Does Matt Cassel Deserve Another Starting Quarterback Gig?
Just days after the completion of the Super Bowl, talk has already shifted to offseason moves. And one player making headlines on this day is Matt Cassel.
The Vikings’ passer, most known for his play when quarterback Tom Brady tore his ACL in 2008, has reportedly voided his contract with Minnesota, becoming a free agent.
Because he left money (over $3 million according to Rotoworld.com) on the table for the 2014 season, it seems as though he thinks he can get more, potentially landing a starting spot on an NFL roster – at the very least, a spot where he can compete. Naturally, that makes me wonder if that can happen.
So let’s take a look at the now ex-Vikings’ passer to see how good he’s really been, and whether or not he deserves to start for a different NFL team in a quarterback-hungry league.
Cassel the Passer
First and foremost, we should be aware that Cassel was clearly the best passer on the Vikings this year. He ended the season with a 3.33 Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) score, which was about 17 points higher than Christian Ponder, and a million (actually, like 44 points) better than Josh Freeman. Freeman’s numbers mostly come from Tampa Bay though, to be fair.
Moreover, Cassel’s 44.07% Success Rate was best on the team, about half a percentage point ahead of Ponder. This number represents the proportion of passes that contribute positively for a player’s Net Expected Points. Though the best on the Vikings, it was actually a little below average compared to the rest of the league.
But while Cassel was the best guy under center for the Vikes in 2013, that hasn’t always been the case throughout his career.
Since 2008, when he first got a real shot in the NFL, Cassel has had no season with fewer than 270 drop backs (which, I should note, happened in 2013). It’s a relatively good sample size by season, so you'd hope to get a good idea of what kind of passer he is, but Cassel’s erratic play shows no real story.
For instance, things were great in 2008 when he took over for Brady, accumulating an 80.71 Passing NEP total, adding 0.14 points for the Patriots with each drop back. That season, you could have considered Cassel as a top-10 quarterback.
But his play completely flipped when he moved to Kansas City the following season, as his Passing NEP was a dreadful -57.06. That score was only better than Mark Sanchez and JaMarcus Russell. Yikes.
In 2010 though, Cassel turned things around, putting together a season with a 27-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio, good for a 60.81 Passing NEP score. While it wasn’t as good as his New England season, the 117 Passing NEP change from one season to the next was one of the biggest shifts we’ve ever seen through the years. Much of this could have been due to the Chiefs moving to Charlie Weis as offensive coordinator, as head coach Todd Haley had those duties (along with being head coach) in 2009.
Had Cassel played above expectation in 2011, I think we’d be having a different discussion than we are today. But he was dreadful once again after his solid campaign, perhaps due to the departure of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. Cassel put together a Passing NEP total of -17.66, a bottom-third score at the quarterback position. That's while only playing nine games, too. In other words, his cumulative Passing NEP total could’ve been a lot worse for the Chiefs’ passer.
It was the same story the next season, as Cassel played nine games, throwing an interception in all but one of them.
Relying on the Ground Game
In all, Cassel’s had two well above average seasons, and three really, really bad ones. Why? Well, it may not be shocking, but in those two seasons, Cassel’s team ranked in the top 10 in Adjusted Rushing Net Expected Points (team rushing efficiency adjusted for strength of schedule) – Cassel’s teams were among the best in the league at running the football. In 2008, New England ranked second. In 2010, Kansas City ranked ninth. And in that 2010 season, the Chiefs had a pass-to-run ratio that was less 0.91, the lowest mark in the league. To put this another way, when Cassel has help and isn't needed, he's fine.
Cassel saw moderate success this year too, as it was the only season where he didn’t hit an extreme. Again though, the Vikings ran the ball better than anyone in the league outside of Philadelphia. He had help.
Matt Cassel needs a running game and a balanced offense to succeed. This probably isn’t news to anyone, and you could more than likely make this type of argument for any clear mediocre passer in the league. But that’s telling for us as we move into the next section.
Should Teams Give Him a Chance as a Starter?
The problem with Cassel’s situation is that folks may start pointing to how Alex Smith “turned the Chiefs franchise around this year”, coming from free agency. While Smith was better than what I personally expected, let’s not overstate what he did for the franchise and team. He was still just the 18th-best passer according to our metrics, playing worse than guys like Andy Dalton and Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Not only that, but Smith benefitted from having an MVP-caliber running back, playing on a team that ranked fifth in rushing effectiveness when adjusted for strength of schedule. And the Chiefs defense was beastly throughout the season as well.
The only reason I bring this example up is because free agent quarterbacks aren’t always a stellar idea (keep this in mind, Cleveland fans). And don’t use Alex Smith as an example, because he had plenty of help.
Also, I'm only speaking to giving Cassel a chance as a starter here. I understand the allure in getting some insurance for your starting quarterback, signing a guy who's proven to be one of the top backups in the league. But I'm worried about whether or not he can actually be a starter, producing like he did (which was actually pretty good) in 2008 and 2010.
And unfortunately for any Cassel backer (Do these people exist? Is there an ILoveMattCassel.com?), I'm not sure he's even a good candidate to be a placeholder for a team. Remember, he needs a solid ground game to really succeed in his game-managing ways, and fans and analysts are talking about teams like the Cardinals, Buccaneers, Browns and Texans as possible landing spots for him. While he could probably compete on any of those teams (aside from maybe Arizona), competing and performing well are two very different things. None of those squads ranked in the top half in rushing efficiency last season, either.
If we're limiting the search to teams who can effectively run the football while in need of a quarterback, you could look at Tennessee, a team who ranked sixth in the league a season ago. Much of that had to do with their athletic quarterbacks though, and the Titans would more than likely be better off with their average signal-calling platoon than bringing in another one to form the most mediocre three-headed monster at quarterback imaginable.
Really, the best spot for Matt Cassel is Minnesota. A solid ground game will allow him to potentially play as he did in 2008 and 2010 (and, to a less extent, 2013). And while it's unlikely he's a player who can lead a team deep into the playoffs, he could at least be a short-term solution for a team in a rebuilding mode under a new coaching regime.
Cassel will test the market, but it would be best for him to try and stay in Minnesota, even if the Vikings draft a quarterback early during the NFL Draft.