Chiefs likely to ride investment with Cassel's 'room for growth'

Twenty-seven touchdown passes and seven interceptions.

Those are the numbers on which the Kansas City Chiefs have focused while considering what to do about $7.5 million, another number that is attached to Matt Cassel's future as their starting quarterback.

Eventually (as in by the 10th day of the new league year that has yet to start because of the labor dispute), the Chiefs will decide whether they want to pay that bonus amount to pick up the option on Cassel's contract.

By all indications, they will make this move, even if it does involve some risk. And their motivation will come largely from the two areas in which Cassel displayed the greatest aptitude in 2010.

"He did a lot of good things last year, but what we're excited about is, taking (other) statistics out of it, the interception-to-touchdown ratio was off the charts," coach Todd Haley told me during a recent interview on Sirius NFL radio. "I don't know that any of us expected that it could go that way or that it could go that exact way again. But what I'm excited about is I believe there's a lot of room for growth for Matt."

There is plenty in that observation to digest, starting with the "other" statistics. Cassel threw for a fairly modest 3,116 yards last season, which is a little more than he had in 2009 but significantly less than his 3,693 yards after he took over for an injured Tom Brady in New England in 2008. Cassel also completed 58.2 percent of his passes, an improvement over '09 (55.0) but hardly spectacular and not nearly as strong as what he posted in '08 (63.4).

If the Chiefs paid too much attention to those numbers, they'd likely have a reservation or two about how much more to invest in Cassel. By fixating on his career-high total for touchdown passes and career-low figure for interceptions, they had something they could embrace, even if, as Haley admitted, it was unexpected. That brings us to the last part of his observation, where he also admits he doesn't know if Cassel can repeat that accomplishment and expresses excitement over Cassel's "room for growth."

Haley is always quick to emphasize that Cassel is "relatively inexperienced," given the fact he never started at USC and was an NFL backup until Brady's season-ending knee injury in Week 1 of 2008. That, too, makes picking up the bonus somewhat risky.

"Even though now he has two, almost three years under his belt -- counting the 15 games in New England -- that's just now getting into where (with) a normal-progression guy, you'd be expecting great development," Haley said. "Matt, I think, is maybe ahead of where a true second-year guy (as a full-time starter) would be because of the situations he's been in. But fundamentally, I think there are some slight mechanical things -- just basic fundamentals, understanding the players around him more, us continuing to get better players around him... (all of that) will be keys to Matt continuing to make strides."

So, too, is the fact, whenever the lockout ends, Cassel is going to be dealing with his third offensive coordinator and, for the first time, a dedicated quarterbacks coach.

When Cassel joined the Chiefs, Chan Gailey was the offensive coordinator, but Haley fired him just before the start of the '09 season. Cassel struggled through much of that year. In 2010, Charlie Weis became the new offensive coordinator and did plenty to help Cassel's development. But just before Kansas City's wild-card loss to Baltimore, Weis took a job as offensive coordinator at the University of Florida.

Offensive line coach Bill Muir was then promoted to offensive coordinator. The Chiefs also hired Jim Zorn to be their quarterbacks coach after he was fired from the same position with the Ravens.

As far as Haley is concerned, the coaching changes on offense aren't a problem because, first, Haley, a former offensive coordinator, has been Cassel's only head coach in Kansas City; second, Muir had worked with Cassel the past two years on all aspects of pass protection; third, offensive quality control coach Nick Sirianni has worked closely with Cassel the past two seasons; fourth, the Chiefs haven't significantly altered their play-calling terminology or system since Cassel's arrival.

"That's what's disruptive to players, in my opinion, when there's changes of words and major changes of how you're doing things," Haley said.

Haley expects Cassel to benefit greatly from being around Zorn, "one of the top true quarterback coaches in the league, on top of having head-coach experience, on top of having 11 years playing experience in the NFL at the position."

Haley also sees Cassel's unbridled enthusiasm and willingness to work -- something he equates to an eager dog playing a game of fetch -- as reasons to believe the quarterback will continue to blossom.

"When you've got a guy that is sitting there, with a tennis ball in his mouth and before you can turn around, he's back with it in his mouth again, you know you've got a chance," Haley said.

That confidence is a big reason Cassel can expect to collect a $7.5 million bonus from the Chiefs after the NFL starts doing business with its players again.

New rule kicking free-agent value?

Brad Smith never saw it coming. He assumed that, whenever the NFL plays games, he would be fielding kickoffs the way he always did as a member of the New York Jets.

Last week, of course, Smith learned there would be a major change, with kickoffs being moved from the 30- to the 35-yard line.

"This just seemed to come out of nowhere," Smith told me during a recent radio interview.

Concern over new rule

NFL coaches with very good return games should be concerned about the kickoff being moved up from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line, Pat Kirwan writes. **More ...**

He has heard all of the explanations about the change being made in the name of safety. However, in five seasons with the Jets, Smith has returned and covered kicks, and never once did he consider either job becoming increasingly dangerous.

What could be in danger is the opportunity for Smith and his agent to get maximum value for his return ability in the free-agent market, whenever that opens. With kickers gaining five yards of distance, it will be easier for them to send the ball through the end zone or deep enough in the end zone to force a touchback, thus minimizing Smith's impact and that of other talented return men.

"There's nothing you can control about it, but I think we bring value to the table other than (returning kicks)," said Smith, who also lines up behind center in the Wildcat and plays receiver. "(Returning is) still going to be a part of it; there aren't going to be zero kicks returned. But I think we have value not just in that particular position. The money is important, but it's not the most important thing."

It isn't 'business as usual' for everyone

You hear a lot of people around the league saying they are taking a business-as-usual approach to an offseason that has been suspended by the labor battle. Mostly, you hear it from coaches and player-personnel types who, in addition to preparing for the draft, are spending time reviewing their own game videotape and tape of their opponents.

They also would normally be dealing with players involved in voluntary workouts, but players have been locked out of team facilities and coaches and other club employees can't have any contact with them. Still, minicamps and other non-contact practices, including mandatory sessions, don't ramp up in earnest until next month and into May and June.

"This time of year, this is what we're doing: We're trying to figure out how we can get better from a system standpoint," Haley said. "We're doing a lot of studying of other teams. This is all (the) norm for us. Really, in this part of the offseason, there's not enough time in the day… one of my jobs as the head coach is to make sure that (the assistant coaches) are going home and resting and recharging their batteries so that they can be ready to coach with the high energy that I expect. We're just business as usual right now."

It isn't quite the same for players, though. Smith told me that last Friday, while going out to eat near the Jets' practice facility in Florham Park, N.J., he almost turned into the entrance to the facility before catching himself.

"It's a weird feeling," he said. "It definitely makes you appreciate the game and your teammates a lot more."

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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