KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Trent Green knows about paying dues.
He was hardly recruited out of high school. He threw more interceptions than touchdowns in college. He was drafted by the San Diego Chargers in the eighth round, which doesn’t even exist now, and couldn’t make it in the CFL, where he was cut after one season as a backup.
It all makes him appreciate the path Matt Cassel has walked.
“My big thing was, and it was the same with Matt, you may only get once chance,” said Green, who emerged as a Pro Bowl quarterback in Kansas City. He sees a lot of himself in Cassel, who likewise has gone from a backup biding his time to a Pro Bowl member of the Chiefs.
“It’s not like you’re a high-round draft pick and you’re going to get lots of chances,” Green said this week. “You may only get one chance you’d better make the most of it.”
Cassel certainly has.
He spent his entire college career backing up Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinert at Southern Cal, and then was drafted in the seventh round by the Patriots, where he found himself third on the depth chart behind superstar Tom Brady and veteran Doug Flutie.
It wasn’t until the 2008 season opener — against the Chiefs, ironically — that Cassel finally got his shot. Brady tore knee ligaments getting sacked in the first quarter and Cassel came in to lead the Patriots to a 17-10 victory. He wound up showing enough that Kansas City traded for him in the offseason, and immediately gave him the starting job on a rebuilding team.
Just like Green, Cassel had weathered every roadblock put in his way.
Longtime center Casey Wiegmann worked with Green in Kansas City before spending time with the Denver Broncos, and is back with the Chiefs this season. He said there’s something special about a quarterback who pays his dues, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on but that differentiates those kinds of players from those simply handed a starting job.
“Trent was a guy who had to work his way up, and when he finally got here, it didn’t change him,” Wiegmann said. “He kept working hard and trying to get to the top. And I played with Jay Cutler in Denver, where he was a first-round pick, and basically it was his job to lose.
“Don’t get me wrong, I like what Jay does as a quarterback,” Wiegmann said, “but you just get a different feel from guys who had to work their way up.”
Call it unwavering leadership, call it unquestioned respect, call it whatever you want. But Cassel developed it to the point where the rest of the Chiefs were willing to follow.
They went 4-11 in games he started his first season in Kansas City, double the win total of the previous year. Then the breakthrough in 2010, when Cassel threw for 3,116 yards and 27 touchdowns with only seven picks, leading the Chiefs to a surprising AFC West title.
Now, the Chiefs will be counting on Cassel to exhibit even more improvement. Their schedule has been beefed up dramatically after the rousing success of 2010, and the growth of their 28-year-old quarterback will be the biggest reason that success is short-lived or sustained.
“He knows a lot about football,” said wide receiver Steve Breaston. “In meetings and on the field, he’s really coaching me up. Getting on the same page and things like that, that’s big for a quarterback, pointing out the defense and showing you want you want. You don’t just see what’s on paper, you see what the quarterback is thinking, and you can be really dangerous like that.”
Todd Haley called Cassel “an extension of me as the head coach,” the guy on the field who runs the show. He’s been impressed by the way his quarterback has taken over the team, marveling at his ability to focus on things he can control while pushing aside everything else.
“The guys that are out there practicing each day and ultimately playing, the quarterback’s job is to make it all work,” Haley said, “and he’s showing more signs of that being in his nature.”
It hasn’t been easy, especially this season.
Forget about the lockout wiping away organized summer workouts. Even after that was ironed out and everybody arrived at fall camp, Cassel found himself working around a number of distractions, including injuries to two of his main targets, Breaston and first-round draft pick Jonathan Baldwin.
Cassel also hasn’t been able to practice like normal because the Chiefs haven’t bothered to scheme their first two preseason games, in which Cassel was just 6 of 14 for 73 yards.
“When you don’t scheme offensively, it’s a tough task for those guys,” Haley said. “You have to be pretty above and away better than the people you’re playing against to just go out and not scheme on offense and be better than everybody.”
Considering the path Cassel has taken, nobody would be surprised if he was anyway.
“Matt is passionate about being part of and helping take this team to high places,” Haley said in a slow, thoughtful tone. “He’s not a guy who is content too often regardless of how he does, so you know, he’s getting better every day. ... That’s what he’s doing, and that’s why I’m excited.”