Any time a veteran player moves to a new team, there is a significant adjustment period that takes place. Matt Cassel is no exception.
The new Vikings quarterback is making his third career NFL stop. He began his career buried on the New England Patriots depth chart until future Hall of Famer Tom Brady went down to injury in Week 1. Cassel went on to lead the Patriots to a 10-5 record in 2008 in his 15 starts with the Patriots, which in the final season of his rookie contract couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
He signed a big-money free agent contract with Kansas City, but, while he had his moments – leading the Chiefs to the playoffs in 2010, he struggled with both injuries and ineffectiveness the last two seasons. When the coaching staff was given the hook and Andy Reid arrived with his lustrous moustache, Cassel’s days in K.C. were numbered.
His availability on the open market coincided with a need on the Vikings’ end of the spectrum. The team has what it believes is the quarterback of the future in Christian Ponder, but, when injuries forced Ponder to miss the Vikings’ playoff game, the need for a No. 2 quarterback was made all too evident by the dismal play of Joe Webb – a performance bad enough he is no longer considered a quarterback by the Vikings’ decision-makers.
Cassel has ridden the quarterback roller coaster in his NFL career. He was the caddy for Brady for three years and then became an immediate NFL star when he showed he could run the Patriots offense effectively. Hailed as a franchise savior when he arrived in 2009, his early run in Kansas City brought him in as the unquestioned starter, but after a career year in 2010 (27 TD passes, seven interceptions), things went south in a hurry with the Chiefs. He comes to Minnesota as the unquestioned backup, but said the organization has made the transition as smooth as possible.
“It’s been great,” Cassel said. “It’s been an adjustment period for me like anything else, but I’m getting acclimated pretty well. The guys have been outstanding. I’ve had a few weeks to get adjusted with the offseason program and now the OTAs and it’s been great so far.”
There’s an adage that says nobody is more popular in any NFL city than the backup quarterback. If the starter struggles, the clamor comes out to bring in the backup because he could tear things up. Cassel has been on both ends of that debate and said one of the things an NFL veteran learns early on is not to put too much stock in what the talking heads have to say in the minutia they break down – transforming a player from hero to goat in one week in the “what have done for me lately?” world of the NFL.
“You have to separate yourself from it,” Cassel said. “What I do for a living is that I’m a football player, but away from the field, I’m a father and a husband. You have to separate it. If you start taking it home, it becomes difficult. One thing I learned a long time ago is that you can’t read the papers or listen to the media – whether good or bad – because one day to the next or one game to the next the perception will change.”
As fan bases go, Cassel admitted he’s heard the phrase “Minnesota nice” – which he hopes translates to the field. Kansas City has as loyal a fan base as there is in the NFL, and as many can attest the best-smelling parking lot. Fans can be vicious when times are tough and, with the exception of Philadelphia and possibly New York, Boston fans have a penchant for being more brutal when it comes to their sports heroes failing. Fortunately for Cassel, he played well enough to earn the respect instead of the wrath of Southies who love their Patriots “wicked hard.”
Because of his emergence when the faithful were ready to throw in the towel, Cassel earned the respect of Bostonians and his memory of the city is nothing but positive.
“Boston was a great city to play in,” Cassel said. “The fans are as loyal as can be. The one thing about Boston fans, once you prove to them that you can get the job done, they’re as loyal as any fans in the league. If you don’t get the job done, you’ll hear it, but they’re passionate. We had a lot of success there, so things were usually pretty positive.”
It was his success in Boston that sent his career path west to Kansas City, where he experienced a wide range of success and failure. As he comes to the Vikings, he does so in a familiar, yet new position – backup quarterback.
Cassel was quick to assure that he will be ready when and if the call comes – as the playoff game in January would confirm there is a need – in Minnesota, just as he did when Brady’s leg buckled and his 2008 ended in an instant.
But Cassel knows his current role is to be the best man standing next to the groom – smiling for the camera as a secondary player. Yet, quarterbacks have egos. That’s what makes a quarterback who he is. Cassel wants to start, but he realizes that, as things currently stand, he is Plan B. He’s been there before. He knows the routine. He’s ready when called on, understands the situation and believes he and Ponder can not only coexist, but thrive and make each other better.
“From my point of view, you’re always working together,” Cassel said. “A lot of people don’t understand the amount of time people spend together, especially in the quarterback room. You have to have a room that cares about each other, that’s willing to work together and do whatever we can to make the team better. My position is to help Christian wherever I can and, at the same time, push him to be the best he can be and he has to do the same on his end. It will be a fun year because we can work together.”
Of all the distractions of moving from one organization to the other, the most important to Cassel isn’t professionally based. It’s personal. In a month, he’s going to be a dad for the third time and the most difficult part of the process of going to a new team wasn’t putting his aspirations as a starter on hold, but having to pull his family from its life to follow him to a new city.
“The toughest part for me was uprooting my family,” Cassel said. “My wife is 34 weeks pregnant with our third child. It’s a busy time for us, but, then again, it’s an exciting time because change is always good. We don’t know what we’re going to have – we always wait to find out – but it’s definitely going to be a blessing.”
Leave it to a veteran who knows his role and make sure his child is born in the offseason.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.