KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Matt Cassel grips the sides of the podium, peering out across the Kansas City Chiefs' small interview room, and acknowledges what everyone is thinking.
The Chiefs are struggling in a big way. High-profile players Eric Berry and Jamaal Charles are gone for the year after devastating injuries. The offense has been terrible, and as the quarterback for a floundering franchise, much of the blame rests on Cassel's shoulders.
"If you play the quarterback position on any team," he said, "you feel the pressure week in and week out, with players and even if you lose some players."
Yes, the Chiefs have certainly lost some great players, but they're losing games just as fast. And far more than touchdown-to-interception ratios, yards passing or other more obscure statistics, wins and losses are the most black-and-white scale upon which a quarterback's success is judged.
Want proof? Cassel is the perfect example.
After spending his entire college career at Southern Cal as a backup, and his first three years in the NFL behind Tom Brady, Cassel finally got his chance in the opener of the 2008 season when the New England Patriots' megastar went down with a season-ending knee injury. Cassel stepped in and led them to a 10-5 record in games he started the rest of the way.
That success is perhaps the biggest reason general manager Scott Pioli, a former Patriots exec, went after Cassel to become the franchise quarterback in Kansas City.
It looked like a brilliant move last season. Under the tutelage of then-offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, Cassel flourished in a Chiefs offense built for his success. Kansas City ran the ball at will and threw just enough to keep opponents off balance, and Cassel wound up going 10-5 in the games he started during the regular season, leading his team to a surprise AFC West title.
Weis is gone now, though, and the Chiefs haven't been able to cover up Cassel's shortcomings in two lopsided losses to open the year. His relatively weak arm has been exposed, he's already thrown four interceptions, and a number of sacks have left him battered and bruised.
"The first few games last year, and I went back and did a bunch of review also, there were some plays that could have been worse plays," Chiefs coach Todd Haley said, downplaying his QB's considerable success a year ago. "May have been some good fortune involved, which is part of the game. The ball isn't round. It can bounce a bunch of different it ways.
"Much like me as the head coach, he's responsible for the offense, I'm responsible for the team, and we all have to be better," Haley said.
Wide receiver Jerheme Urban said the Chiefs haven't lost faith in Cassel, nor in each other. But he too acknowledged that people need to start stepping up, beginning Sunday at San Diego.
"Our job is to protect the ball and try to get it through the end zone or kick it through the uprights, and we haven't been successful in doing that," he said. "We have to keep focusing on the little things, trust our coaches to keep putting us in good situations, and we as players have to start making plays."
That rings especially true for Cassel. He understands that his role as the quarterback is the most visible on the field, and that his success or failure is tied closely to that of the team.
He also knows that a normally resolute fan base is growing anxious by the day.
Already, there is a "Suck for Luck" movement afoot in Kansas City in which some fans are encouraging others to openly root for opposing teams. If the Chiefs wind up with the worst record in the NFL, then the overall No. 1 pick in the draft is theirs, of course, and the Chiefs could select Stanford's Andrew Luck, considered by many scouts the closest thing to a surefire franchise quarterback.
If that were to transpire, Cassel would either find himself tutoring his obvious heir next season, or he'd be out of a starting job altogether. Neither option sounds good to him.
"With any football team, you have to have a short memory, and you have to keep pushing forward, and that's what this group is doing," Cassel said. "You can see it when these guys come in Monday and Tuesday, that we're trying to do everything within our power to put those two losses behind us and move forward, and I think everybody is doing a great job with that.
"We just have to get on track, and it starts with this week."
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