The 2005 NFL Draft will be forever defined by two quarterbacks: Alex Smith, taken first overall by San Francisco, and Aaron Rodgers, selected 24th by Green Bay.
Rodgers led the Packers to a Super Bowl title in 2010 and was the league’s MVP in 2011, when he guided Green Bay to a 15-1 record. Smith sparked the 49ers to the NFC championship game last year.
Delve deeper into that draft, and you’ll find two quarterbacks taken in the seventh round. Matt Cassel was drafted by the New England Patriots with the 230th selection, and Ryan Fitzpatrick went 250th — five spots from Mr. Irrelevant status — to the St. Louis Rams.
Neither Cassel nor Fitzpatrick is with the team that selected him. New England dealt Cassel to the Chiefs in 2009. St. Louis traded Fitzpatrick to Cincinnati, and he signed with Buffalo as a free agent in 2009.
Cassel and Fitzpatrick meet at noon Sunday as quarterbacks at a crossroads when the Chiefs visit the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Both were wildly inconsistent in their teams’ season-opening losses last week and face almost must-win situations, not only to avoid 0-2 starts but to keep their teams from getting buried in the standings before the end of September. Just check their upcoming schedules.
Cassel completed 10 of 12 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown in the first half but threw two interceptions and lost a fumble in the second half of the Chiefs’ 40-24 loss to Atlanta. He finished with a 72.5 passer rating.
Fitzpatrick was even worse in the Bills’ 48-28 road loss to the New York Jets. He was intercepted on Buffalo’s first two possessions, and a third interception was returned for a touchdown. Fitzpatrick’s rating was 66.5.
Cassel, who missed the last seven games of 2011 because of a broken hand, has lost his last three starts dating to last season and is 14-17 as the Chiefs’ starting quarterback.
Fitzpatrick, who threw four touchdown passes in leading the Bills to a 41-7 season-opening win over the Chiefs last year, is 2-9 since signing a six-year contract extension worth about $59 million last October. He has thrown 15 touchdown passes and 20 interceptions in those 11 games.
Fans are losing patience with both quarterbacks. Neither franchise has been a factor in the postseason for nearly two decades. The Chiefs haven’t won a playoff game since the 1993 season, while the Bills haven’t been to the playoffs since 1999 and haven’t won a playoff game since 1995.
Can Cassel deliver a division championship in an AFC West filled with former first-round picks Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers and Carson Palmer? Can Fitzpatrick win an AFC East that includes two first-round picks in the Jets’ Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow, as well as New England’s Tom Brady, a sixth-round pick but a once-in-a-generation exception to every rule about quarterback pedigrees?
“We spend so much time talking about what a quarterback-driven league this is,” said NFL Network and NBC Sports analyst Mike Mayock. “And when I look at this league, there are 32 teams and I see seven franchise quarterbacks today. I see another four or five beyond that who I would take in a heartbeat, that either because of injury or not being with the right team or whatever, aren’t quite there yet but could be franchise quarterbacks.
“And then, after that, there is a group of four or five quarterbacks, of which Cassel and Fitzpatrick fit in, where I look at them and say, ‘If you can complement them with the run game and a defense and special teams, they’re capable of winning enough games to be a playoff quarterback.’ But they’re not going to be Tom Brady or Peyton Manning and stay at the line of scrimmage in a no-huddle and will their team to victory because of their talent.
“Both those guys are good enough to get in the playoffs, but you have to surround them with some pretty good people.”
Cassel led the Chiefs to a 10-6 record and the AFC West title in 2010 when all the stars aligned. The Chiefs took advantage of a favorable schedule, were remarkably injury-free and benefited from special-teams gaffes that cost San Diego several games, including the season opener at Arrowhead Stadium.
Former NFL quarterback Phil Simms, who was a first-round draft pick and a Super Bowl MVP, thinks Cassel is capable of replicating 2010.
“I don’t understand, every show I turn on TV and listen to (says), ‘Oh well, the Chiefs, they’ve got Matt Cassel,’” said Simms, the lead NFL analyst for CBS. “He did go to the Pro Bowl two years ago. He was playing in an offense not built for the quarterback to have success, and he did anyway. And last year, I watched him play. I don’t get what people are talking about. I’m not saying he’s the best in the league, but he’s good enough to lead a team to the playoffs, without a doubt.
“There are other problems. … I watched them quite a bit in the preseason, and I still see a fast team. My question is: Are they big enough and strong enough? ... Are they big enough on the defensive line to stop the four-and five-yard runs? And is the offensive line going to be good enough to give Matt Cassel a chance to show he has talent to get it done?”
Chiefs head coach Romeo Crennel has not lost faith in Cassel, but he clearly was disappointed in his quarterback’s second-half play against Atlanta, especially when he threw an interception on a play where it would have been better to take a sack or throw the ball away.
“I’ve said all along that Matt is a good, solid quarterback,” Crennel said. “He’s taken us to the playoffs before. I think that he has capabilities of taking us to the playoffs again. He’s going to work to try and get that done.”
Cassel’s teammates also have his back.
“We have supreme confidence in Matt,” said tackle Eric Winston. “Matt’s natural gifts are going to allow him to do some pretty special things. Cassel has won a lot of games in this league. He’s been on a lot of great teams, and it’s for a reason — because he’s a special player. Does he wish he had a couple plays back? Sure, we all wish we had a couple of plays back.
“Quarterback is such a tough position, and there are so many things that go on around them that they have no control of. It’s almost like a head coach. You’re blamed for everything that goes bad. … When your team is playing well, everyone is playing well around you. And when your team’s not doing well, then it’s just your fault.”
Adding to the importance of Sunday’s game is history: The Chiefs have made the playoffs just once after an 0-2 start, and it took an unlikely series of results on the final Sunday of the 2006 season for them to grab the sixth seed.
“Right now,” Cassel said, “our main focus is trying to get to 1-1, just win one ballgame.”
Fitzpatrick, the only Buffalo quarterback besides Hall of Famer Jim Kelly to record 3,000-yard passing seasons in consecutive years, still feels like that seventh-rounder from Harvard who’s trying to prove himself.
“Every year you go into you have to prove who you are and what kind of player you are,” Fitzpatrick said. “That is not just for me. That is for the elite guys, too. I am sure Aaron Rodgers feels like he has a lot to prove going into the year. I probably have more to prove than the other guys.”
Even though one of these two quarterbacks will be 0-2 after Sunday, Mayock says it will still be too early to panic.
“Last year, Matt Cassel did not play with a full (starting unit) with all the injuries surrounding his key people,” Mayock said. “I would say: Take a step back, and let’s let both those teams get through four or five games and (then) we’ll start figuring out what they’re going to be, what their identity is.
“Can Kansas City run the ball with Jamaal Charles and (Peyton) Hillis? If they can do that and protect the quarterback, and Dwayne Bowe gets himself back in shape, you have a chance to move the football a lot more consistently. I know we’re a knee-jerk-reaction society, but we’ve got to have some patience.”