“With Matt, I think some of it is just instinct from being around people and talking to people,” Frazier said. “When I sat down with Matt, I trusted that the things I said to him were making sense and that he’d adhere to those things. Not just sign the contract and then come in here mouthing off, saying, ‘I’m better than Christian Ponder, I should be this, I should be that.’ ”
Most important, Ponder seems comfortable with Cassel. He acknowledges that his leash got shorter, but doesn’t sound worried that Cassel will try to undermine him with faulty advice or locker-room politicking.
“The first call I got when we were going to sign Matt was from Rick Spielman,” Ponder said. “The second call I got was from Matt saying he was just coming in to help me and that he understands his role. And he’s lived up to that. He’s taken extra time to sit down with me and talk to me.”
Johnson started coaching quarterbacks in 1989. He went down similar paths twice with the Tennessee Titans. The first came in 1999 when Neil O’Donnell, who had led the Steelers to the Super Bowl four years earlier, backed up an already-established Steve McNair. The second came seven years later when Kerry Collins, the fifth overall draft pick in 1995, began backing up rookie Vince Young, the third overall pick in 2006.
“You can have one of two mindsets when you come in as a veteran backup,” Johnson said. “One, you can say, ‘I’m going to do everything I can to win the job and I can care less about the starter.’ The other mindset is, ‘I’m a pro. I’m not going to disrupt the chemistry of the team, but I’m also going to be ready to go at a moment’s notice.’ Guys like Neil, Kerry and Matt, they’re pros because that’s how they wanted their backups to act when they were starters.”
Whatever Ponder experiences this season, no doubt Cassel can tell him, as Johnson says, “been there, done that.”
Success in his past
On a positive note, Cassel has won 10 games as both a backup in New England and a starter in Kansas City in 2010. He has made the Pro Bowl and led the Chiefs to their first AFC West title in seven years. In 2009, the Chiefs gave up the 34th overall draft pick for him and then signed him to a six-year, $62.7 million deal.
On the flip side, injuries and ineffectiveness have cost him 15 starts over the past two years. He was booed at a celebrity softball game and cheered last season when he suffered a head injury at home against the Ravens. Afterward, right tackle Eric Winston lashed out at Chiefs fans, calling their actions “100 percent sickening.”
“I had a good time in Kansas City,” Cassel said. “But a new start was exactly what me and my family needed. The fans have been great. It’s refreshing.”
Fans cheered when Cassel came on for an extended first-half look in Friday’s preseason opener, a 27-13 loss to the Houston Texans at Mall of America Field. Ponder played only two snaps over 43 seconds, leaving after a poorly thrown pass was intercepted. Cassel played the rest of the half, completing 12 of 19 passes to eight receivers for 212 yards and one touchdown with one interception and a 96.8 passer rating.
Friday night had its highlights and lowlights. Cassel showed some veteran poise when he looked off a linebacker on a 56-yard pass to Stephen Burton and later sidestepped a blitzing linebacker and alertly found tight end John Carlson for a 10-yard gain to the Houston 2-yard line. But Cassel also was easily intercepted when he threw a weak pass across the field.
“It’s never good to have those,” he said. “But these games are learning experiences.”
At 31, Cassel is not even sure he would still be having NFL learning experiences if Pollard had missed Brady’s knee back in ’08.
“I actually played with Bernard for a few months [during the 2009 preseason],” Cassel said. “He was a great guy. We got along. Naturally, everybody laughed about how he was the guy who, unfortunately for Tom, gave me my opportunity.”