When the Chiefs were trying to pursue free-agent quarterback Peyton Manning last month, guard Ryan Lilja felt it was best to keep quiet about the situation for some obvious reasons.
He is a friend and former teammate of Manning’s and a friend and current teammate of Chiefs starting quarterback Matt Cassel’s. So Lilja declined numerous interview requests until the situation resolved itself.
Manning resolved it by signing with the Chiefs’ AFC West rivals, the Denver Broncos. So Lilja felt free Wednesday to speak what he said was on his mind the whole time and that was an impassioned defense of Cassel.
“We’ve got a great quarterback,” Lilja said at Shawnee Mission Northwest, where he attended high school and was speaking to the school’s wrestling team. “We’ve just got to do better things around him to make him a great quarterback. I truly believe that, and I wish some more people believed that.
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“It’s really easy to criticize. I get that. That’s part of the job. But Matt’s the guy, and Matt’s going to take us places. Matt’s a general in the huddle. People don’t see how hard he works. They don’t see the stuff he plays through, because we don’t talk about it. But take my word for it: There aren’t many guys I’d rather play with.”
Until Lilja joined the Chiefs as a free agent in 2010, Manning was the only pro starting quarterback he knew. Lilja, who played in college at Kansas State, spent his first six NFL seasons with the Colts. In Indianapolis, Lilja played in two Super Bowl games, with the Colts winning one.
Along the way, Lilja became friends with Manning. But once he became a free agent, Manning showed no interest in hearing the Chiefs’ sales pitch.
He joined Denver and the Broncos are as a result considered the early favorites to win the AFC West.
“He’s amazing at what he does,” Lilja said of Manning. “There is a friendship there, but I have tons of friends. That doesn’t mean I want them as my quarterback.
“I’m perfectly content with the Denver Broncos and their situation and them bringing him in. They’re already building Lombardi trophies for them, it sounds like to me. I like that. Nobody thinks we can do much. That’s kind of a fun place to be in. Time will tell.
“I wish him well. Just not when they play us.”
Cassel’s three seasons as a starter for the Chiefs have been mixed. He made the Pro Bowl in 2010 when the Chiefs won the division for the only time since 2003 but has struggled at many times in the other two years. He missed the last seven games of last season after breaking his hand.
“People forget really, really quickly what Matt did two years ago,” Lilja said. “He was in Hawaii (to play in the Pro Bowl) 26 months ago. He’s our guy, and I’m proud to play with him. I’ve had to defend him to people all over town, and that drives me crazy. I hate to hear people criticize him.”
As a result, Lilja said he now regrets how he handled the initial inquiries on Manning .
“I think I should have defended Matt at that point,” Lilja said.