Saturday August 1st, 2009

Dispatches from the opening day of the 19th and final Chiefs training camp on the picturesque grounds of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls ...

• I was lucky enough to catch up with new Kansas City quarterback Matt Cassel on Saturday, which was impeccable timing since it happened to be the first day of the rest of his career.

You know Cassel's deal by now. He's one of those classic overnight success stories that was years in the making. I know the Patriots didn't wind up making the playoffs last season; but for my money, Cassel winning 11 of 16 games still stands as one of the more remarkable feats in recent NFL history.

Tom Brady goes down with a season-ending knee injury midway through the first quarter of New England's opener, and in comes Cassel, the guy who hadn't ever started a game in the NFL or college. Almost everyone doubts he can do it, and when he does, almost everyone labels him a "system quarterback'' who only benefited from the Patriots' all-everything receiving tandem of Randy Moss and Wes Welker.

That's your textbook no-win situation. The only thing is, he did win. And after February's big trade, now here he is with Kansas City, trying to prove himself one more time in an entirely new setting, with a team that has won fewer games (six) the past two years than even the Detroit Lions included. (It's true. You can look it up).

I couldn't take my eyes off Cassel at Saturday's morning practice, the first of the Chiefs' three-week stay in River Falls. I kept wondering if he looked around and for the first time really realized he wasn't in Foxboro anymore and there was no Gillette Stadium in sight? Sure, there were a couple familiar faces in ex-New Englanders Scott Pioli and Mike Vrabel on hand, and that must have helped some. But there was no sign of a dour-looking Bill Belichick twirling that coaching whistle around his right hand in trademark fashion, and the play calls weren't being made anymore by coaching phenom Josh McDaniels.

I wondered if that threw Cassel in any way, or shook his confidence a bit? But I didn't wonder for long, as it turns out.

"For me, it was the first chapter of a new beginning,'' Cassel told me after lunching in the team cafeteria. "Everything's new and it's exciting. This is something I've always hoped and aspired to be, a starting quarterback in the NFL. It's finally that time where I can say this is my team.''

For better or worse, the Chiefs are indeed Cassel's team now, even if Kansas City officials are taking pains to say there will be an ongoing competition at quarterback in camp. But let's be honest: That six-year, $63 million deal that Cassel signed a few weeks back, the one that voided his $14.6 million one-year franchise-player contract, spoke volumes. This is his team, his town and his time.

And can we just once and for all bury one phony piece of groupthink that rose up around Cassel last season, the notion that he was able to guide the Patriots to that 11-5 finish because their offense works on auto-pilot with all that talent? No one wins 11 games on auto-pilot in the NFL. Ever. Case closed.

"People say, 'Oh he had Wes Welker and Randy Moss,''' said Pioli, the new Chiefs general manager and former Patriots vice president of personnel. "Yes he did. He absolutely did. And he still could have screwed it up, but he didn't. People are using that as a way to bash him, but the reality is he won and kept things going. The kid won 11 games. Tom Brady gets hurt, and think about the mental endurance it took to do what Matt did, knowing where he was and who he was playing for. That's everything you ask of a professional. The opportunity comes and you either do it or you don't do it. He did it.''

Did Cassel benefit from throwing to Moss and Welker in New England? Of course. Has Peyton Manning been all the better for having Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark as receivers? Did it help resurrect Kurt Warner's career in Arizona to have Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin in his huddle? What do you think?

"I don't care what anyone says, I know how hard it is to win in the NFL, period,'' Cassel said. "It's not an auto-pilot type thing that anybody can do. I always hear people say he's a system guy, and he can't do it elsewhere. But the funny part is early in the season, when we were struggling offensively a little bit, people were pointing at Matt Cassel, saying he can't do it. He's not the guy for the job.

"But then I started playing better and grew into the role, and the naysayers immediately said it was because I'm a system guy. When I think back about what happened last year, and what I was able to accomplish, I'd say yeah, I was pretty fired up about that.''

I didn't find an ounce of cockiness in Cassel on Saturday, but clearly his confidence grew by leaps and bounds after last season. Before last September, he hoped to be an NFL quarterback of starting caliber some day. Now he knows he is.

"Until you're actually thrown in there, you don't know,'' he said. "You can't know. Because I hadn't done it for eight years. I got a taste of success in New England. I know what the formula is to win, and hopefully we can try to emulate that and do that here.''

Though he'll never admit it, I think Cassel knows there are no 11-win seasons coming in Kansas City this year. The Chiefs were 6-26 the past two seasons, with only the Rams (5-27) faring worse over that span. In Kansas City, they've been searching for the next long-term franchise quarterback since Len Dawson retired in 1975, a half-decade after winning the Chiefs' only Super Bowl.

