ST. JOSEPH, Mo. (AP) — This was not the dying moment of an ugly loss. This was a feel-good charity softball game in the middle of the summer, for heaven’s sake, when everybody was feeling happy and upbeat.
Still the boos rained down on poor Matt Cassel.
A few weeks earlier, in another sign of the little regard so many in Kansas City seem to have for their quarterback, Chiefs owner Clark Hunt had publicly announced, seemingly with glee, that the team hoped to sign free agent Peyton Manning.
It’s been the offseason of disrespect for Cassel, the summer of indignity. It must have hurt. It had to hurt.
If it did, the perpetually sunny California native does a fine job of hiding all the pain.
“I’m going to be the same guy each and every day,” he said with an engaging grin as the Chiefs opened camp. “I’m going to give you 110 percent of what I have, and some people like it, some people won’t. You know what? I’m going to give it my all.”
Even his harshest critics agree that Cassel’s been giving it his all. Ever since Feb. 28, 2009, when brand new general manager Scott Pioli traded with New England for Tom Brady’s backup, he’s been a study in dedication, enthusiasm and zeal. More than once during that first offseason, head coach Todd Haley practically had to kick him out of the practice facility to go home for some much-needed down time.
In his second season in 2010, with Charlie Weis as his offensive coordinator, Jamaal Charles rushing for more than 1,450 yards and Dwayne Bowe leading NFL receivers with 15 touchdown catches, Cassel took the Chiefs to a 10-6 record and their first AFC West title since 2003. He hit 262 of 450 passes for 3,116 yards and rang up a sparkling touchdown-to-interception ratio of 27-7.
He did not play particularly well while the Baltimore Ravens pounded KC in the first round of the playoffs. But he was off to his first Pro Bowl. His career and the long-suffering Chiefs seemed to be taking wing.
Then came last year’s injury-plagued disaster. Charles and several other impossible-to-replace veterans missed almost the entire season. Cassel himself made only nine starts and went on injured reserve on Nov. 21 with a hand injury.
All winter long, fans and media critics harped that the Chiefs would never reach the Super Bowl with Cassel at the helm. Then, at the charity softball game in connection with baseball’s All-Star game, Cassel actually got booed as he competed with other national and local celebrities.
“The thing that I love about our fans is that they’re passionate. They let you know how they feel one way or the other and I can respect that,” he said with a big smile. “I heard just as many cheers. I heard, ‘CHIEFS!’ I didn’t hear any booing. That’s what I heard, right?”
Critics of the 6-foot-4 Cassel say he can’t throw downfield and sometimes panics, slow to process information when a play breaks down.
But leading the league in offensive coordinators probably hasn’t helped him grow. Officially in four years, he’s had five coordinators. But that doesn’t count the heavy hand of Haley, who was constantly tinkering with plays and game-day strategy, sometimes overruling whatever play was called. Frequently, the relationship between Haley and his quarterback was noticeably strained.
But Haley’s gone now, fired with four games to go and now coordinating Pittsburgh’s offense. Romeo Crennel, a defensive specialist, is seizing his second opportunity to be a head coach and is less likely to meddle with the offense.
Nevertheless, Cassel is having to learn yet another system. This time, it’s under Brian Daboll, with whom he worked in New England. But the volatile Haley is several states away. In addition, Charles and the others are healthy. Plus, the offensive line’s been strengthened in the offseason.
Maybe Cassel’s cheerful outlook is genuine.
“He’s our quarterback, and he’s going to try to take us to the playoffs this year,” said Crennel. “And if he can do that, then everybody will have a different view of Matt.”