Is Matt Cassel a one-year wonder?
A year ago at this time, nobody knew who Matt Cassel was, and if they did, surely they thought this was a player who wasn't going to matter in fantasy football. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was coming off arguably the greatest season ever at that position, having fired 50 touchdown passes, and with durability and consistency being among his strengths, most fantasy football owners couldn't even have named his backup. Of course, mere minutes into the 2008 season, everyone was forced to become aware of who this Cassel guy was.
That turned out to be a pretty good thing, when Cassel emerged from years -- and we do mean years -- of backup status in the NFL and college to throw for nearly 3,700 yards and 21 touchdowns. Sure, some of Cassel's success can be attributed to the system that Brady thrived in so well, and to having top-notch wide receiver threats, but that shouldn't automatically mean Cassel was a fluke.
Brady has a new backup now, because Cassel's good luck continued into the offseason; first the Patriots bestowed their franchise tag on him, then they traded him to the Kansas City Chiefs along with linebacker Mike Vrabel for a second-round draft choice. Upon joining the Chiefs, Cassel signed a six-year contract that will pay him in excess of $10 million per season. Talk about a stunning turn of events for Cassel in less than a calendar year!
While fantasy owners certainly appear to have reservations about Cassel being able to find the same success away from New England, it's pretty clear his new employers are not worried. In fact, possibly the biggest reason why Cassel is on the Chiefs is because former Patriots general manager Scott Pioli, the same person who drafted him in the seventh round in 2005, left the Patriots for the Chiefs this offseason. The Chiefs needed a quarterback for the future, and Pioli brought his guy with him.
While the Chiefs made a bold move, fantasy owners are going to be a lot more difficult to convince. Cassel was thrust into the starting role in New England not by the team's choice, after all. Brady, himself a late-round draft pick with few expectations, tore up his knee, and Cassel was the team's backup. Cassel played well enough that first week to convince the Patriots not only that he was the right guy for the job, but that the playbook didn't need to be totally rewritten. It took Cassel a few weeks, but in Week 5 he delivered a 10-point fantasy effort, threw three touchdown passes against the Broncos in Week 7, and became a fantasy hero of sorts for consecutive 400-yard passing games -- and 69 total fantasy points -- in Weeks 11 and 12. Cassel ended up with the eighth-most passing yards in the league, and was tied for seventh in fantasy points with Donovan McNabb. Considering he was a free agent in fantasy leagues, he performed well.
Of course, Kansas City is many miles away from New England, not only on the map, but in terms of recent history, personnel (especially on the offensive line); you name it. The good thing for Cassel is that the new Chiefs head coach likes to move the ball through the air. Todd Haley ran the Arizona Cardinals' offense and Kurt Warner executed the game plan to perfection, resulting in a trip to the Super Bowl. Cassel will get his chance to prove he's capable of a big offensive season, more like Brady and Warner than people think, though that's an unfair comparison.
Look for the Chiefs to invoke a quick-strike passing game, similar to the one Warner thrived with. Cassel certainly has flaws, among them his failure to avoid sacks and his deficiency in throwing a consistent and accurate deep ball. However, he might be able to put up strong fantasy numbers based on a few other factors, namely the offense being suited to his strengths, the running game being a concern and the team's defense being awful, creating more high-scoring affairs. Remember, we're talking fantasy football here: The Chiefs don't appear to be playoff-bound anytime soon, but if they can score a lot of points fantasy owners will be pleased with Cassel's production. Aaron Rodgers was the No. 2 fantasy quarterback in 2008, and his Packers were 6-10.
Cassel will quickly find this is not the same offense he enjoyed in New England. Dwayne Bowe is expected to emerge as a major statistical talent, but he's still never done it before, and he's going to have to deal with more double-teams than ever. Larry Johnson is going to have to at least be a threat in the running game, and Mark Bradley and Bobby Engram will need to take pressure off Bowe. Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez was traded to the Atlanta Falcons, leaving a huge void at tight end. And the offensive line in New England is worlds better than what Cassel will deal with in 2009. Cassel is certainly mobile and can create defensive problems as a runner, but he's going to have to cut down on the 47 sacks, most in the league.
Ultimately, there will be many watching how Cassel performs in 2009, and beyond. The Patriots are taking a chance that Brady is healthy and will stay that way for a few more years. The Chiefs are taking a bigger chance, investing millions of dollars in a player who has one year of legitimate playing time under his belt. It is a risk. Fantasy owners don't need to take the same risk with Cassel as their top guy, but he's certainly worthy of backup status after the top 12 quarterbacks come off the board, and he could really surprise people, yet again.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy football. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.