis Grbac 1994 2000 92 56 1181 1978 59.7% 13741 84 63 81.7 101 6.95 692 5.72
Scott Mitchell 1991 1997 86 62 1146 2016 56.8% 14000 90 63 80.2 127 6.94 727 5.71
Mark Rypien 1990 1994 60 55 909 1651 55.1% 11124 65 52 76.0 54 6.74 366 5.70
Brian Griese 1998 2004 69 66 1351 2144 63.0% 15208 96 71 85.3 154 7.09 1045 5.61
Jason Campbell 2006 2011 71 70 1296 2131 60.8% 14417 74 50 82.8 147 6.77 943 5.58
Byron Leftwich 2003 2009 57 49 900 1545 58.3% 10218 58 41 79.6 87 6.61 421 5.58
Gus Frerotte 1994 2000 71 58 1057 1942 54.4% 13662 66 59 75.4 123 7.04 830 5.57
Jim Everett 1990 1992 48 48 865 1519 56.9% 10750 56 55 76.2 86 7.08 602 5.48
Jeff Blake 1992 1999 78 66 1244 2230 55.8% 15174 93 63 79.1 173 6.80 1048 5.47
Kyle Orton 2005 2011 67 66 1284 2204 58.3% 14532 80 57 79.4 132 6.59 818 5.46
Matt Cassel 2005 2011 69 54 1042 1767 59.0% 11699 76 45 82.5 141 6.62 780 5.46
Jay Fiedler 1995 2003 67 53 899 1514 59.4% 10551 61 58 78.1 89 6.97 569 5.36
Stan Humphries 1990 1996 78 73 1305 2281 57.2% 15612 83 77 76.3 123 6.84 1029 5.32
Alex Smith 2005 2011 71 66 1137 1959 58.0% 12543 68 58 76.4 172 6.40 1045 4.81
Provided by View Original Table Generated 1/20/2012.

This list gives little cause for encouragement. Devoid of star players, the lone standout is probably Mark Rypien. In 1991 he led a dominant Washington squad to a Super Bowl title. A late round pick who didn’t immediately get an opportunity to play, Rypien’s career trajectory was very much what Cassel’s would have been like had the Chiefs won the Super Bowl this past year. Despite leading his team to a title at age 29, Rypien only started 32 more games the rest of his career.

For Chiefs fans, the most familiar names will be Kyle Orton and Elvis Grbac.  The ghost of Elvis still lingers in Arrowhead, and most fans would do anything to avoid starting yet another season with Grbac 2.0, even if the updated model includes better leadership.

Luckily Orton quickly signed with the Cowboys, eliminating the possibility of the Chiefs paying two below average starters. Re-signing Orton would have been the ultimate repetitive redundancy. As football players, Orton and Cassel are almost identical twins.

The second way to generate a list of comps is to focus on his age 26 to 29 seasons. Due to the late career heroics of players like Brett Favre, we often get the impression that QBs can play and play well deep into their 30s. Instead, the peak seasons tend to be the same as those for most other sports – the mid-to-late 20s. It’s also important to note that players who are solid in their mid-30s were usually stars in their mid-20s. Players who were solid in their mid-20s do not remain starters in their 30s.

