KANSAS CITY, Mo. —Matt Cassel is improvising now, the way good quarterbacks sometimes have to — because the plan has changed, and he has to scramble.
These are the times that you get the truest sense of a quarterback. Not the facade of outer toughness and unflappable poise that he's been coached to be, but something more real.
Cassel stands behind a lectern, answering questions about his skills and future during his weekly meeting with reporters. Most of the time, he is emotionless, delivering stock responses that, like so much else, have been coached into him.
Then the conversation turns to Cassel's critics and whether he'll prove them wrong. How fans' doubts intensified after an unimpressive preseason. Whether he can become the man to direct the Chiefs toward better days.
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Cassel has answered this before, but rarely like this. His eyes well, and his tone is direct.
"I don't play this game for the people that are against me and think that I can't do it," he says. "I play the game for the people that have always believed in me. I play the game for my family, for my wife, for my mother, so it really comes down to that."
Another question comes, but Cassel is finished. He walks out.
Beyond the walls of the Chiefs' practice facility, it has become clear that Cassel is entering a pivotal season for his team and himself. The Chiefs believed last year that Cassel could become their franchise quarterback, signing him to a six-year, $63 million contract. It was a gamble, and the question of whether Cassel can fulfill the Chiefs' expectations will likely be answered in the next three months.
Rich Gannon is a former NFL quarterback who's now a game analyst for CBS Sports. He has watched, studied and spoken with Cassel. Gannon says what others say: Cassel is a good guy, but it's unclear yet whether he can become a good player.
And, Gannon says, Cassel doesn't have much time to prove himself to those outside his unconditional support system.
"There's a sense of urgency. I think he realizes this is an important year," Gannon says. "I'm just trying to be realistic. I think he's a fine player. Do I think he's a Pro Bowl-caliber player right now? Well, no. He's got to get better. "
Few argue that this is a quick-fix league, and results at this level are judged in black and white: Is a player the best option or not? Teammates and coaches might believe in a player today and, after a bad performance, begin eyeing his replacement tomorrow.
The Chiefs spent the past eight months removing obstacles for Cassel. They signed running back Thomas Jones, re-signed Chambers and improved the offensive line. Coach Todd Haley hired offensive coordinator Charlie Weis to work with Cassel. Cassel has at least been committed to preparation. He can control that much, and that's among the things that have his teammates' attention.
"I don't know if he always works like that," Kansas City wide receiver Chris Chambers says, "but right after the season, he was here that next week, working out, getting ready for the season. I was on the couch.
"That's the type of guy he is. He wants to be a good quarterback in this league."
As the Chiefs begin a new season, their second with Cassel in the starting lineup, the time has come for Cassel to define himself. His team needs to know that, more than wanting to be a good quarterback, he can become one.
"You're always going to be tested," he says, "and there is always going to be scrutiny and there is always going to be somebody saying, 'Hey, he's not good enough. He can't do this, he can't do that.'
"Once you start winning ballgames and you start playing well, and the team starts playing well, that takes care of itself... I have a job to do, and right now my job is to be the quarterback of this team. I'm going to go out and work hard and do everything I need to do."