Matt Cassel spent his college days backing up Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart at USC, and his first three seasons in the NFL backing up Tom Brady.
But Cassel has never been satisfied being a “Clipboard Quarterback,” even if that dubious title fit him in the past.
Cassel has always approached the game as a starter, believing he could play at the highest level if given the opportunity.
As his former teammate Brian Waters said, “Matt isn’t the type of guy who wants to stay on the team and hold clipboards. He’s got a boulder of a chip on his shoulder. If he’s going to be playing football, it’s not his personality to be a clipboard guy. He’s always wanted to be the main guy and this is a great opportunity for him to do that.”
Waters is referring to Cassel’s latest opportunity in becoming the Dallas Cowboys’ starting quarterback.
The Cowboys acquired Cassel in a trade with Buffalo last month and named him starting quarterback following a three-game losing streak with Brandon Weeden at the helm.
The 33-year-old Cassel makes his Cowboys’ debut Sunday against the New York Giants at the Meadowlands and is expected to have that role for at least four games until Tony Romo has recovered from a broken left collarbone.
Matt is the perfect guy for this situation, and he’s going to give the Cowboys everything he has. He brings a lot of energy and ... he’s had a chip on his shoulder since high school and college playing behind bigger-name players. He’s kind of built for this situation.
Former All-Pro offensive lineman Brian Waters, a teammate of Matt Cassel with the Chiefs
The Cowboys hope Cassel fills in admirably for a franchise quarterback once again. He did so seven years ago when Brady went down in the 2008 season opener, and Cassel led the Patriots to a 10-5 record over the final 15 games.
The Cowboys would likely be happy if they could go 2-2 with Cassel until Romo returns.
“Matt is the perfect guy for this situation, and he’s going to give the Cowboys everything he has,” Waters said. “He brings a lot of energy and, like I said, he’s had a chip on his shoulder since high school and college playing behind bigger-name players. He’s kind of built for this situation.”
The Cowboys like how much experience Cassel brings to the table.
After his successful substitute job in New England, Cassel parlayed that into a multiyear deal to become the Kansas City Chiefs’ starting quarterback, a four-year tenure highlighted by a 10-win season and Pro Bowl appearance in 2010.
Matt Cassel played behind Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart at Southern Cal, then backed up future Hall of Famer Tom Brady in New England
Cassel threw 27 touchdowns to only seven interceptions that season, and gained much respect throughout the locker room by missing only one game after undergoing laparoscopic surgery to remove his appendix.
“We never underestimated his ability,” said Charlie Weis, the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator in 2010. “He spent a lot of time running play-action and he was very productive with that and made very few mistakes.
“Matt’s going to show up [for the Cowboys] and he’ll know what to do. We all know Tony is the guy in Dallas. Matt knows that, you know that, I know that … but they’re in a situation where they need someone to get them to a healthy Tony. No disrespect to Weeden because I don’t know him very well, but I think Matt has a chance to get you there.”
It all goes back to Cassel and how he approaches the game as though he is a starter.
His time in Kansas City ended with him going 1-7 to start the 2012 season, and eventually being benched. Since then, Cassel has been determined to re-establish himself as a starter.
He had multiple offers after the 2012 season but took less money to go to the Minnesota Vikings because he felt he had a better chance to start there. Cassel ended up making nine starts over two seasons, and then was traded to Buffalo.
“I think the world of Matt Cassel,” said Vikings defensive end Brian Robison, another former teammate. “He’s a better quarterback than people give him credit for. With him getting his opportunity in Dallas, hopefully he’ll make the best of it.”
Cassel intends to do just that after falling short in a three-way competition for the Bills’ starting job in training camp. He still believes he can start in this league.
You have to [carry yourself as a starter]. I think that’s why I had longevity in this league is that if you perceive yourself as somebody who’s just in a backup role and happy to be there, then I don’t think you ever strive to get better, you know? You always have to push yourself.
Cassel’s approach to the game explains why a seventh-round draft pick has lasted 11 years in the league and banked almost $60 million. It’s also why the Cowboys are putting their faith in him to right the ship.
“There’s no question that he has a presence and a confidence about him that’s a positive thing,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “Quarterbacks need to have that. The energy that they have pervades the whole offense and pervades the whole football team.”
Added Cassel: “You have to [carry yourself as a starter]. I think that’s why I had longevity in this league is that if you perceive yourself as somebody who’s just in a backup role and happy to be there, then I don’t think you ever strive to get better, you know? You always have to push yourself.”
It’s paid off for Cassel throughout his career and he’s now set to get a coveted chance with the Cowboys, a team in desperate need of better quarterback play to keep its championship dreams alive.
The offense has stalled without Romo. However, it’s unfair to expect Cassel to be the team’s savior. Since leading the Chiefs to their 10-win season in 2010, Cassel is 9-17 as a starter and has thrown more interceptions (34) than touchdown passes (30).
Weeden hasn’t won a game dating to his 2012 rookie season and didn’t take many chances down the field in his three starts with the Cowboys.
“We’re just excited for his opportunity,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “Obviously, the quarterback is a big piece to that and he’s worked really hard to this point as you would expect, but probably a lot harder than you would think to get himself ready. The extra time and hours he’s put in even prior to last week to get himself ready, which is a great opportunity for us. It’s going to be fun. We’re excited as a football team.”
Cassel appears to have given the Cowboys new life and renewed expectations.
“I don’t think we’ve got to worry about anything that happened in the past so far,” Cassel said. “We’ve got to go out and we’ve got a big-time division rival that is coming up and hopefully we can go out there and get a win, because that puts us right back in the driver’s seat in the division. I think that’s all our focus should be on.”
Cowboys at Giants
3:25 p.m. Sunday
TV/Radio: KDFW/4, KRLD/105.3 FM, KMVK/107.5 FM (Spanish)
The line: NYG by 3 1/2
The Cowboys have won seven consecutive division road games, tied for the most by any team in NFC East history (since 1970):