Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Answering the ongoing Matt Cassel question

Since it was learned that New England’s Tom Brady was done for the season and Matt Cassel would be taking over the quarterbacking duties, I’ve been bombarded by an ongoing question, and I’ll try my best to answer it again.


When Matt Cassel arrived, USC was hardly the quarterback factory it is now. It was still a place known for hosting the nation’s top tailbacks, living up to the “tailback U” moniker. Though there were some former Trojan QBs that played at the next level, such as Pat Haden and Rodney Peete, the numbers were few and the program wasn’t inviting to top prospects of the position.

Cassel was a prep-100 all American quarterback in high school, and redshirted his first Trojan year in 2000. USC football was run by Paul Hackett and his staff, and it was their system he would learn. By 2001 Pete Carroll and Norm Chow took over, and Carson Palmer was chosen to lead the offense. Cassel was relegated to two years of clean up duty behind Palmer, and thought to be his eventual successor.

In 2003, despite having a field presence the year prior, Cassel was skipped over in the spring by the inexperienced Matt Leinart. Norm doesn’t choose the quarterback with the better physical package. He makes his choice based on which candidate learns the system the fastest. This is still evident as he coaches at UCLA, with Ben Olsen always being considered the starter in previous years, but Chow naming Patrick Cowen the starter this fall. Even at USC today, the reason Mark Sanchez received the nod over Mitch Mustain is because of his knowledge of the system. It’s that same grading scale that contributed to Mustain’s drop in rank that places him now in the third slot behind Aaron Corp. Can Mustain never start a game at USC and still get drafted? Of course he can.

New England’s coaches and scouts were so impressed with the upside of Cassel that they drafted him in the 7th round of the 2005 draft, rather than him becoming an undrafted free agent that could freely audition for several NFL teams. That same draft saw Oklahoma’s Heisman winning QB Jason White go undrafted. It’s role reversal. Cassel never started a game in his collegiate career, and the Heisman winning White never started or played a single game in the NFL.

The average fan will give too much focus on roster positions of amateurs. Position on a depth chart is sometimes a reflection of the talent on one team at a single position. USC currently has 5 running backs on their roster that can easily start for most teams in the nation. College football's home viewers probably couldn’t name more than 2 of them, but NFL scouts already know the physical dimensions of each. Besides, it’s not like Cassel is the first guy to play in the NFL without starting in college. Until Antonio Gates became a pass catching tight end for the San Diego Chargers, his last football game was in high school, opting not to play at all in college.

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