The Kansas City Chiefs are 1-7 and are making history in the wrong kind of way. A big part of the problem has been turnovers, and Matt Cassel has been the primary culprit. Cassel has 18 turnovers in seven games, and the Chiefs lead the league by a whopping 11 turnovers.
Cassel has as many turnovers himself as the second-worst team in the league.
Of Cassel’s turnovers, seven have been fumbles and 11 have been interceptions. The fumble problem is not a new one for Cassel; he led the league in fumbles in his first year with the Chiefs in 2009.
The interceptions are not new either, but he’s throwing more of them than usual.
So I went back and analyzed every Cassel interception and fumble in 2012, and the results surprised me. Cassel was not to blame for a lot of Kansas City’s miscues, and he’s been literally a fraction of a second away from avoiding others.
There is an opinion floating around that the Chiefs are a quarterback away from contending, and that might be the case, but the rest of the offense is going to have to play better or even a franchise quarterback will underperform.
Brady Quinn is not a good quarterback, but he had many of the same issues Cassel had as the starter. The reason: the supporting cast.
No one expects Cassel to be a great quarterback, but with a run-heavy offense, the hope was that he could manage the game enough win games for the Chiefs. We know that hasn’t happened, but that doesn’t mean he’s not capable of turning things around in the second half.
There’s little doubt that interceptions reflect poorly on a quarterback, but they're not always his fault. In fact, just four of Cassel’s interceptions this season were bad throws or decisions by Cassel.
Tony Moeaki, Dwayne Bowe and Dexter McCluster have all tipped two Cassel passes that ended up being intercepted, and Jon Baldwin ran the wrong route on another interception. That’s seven of Cassel’s interceptions that are on the wide receivers.
Two of Brady Quinn’s three interceptions were also tipped by wide receivers, including another by McCluster and one by Steve Maneri.
Cassel has thrown just one first-quarter interception. As the Chiefs have fallen behind in games, Cassel’s been forced to throw more passes against defenses that know what’s coming. While Cassel is hardly a good quarterback, he is taking the bulk of the blame for interceptions that are largely the fault of the receivers.
What’s strange is how much more the Chiefs are passing in 2012 compared to 2010 and 2011. Cassel is averaging 33.6 attempts per game compared to 29.9 and 30.0 the past two seasons. Cassel attempted 32.9 passes per game in 2009, and the Chiefs went 4-12.
You would think that with the passing game struggling, the Chiefs would lean more on the run, but it's hard to blame the coaching staff for letting their quarterback throw the ball when he's not the issue.
The troubling thing about it is that the Chiefs are actually throwing more passes each game. Cassel has still thrown an interception on 2.8 percent of his attempts during his career according to Pro-Football-Reference, so it doesn't make sense not to limit his attempts as much as possible to avoid having him throw 15 interceptions per season.
Not to mention, Cassel has thrown an interception on 4.7 percent of his passes in 2012.
The coaching staff in Kansas City surely knows that most of Cassel’s interceptions were not his fault. So why bench him in favor of Quinn?
It’s simple: fumbles.
Cassel fumbled six times and lost five of them over the first five games, and he’s added two more over the last two weeks to bring his total to seven lost fumbles.
Quarterbacks are among the most prone to fumbling. Michael Vick has fumbled more than Cassel, while Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton have matched Cassel. The problem is, Cassel is not a running quarterback like the aforementioned three. Andrew Luck, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman and Philip Rivers have all fumbled six or seven times to Cassel’s eight.
What makes Cassel so prone to fumbling? The simple answer is that he’s holding the ball too long. According to ProFootballFocus, when Cassel spends less than 2.5 seconds in the pocket he’s been sacked just two times, and when he takes more than 2.6 seconds he has the worst passer rating in the NFL.
Cassel either needs to get rid of the ball before pressure arrives or tuck the ball so the defense can’t punch it out of his hands. That’s the simple answer, but there’s actually more to it than that.
How many fumbles are actually the result of Cassel holding the ball too long or not tucking the ball away? Not as many as you might think.
Two of Cassel’s fumbles have been on the exchange from center, and one was a good pitch to a running back. Of the other five fumbles, one was recovered, and the Chiefs allowed quick pressure on three others.
Cassel does need to tuck away the ball away better, but that problem has only resulted in two of his eight fumbles.
The other lost fumbles have been the result of Cassel getting hit while he’s throwing, but only one time was it when Cassel held the ball too long.
One such fumble was against the Saints at the end of a half. Cassel was trying to throw the ball into the end zone and the Saints got pressure with a three-man rush. Cassel stepped up in the pocket, but the offensive line allowed the defender to turn and hit Cassel from behind.
In the two other instances where Cassel was hit as he threw, he was only split seconds away from releasing the ball.
Chiefs vs. Steelers
Based on these observations, the Chiefs should improve over the final eight games. The receivers need to stop letting passes clank off their hands, and Cassel has the awareness to tuck the ball away when he feels pressure. These are both very correctable flaws.
The Steelers lead the league in total defense and pass defense, which doesn’t bode well for Cassel and the Chiefs, but there is a silver lining: the Steelers have just 14 sacks, four interceptions and four fumble recoveries on the season. Only the Indianapolis Colts have fewer takeaways than the Steelers.
The Chiefs have yet to limit their turnovers for a whole game, but they have done it for shorter periods and been competitive. If the Chiefs start playing clean football, they will be a dangerous spoiler team.