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Pressure is on Matt Cassel to lead Chiefs back to playoffs

KANSAS CITY -- Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel is well-known in NFL circles as a gym rat. He's taking his off-field preparation to another level this offseason, though.

With recently hired offensive coordinator Brian Daboll installing a new system, Cassel has enlisted the kind of help not used by many NFL quarterbacks.

"My wife and I use flash cards," Cassel said, smiling but serious.

Cassel said he and other offensive players have also gone to work on the new offense, particularly the passing game, at area high schools, because rules in the new collective bargaining agreement limit the time they can spend at team facilities.

"In terms of formation and protections, I've had to get up to speed on a lot of different terminology I haven't used before," Cassel said. "It's been fun. It's allowed me to get back in the book, be like a rookie again. It's a different mentality than in the past."

Cassel and the Chiefs are in the no-more-excuses phase of their football existence. Though Cassel is a cool customer, the pressure is on. He has to win. He's been there three seasons and is the question mark on a team that's pretty stocked with talent and playing in a division -- and conference, for that matter -- that can be won.

Cassel is back from a broken hand that ended his 2011 season with six games remaining. Had he stayed healthy, Kansas City could have won the AFC West, which was ultimately claimed by the 8-8 Denver Broncos. The Chiefs finished last at 7-9, hardly a disaster for a team that also lost running back Jamaal Charles, safety Eric Berry and tight end Tony Moeaki to knee injuries before getting into the guts of the schedule -- and also went through a head-coaching change.

Still, questions surround Cassel's worthiness. He's averaged 198.8 yards passing per game in three seasons as the Chiefs' starter in a run-based offense, throwing 53 touchdown passes and 32 interceptions. Kansas City is 18-21 in games he's started, 14-10 the past two seasons.

Those numbers aren't awful, but they put him below the AFC West's other quarterbacks -- Philip Rivers (San Diego Chargers), Carson Palmer (Oakland Raiders) and Peyton Manning (Denver). Cassel's supporters, particularly Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli, feel Cassel belongs in that crowd. So does Cassel.

"What's the goal?" asked Pioli, who brought Cassel with him when he left the New England Patriots for the Chiefs in 2009, signing Cassel to a six-year deal worth up to $63 million. "Are you worried about who you are sending to the Pro Bowl or are you concerned about winning championships? Matt is good enough to win a championship with. I was with Matt in an 11-win season in New England, a 10-win season [in Kansas City] in 2010.

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"I hear a lot of noise. I don't understand it. I don't necessarily get it. He's a competitor and he's a winner. He's had production. There are good quarterbacks in this division. It takes teams to win a division. It takes teams to win a championship."

It also takes a quarterback. The Indianapolis Colts illustrated that truth last season, going 2-14 when Manning had to miss the entire campaign after having multiple neck surgeries. It's an unavoidable fact, regardless of the faith and confidence the Chiefs have in Cassel.

Coach Romeo Crennel acknowledged as much.

"Matt has shown that he is capable of taking us to a division championship. He did it two years ago," Crennel said. "That shows me that he is capable. What we have to do, we have to get him to be consistent. If he's consistent, we're going to win. It's a quarterback-driven league, and if the quarterback plays well, the team has a chance to play well.

"When you look at [Cassel's] record, there have been some ups and downs. That's what people see. They see he's won some but also see he hasn't won some. He's capable. We have to make sure we develop that consistency."

Cassel knows now is the time. Stud wide receiver Dwayne Bowe is not working out with the team while he tries to broker a long-term contract, but Pioli and Crennel have surrounded Cassel with more front-line talent and secondary depth then he's ever had in Kansas City.

Charles and Moeaki are expected to be back by Week 1, according to Pioli. Running back Peyton Hillis was signed in free agency; packages already have been drawn up that will put Hillis, Charles and fellow running back Dexter McCluster on the field at the same time. Tight end Kevin Boss was added so the team can run more two-tight-end sets.

Second-year wideout Jonathan Baldwin, last year's first-round pick, will be expected to improve on his production and join with Steve Breaston in complementing Bowe.

Cassel, more than anyone, is aware that the pieces are in place.

"You learn, across the league, with very successful quarterbacks, nobody does it by themselves," Cassel said. "While there's no doubt (that) at the quarterback position, you're supposed to perform at your best with two minutes to go and the game is on the line, you're not doing it alone. Tom Brady is not doing it by himself (in New England). He's got Wes Welker, those tight ends and other receivers. Same thing with (New Orleans Saints quarterback) Drew Brees and all that he has.

"With everything that went on last season, we were one game away. That tells me there's a lot of promise and I know there's a lot of optimism."

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89

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