KANSAS CITY, Mo. —Six weeks ago, Matt Cassel was the Chiefs' weak link. He was the problem. He was the reason the Chiefs weren't yet seen as a legitimate playoff contender.
That was the talk, anyway.
Now, he's a major reason the team has a two-game division lead on San Diego and Oakland. He is proof of progress and growth. He is the ideal quarterback for what the Chiefs want to do.
Coach Todd Haley said this week, a day after Cassel's ninth game this season without an interception, that he would prefer a quarterback who limits mistakes — rather than a gunslinger who might average 350 passing yards per game and turn ordinary receivers into Pro Bowlers.
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Cassel is 18th in the league with 2,503 yards passing. Hardly an inspiring number. But he has thrown only four interceptions, or one every 88.5 pass attempts. Cassel is tied with New England's Tom Brady with the second-fewest interceptions. Only Philadelphia's Michael Vick, who has attempted 86 fewer passes than Cassel, has thrown fewer interceptions, with two.
Haley said this week he wouldn't change a thing about his quarterback.
"Statistics mean nothing to me," Haley said. "It's about winning games, and that's proven. You can go through years and years of passing yardage, and you just can't find a correlation between that and winning and losing, where in turnovers you can."
This hasn't been a memorable season for many big-name quarterbacks. Peyton Manning has 15 interceptions. Drew Brees has 16, and Philip Rivers has 10. Vick, who before this season hadn't been a starter since 2006, is leading most MVP discussions. And Cassel has emerged as one of the NFL's most efficient quarterbacks. So it has been an unusual kind of year.
From the start, Haley has said that his quarterback's good days will be determined by how he protects the football. A good passer in this system is one who limits turnovers. An unacceptable performance takes the ball out of the offense's hands, and for this coach and this team, it really is as simple as that.
And although, by those standards, Cassel has had only three bad games this season, Haley remembers the mistakes well.
"I think I have them all pretty clear," he said with a smile.
Cassel threw two picks in a sloppy win at Cleveland. Both were intended for Chris Chambers, one a deep route and the other a short pass. A week later, Cassel threw another interception, when San Francisco cornerback Shawntae Spencer jumped in front of Dwayne Bowe. Cassel then went four weeks between interceptions, when Oakland's Jeremy Ware picked him off.
And that's it through a dozen games. Not bad for a weak link.
"Matt has done a terrific job," Haley said, "of preparing and knowing where he wants to go with the football in each situation."
Haley said Cassel has worked overtime with offensive assistant Nick Sirianni, who has helped Cassel sharpen his fundamentals and decision-making. Haley said Cassel has improved upon his footwork and depth of drops, which has created more time and space and therefore made things more difficult on defenders than last season, when Cassel threw 16 interceptions, equaling his number of touchdowns.
"He's putting less pressure on himself," Haley said, "by doing all the little things right.... His No. 1 job is not being careless with the football, and he has to make good decisions. That's what he is doing."
He has, of course, been helped by the league's best rush offense and the emergence of Bowe as a top wide receiver. But, unlikely as it might have seemed a few weeks ago, Cassel perhaps has improved more than any other player. Haley said Cassel still makes mistakes but that he is now missing some throws "in the right spots," which is away from defenders and major trouble.
"Matt is putting that work in," Haley said, "and he is seeing results."