Jumping the Shark: Matt Cassel to the Bills Is a Bad Rerun

Matt Cassel will not get Buffalo to the promised land, but he will cost the panicking Bills a mid-round draft pick.

I’ve noticed a bad habit in my media choosing recently: with the series finale of Parks and Recreation, having finished 30 Rock, and other various TV shows, I have tended to prefer to rewatch things instead of finding new ones. Instead of turning on the radio, I’ll relisten to old podcasts. Instead of streaming a new movie, it’s popping in Animal House.

It’s a tendency toward familiarity, security, and, quite honestly, mediocrity.

Now, I’m not saying that Friday Night Lights is mediocre, but I’m saying that watching it for the ninth go all the way through isn’t new, and doesn’t add anything to my experience. Popping in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou for the first time, however, definitely adds something. I’m not sure exactly what, but it was definitely something.

This is the same problem I have with the trade that sent Matt Cassel to the Buffalo Bills yesterday. Much like my previous write-up on new Bills head coach Rex Ryan, I think this smacks of serious desperation for relevance, and confusing certainty of outcome with reliability. Rex is a head coach who likes being comfortable more than he likes potential, and that is where this trade falls dangerously short for the Bills. Cassel is not a player who will elevate the Bills’ offense. I won’t make any ifs, ands, or buts about it: this is a bad trade for Buffalo.

The Smoke (And Mirrors) Monster

Let’s start with Matt Cassel himself at this point. Cassel, the Patriots’ seventh-round selection (230th overall) in the 2005 NFL Draft, has spent time all over the league. His first four years were spent with the New England Patriots, during which period he became very well-acquainted with the bench as Tom Brady’s backup. That is, however, until then-Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard tore apart Brady’s ACL in Week 1 of 2008. Cassel stepped in and stepped up, throwing 21 touchdown passes to 11 interceptions the rest of the way, as well as eclipsing 3,500 yards passing.

A free agent the next offseason, he was assigned the franchise tag by the Patriots and subsequently traded to the Kansas City Chiefs. He played in KC for four seasons as well –- two as the starter –- only once approaching his 2008 numbers: in 2010, he threw 27 touchdown passes and just 7 interceptions, with an additional 3,116 yards passing. Since then, injuries and ineffectiveness have seen him play no more than nine games a season, and run him both out of Kansas City and Minnesota.

By the box score, he did have two very good seasons as a starting quarterback in his three full years doing so. Some would argue that injuries have derailed a promising career. But is that true? We turn to our numberFire signature metric –- Net Expected Points (NEP) –- to find out. NEP is a way to add context to football stats. By factoring in down-and-distance to any given play, we begin to see just how much each play –- and each player –- affected a team’s chances of scoring. We get a better sense of their true value on the field.

The table below shows Cassel’s career in terms of Passing NEP, a facet of NEP that looks solely at expected points gained or lost on all drop backs by a quarterback, and his annual ranks in each category. How good was Cassel, really?

YearPassesPass NEP (Rank)Pass NEP/P (Rank)
200525-1.46 (38th)-0.30 (37th)
200611-3.26 (45th)42.69 (52nd)
20077-4.31 (45th)-0.62 (77th)
200856480.71 (9th)0.14 (15th)
2009537-57.06 (73rd)-0.11 (41st)
201047660.81 (10th)0.13 (17th)
2011291-17.66 (59th)-0.06 (40th)
2012295-26.35 (64th)-0.09 (47th)
20132703.33 (29th)0.01 (31st)
201478-7.02 (54th)-0.09 (49th)

Cassel has had two top-10 quarterback seasons in his time in the league, 2008 and 2010, the same years his box score stats look at all acceptable. However, in his other full year as a starter (2009), he was absolutely atrocious by NEP standards, ranking 73rd among all quarterbacks in the metric. His efficiency on a per-play basis that year wasn’t nearly as poor, putting him more in the middle-of-the-pack, but every other year in the league has shown his efficiency to be lower than his raw Passing NEP numbers, indicating that there may simply be a level of volume value he does well with.

Even worse, his efficiency in each year –- excepting his two top-10 seasons -– has hovered around the 35th to 50th ranked range. Those two years put in context look much more like flukes than his true production derailed by injury. He is not, nor has he ever really been, a particularly good quarterback, yet he continues to be given shots in the league. Why is this?

A Real Hiro

The greater context of this trade is a fear of EJ Manuel, the Bills’ 2012 first-round pick, who was never given a chance to develop by deposed head coach Doug Marrone. Manuel seems destined for the NFL scrapheap after just one season and change as a starter because of Cassel’s perceived surety at the position. This is fairly true -- I think we all know what Matt Cassel will give the Bills, and we’re not sure yet of what Manuel will. That's exactly why Manuel should be given the job over Cassel, and I’ll show you why.

Coming out soon for numberFire is my analysis of the draft value of the quarterback position, similar to the running back article I did last year on the same topic. In this, I look at a round-by-round value assessment on drafting a quarterback. The point to this? Matt Cassel was a seventh-round draft selection that had two lucky years. EJ Manuel was a first-round pick who hasn’t gotten much of a chance. What are the odds of players in each of these draft slots of panning out?

The table below is the result of compiling the NEP from every quarterback drafted in the first and seventh rounds of the draft since 2000, and mapping out their NFL careers. It shows the average career length, average number of years at replacement level (64th-best quarterback, qualified to be on an NFL roster), and average number of elite years (top-five in the league). What do we find?

RoundAvg. CareerAvg. R-LevelAvg. E-Level

We can somewhat ignore the career length number in regards to Cassel, as he’s already passed that, but the numbers give us an interesting picture of the likelihood of a pick in each round to really be worth spending an NFL roster spot on them. A first-round pick is more than 2.5 times more likely than a seventh-rounder to be able to cut it in the league. They’re more than 30 times more likely to put up elite numbers in a season!

This isn’t to say that Manuel is a lock, but he has a much higher potential than Cassel; great players at the quarterback position –- in this day and age of scouting systems and analytics -– just don’t often slip through to the 230th overall selection in the draft.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m a head coach, I want to know what I have in my team. Starting Cassel caps this team because of Cassel’s capped ability. I want elite potential in my offense.

Buffy’s Back… Again

For every great television program that gets canceled far too soon (e.g. Firefly), there are another thirty that get continued for far too long (e.g. Heroes); “The Jim Harbaugh Show” lands in the former category, “Sexy Rexy’s Flexing Sessions” squarely in the latter. This Matt Cassel deal is simply another episode in the once-exciting tale of an AFC maverick that flouted the system and played by his own rules. We’ve already seen that maverick’s tragic downfall, though, and now the producers have brought him back from the dead, so we have to pretend to keep being entertained.

Is EJ Manuel a great quarterback in the making? Probably not. Not many in history are. He’s certainly a better bet than Matt Cassel, though, especially when you’re benching a mid-first-rounder for a seventh-round, multiple flame-out talent. That’s bad coaching and bad business.