Matt Cassel Historical Comparisons Age 26 to 29

Games Passing
Player From To Draft G GS Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Rate Y/A AY/A ANY/A ▾ Y/G
Steve McNair 1999 2002 1-3 58 57 1000 1650 60.6% 11763 70 48 84.3 7.13 6.67 5.96 202.8
Kyle Orton 2008 2011 4-106 53 51 1051 1756 59.9% 12185 68 42 83.8 6.94 6.64 5.95 229.9
Eli Manning 2007 2010 1-1 64 64 1242 2056 60.4% 14597 102 69 84.6 7.10 6.58 5.94 228.1
Matt Hasselbeck 2001 2004 6-187 59 52 1035 1727 59.9% 12321 70 48 83.7 7.13 6.69 5.78 208.8
Jeff George 1993 1996 1-1 48 46 948 1587 59.7% 11101 58 38 83.2 6.99 6.65 5.77 231.3
Neil O’Donnell 1992 1995 3-70 54 53 913 1585 57.6% 10904 57 32 82.3 6.88 6.69 5.69 201.9
Scott Mitchell 1994 1997 4-93 55 55 1011 1775 57.0% 12195 78 54 80.1 6.87 6.38 5.62 221.7
Aaron Brooks 2002 2005 4-131 61 61 1138 2019 56.4% 13810 85 56 80.0 6.84 6.43 5.61 226.4
Jason Campbell 2007 2010 1-25 58 57 1086 1759 61.7% 11950 58 40 83.4 6.79 6.43 5.51 206.0
Matt Cassel 2008 2011 7-230 55 54 1020 1728 59.0% 11446 74 43 82.8 6.62 6.36 5.48 208.1
Jim Everett 1990 1992 1-3 48 48 865 1519 56.9% 10750 56 55 76.2 7.08 6.18 5.48 224.0
Drew Bledsoe 1998 2001 1-1 48 48 920 1617 56.9% 11309 58 50 77.7 6.99 6.32 5.29 235.6
Kerry Collins 1998 2001 1-5 53 50 998 1781 56.0% 11905 61 55 75.2 6.68 5.98 5.23 224.6
Provided by View Original Table Generated 4/20/2012.

If we’re to answer this question anecdotally, the presence of Eli Manning makes it a resounding affirmative. Eli has not really been an elite QB, and his career arc is very unusual. While a mediocre starter at best through much of his early career, Eli has continued to improve long after most players plateau. Although the two Super Bowl wins are incredibly fluky, it would not be hyperbole to suggest he now appears on the cusp of greatness.

Steve McNair, Drew Bledsoe, and Kerry Collins are three more players of varying legend. Bledsoe was a luminary talent, but as I detailed in my examination of Carson Palmer, the best of his career occurred in his 20s. Collins played all the way through his 30s but with relatively limited results. McNair led the NFL in yards per attempt and the Titans to a 10-4 record at age 30.  His career tailed off precipitously from there.

After analyzing this list closely, it’s easy to get the nagging sensation that something is off. Is Matt Cassel really that similar to these players? My first instinct is no. It’s difficult to create a list of comps for Cassel because his unadjusted yards per attempt don’t quite do him justice. On the other hand, does Cassel really compare to players who throw for more yards per pass and more yards per game?

I think we’ll see the answer to that this season. The Chiefs overly conservative style under Haley emphasized ball security over taking calculated risks. Of the players on this list, only Neil O’Donnell has a better TD/INT ratio. In almost all cases, you don’t manage to throw for 10,000 yards over four seasons and manage a 1.5 TD/INT ratio or better unless you can also complete a higher percentage of passes for more yards per attempt than Matt Cassel has done.

Because they were less explosive on a per game basis, the closest comparisons on this list are probably O’Donnell, Campbell, and Hasselbeck. After losing in the Super Bowl during his age 29 season, O’Donnell signed with the Jets and posted a losing record the rest of the way (although he did stay in the league through age 37).

Jason Campbell may well be the most underrated QB in the game. (He’s 11-6 in his last 17 starts despite playing for the Raiders.)

Hasselbeck is probably the most favorable comp for Chiefs fans. Starting at the age of 30, he took his team to the playoffs in four of the next six seasons, making the Super Bowl in 2005 and earning a 5-4 playoff record. Since Cassel entered the league without fanfare, the presence of a late round pick on the list of comps is very encouraging. (If scouts were accurately projecting athleticism, we’d expect late round picks to tail off even more quickly in their 30s.)

And the verdict is:

For the first time in his Chiefs career, Matt Cassel is going to be in charge of an explosive offense. The Pro Football Focus metrics love the free agent signings of Peyton Hillis, Kevin Boss, and Eric Winston. Based on the acquisition of this trio of underrated players, I made the argument for Cassel as a sneaky QB2 way back in March. Although he tailed off in the second half against the Falcons in Week 1, his overall performance would not have destroyed your fantasy team.

While similar analyses of Carson Palmer and Peyton Manning convinced me those passers were likely to fail in their new environs, the slew of favorable comps for the Chiefs’ passer has pushed me back into the Cassel camp. Count me as the lead Cassel apologist for one more year.


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