Seattle - His growing pains mirrored the progress of his team.
A career backup in college and the NFL, Matt Cassel used an impressive, season-long performance with New England in 2008 as replacement for injured Tom Brady to earn leverage for a lucrative, $63 million deal with Kansas City.
But in his first season with the Chiefs last year, Cassel failed to live up to the expectations that come with a huge contract, throwing 16 interceptions as Kansas City struggled to a 4-12 record.
What a difference a year makes. The Chiefs, AFC West doormats for years, are leading the division at 6-4 and are in line to earn their first playoff berth since 2006. And the play of a resilient Cassel has been key to the team’s success. The 28-year-old has thrown for 2,074 yards, 18 touchdowns and four interceptions, and has a passer rating of 96.2 heading into today’s contest in Seattle.
“Matt works really hard,” Kansas City coach Todd Haley said. “He’s very hungry to learn and he wants to be a great quarterback, and when you have that combination of characteristics plus a big guy that’s athletic that can throw the football and throw it accurately, then you have a chance to have something, and he’s making progress daily.”
Cassel’s careful but productive play is one of the reasons for the Chiefs’ league-low seven turnovers this season.
“It’s something that’s been imprinted and impressed upon us throughout the entire year,” Cassel said about limiting turnovers. “We take great pride in it and hopefully that continues.”
Of course, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is familiar with Cassel, who was a sophomore when Carroll became coach at USC.
Cassel lost out in a quarterback competition with Matt Leinart, but ultimately his experience under Carroll with the Trojans paved the way for his successful pro career. The Patriots selected the 6-foot-4, 230 pounder in the seventh round of the 2005 draft.
“(The way) he organized his practices, the mentality that he had, it prepared me for the NFL,” Cassel said. “Even when I got to New England, my first few days there it wasn’t like I was a wide-eyed rookie. A lot of the drills that we were doing were very similar to what coach (Carroll) had already done with us at USC. So I felt very prepared going in.”
Carroll said he’s proud to be facing another one of his former pupils in Cassel.
“It’s a marvelous statement about the kid, who he is, never giving up and being a tough competitor and all of that,” Carroll said. “So for us to be going head-to-head, it’s really an exciting thought for me to see him.”
Cassel has been buoyed by his team’s running game. Kansas City is averaging a league-leading 164.7 rushing yards per game. Jamaal Charles is seventh in the league in rushing with 848 yards and two touchdowns, while Thomas Jones is 17th in rushing with 644 yards and five scores.
“Thomas Jones uses that jump cut and can make you miss,” said Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. “Charles has 10.1 speed, and Dexter McCluster, when he gets back there he’s fast. So you’re dealing with a wide variety of skill players there, and they all have different attributes that they bring.”
Seattle succeeded in stopping the run early this season, but things changed when defensive end Red Bryant and nose guard Colin Cole went down in the same game. Bryant was placed on the season-ending injured reserve after MCL surgery and Cole has been out with a high ankle sprain.
With those two gone, the Seahawks have given up an average of 147 yards a game on the ground.
“Our run defense was based on those two guys being in it,” said Seattle linebacker Lofa Tatupu. “And the guys that have filled in, they’ve filled in admirably. But the time we were able to spend with those two and getting a feel for how they play. We’re still kind of going through some speed bumps with how the coaches want this scheme ran with all these different faces.”
One of the new faces is Junior Siavii, who is starting at nose tackle for Cole. The University of Oregon product said there should be no excuses for Seattle not succeeding on the line of scrimmage.
“I think just going out there on the field and playing football the way we’re used to playing, and the way we need to play, will answer a lot of questions,” Siavii said. “With everybody talking about we need to prove a point, we need to play like we’re capable of playing – that’s it.”
KANSAS CITY (6-4) AT SEATTLE (5-5)
Kickoff: 1:05 p.m., Qwest Field
TV: Ch. 7. Radio: 1240-AM, 710-AM, 97.3-FM.
The series: The Seahawks face their former AFC West rival Kansas City during the regular season for the first time since 2006, a 35-28 win on Oct. 29 for Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. This will be the 50th meeting between the two teams, with Kansas City holding a 31-18 advantage. Seattle won the last regular-season meeting in Seattle, a 39-22 victory on Nov. 24, 2002.
What to watch: Wide receiver Mike Williams has a strained left foot and will be a game-time decision. Williams wore a protective boot and did not practice the entire week. He’s listed as questionable heading into today’s contest. If Williams can’t go, Deon Butler likely will get the start opposite Ben Obomanu. Seattle will start its eighth different starting offensive line combination, with Mike Gibson getting his third start of the season for Chester Pitts, who is out with an ankle injury. Defensive tackle Junior Siavii is facing his former team in Kansas City. The Chiefs took him in the second round of the 2004 draft out of Oregon.
The pick: Hawks, 24-21.
Eric D. Williams, staff writer
No. Name (position) Ht.Wt.Year
20 Justin Forsett (RB) 5-81983rd
Needs to play big if Seattle’s running game is to produce.
87 Ben Obomanu (WR) 6-02045th
Needs to pick up the slack if Mike Williams does not play.
91 Chris Clemons (DE) 6-32547th
He's the Hawks' best chance to get pressure on Matt Cassel.
51 Lofa Tatupu (LB) 6-02506th
Defensive captain is leader in stopping run game.
No. Name (position) Ht.Wt.Year
20 Thomas Jones (RB) 5-1021211th
One of the few players on the team with playoff experience.
82 Dwayne Bowe (WR) 6-22204th
An explosive playmaker with 11 touchdown receptions.
29 Eric Berry (FS) 6-02111st
Rangy playmaker similar to Seattle’s Earl Thomas.
34 Travis Daniels (CB) 6-11956th
Likely replacement for team’s top corner Brandon Flowers, who is out with a hamstring injury.
Eric D. Williams, Staff writer