Interestingly enough, there was Dawson at Saturday morning's practice, watching Cassel's debut as the Chiefs' latest quarterback savior. He likes everything he sees so far.

"He's a sharp guy, and he handles himself very well,'' said Dawson, who still does color for the Chiefs radio network. "He has a good attitude, and that was even before he signed the new contract. So he should have a great attitude now. He's been good, but it depends on who surrounds him. He's got to have some help. He can't do it by himself. If you can't stop the other guys, it's tough to win. The defensive side of the ball is what I'm more concerned about than anything.''

Cassel admitted to me his knowledge of the Chiefs was limited, to say the least, before he became one. "I knew nothing at all,'' he said. "I can be completely honest with you. I knew Len Dawson, but I didn't know his accomplishments until I got here. His legacy makes him the guy you're trying to follow here.

"I found out when I said, 'So, can I get my No. 16 jersey (that I wore in New England),' and they said, 'Uh, that's retired.' I was like, 'That's right, okay. Len Dawson.''

Cassel instead chose No. 7, explaining to me that "seven is one plus six,'' as in 1-6, or 16. If he can make the numbers add up in the win column in Kansas City, the Chiefs and their fans will retire anything and everything in his honor. Including any and all of those inaccurate labels that have been assigned to him and his game.

• Saturday was his 24th birthday, but second-year Chiefs defensive end Glenn Dorsey didn't look all that happy to me. Dorsey was way off to one side of the practice fields in the morning workout, going through drills with a Chiefs trainer, along with a half-dozen other players who aren't yet cleared to practice by head coach Todd Haley.

The Chiefs haven't put Dorsey on the PUP, and they're not saying if he's injured in any way, but the strong sense I got was that Kansas City's No. 1 pick in 2008 is being held out of practice due to a lack of conditioning at this point. At one point this offseason, Dorsey is believed to have been quite a bit heavier than Chiefs officials wanted, perhaps by as much as 30 pounds.

Kansas City's roster lists Dorsey at 6-1, 297, but that's not reality. They'd like him to play in the range of 305 pounds, but he may have some more work to do to get down to that weight. Haley told the media that he did not foresee any of the Chiefs who are currently being held out of practice to be a long-term absence, but after his low-impact rookie season, Dorsey and his situation bears close scrutiny.

• Haley gave some big early-camp kudos to another big-name Chief who ended last season in less-than-great standing in Kansas City: running back Larry Johnson.

The Chiefs hit in full pads in their first practice of camp, and Haley liked what he saw of L.J.'s effort and physicality.

"When I said a clean slate for everybody, I meant it,'' Haley said. "This is a fresh start for all of us, and from day one, Larry Johnson has done everything asked of him and more a lot of the time. From the first day of camp, it was nice to see him in pads and running hard and being the physical back he's capable of being. Going from what I see, I'm excited about the player.''

Can you tell Haley is a Bill Parcells disciple, calling Johnson "the player,'' a'la the Tuna talking about Terrell Owens?

• I absolutely had to ask Cassel one must-know question on Saturday: What was the first thing he said to Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard upon meeting him as his new teammate? Pollard, of course, is the guy who banged into Brady's knee last season in Week 1, ending the 2007 NFL MVP's season and opening the door for Cassel's amazing rise.

Nobody likes to thank anyone for hurting another player, especially since Brady and Cassel are such good friends. But the facts are the facts: Without Pollard's hit, Cassel may never have truly launched his NFL career.

"That's kind of what I said a little bit,'' Cassel told me. "He did give me an opportunity. In this sport you never like to see anybody get hurt, but ironically it gave me my beginning, and now I end up here in Kansas City, sort of where it all started.''

• Haley graded himself a bit harshly on his execution as a rookie head coach on his first day of camp. He had a bit of a whistle problem, he said. He kept forgetting to blow it in time to end a play, which is a responsibility that only a head coach has at practice.

"Assistant coaches don't have whistles in practice,'' Haley said. "With Coach Parcells, you'd be shot if you had a whistle. So that's just something I've never practiced. You've got to become a referee of sorts to get the play stopped, to let guys know how long they're running, how far to run, when to stop. I caught myself halfway through saying, 'I haven't blown it one time. How do these guys know what to do?' I told them that afterward. I said, 'Listen, I'll get better at the whistle.' ''

• The quote of the day at Chiefs camp came from Haley, when asked how Cassel looked so far, after all of one practice session:

"Matt's Matt to this point.''

Now that's what I call a snap judgment.

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