As a senior at USC, Trojans quarterback Matt Cassel finally had his big moment in a big game… Recovering an onside kick to help clinch a victory over Southern California rival UCLA.
As Cassel recalls, then USC coach Pete Carroll called the play, "The best play of my career. I was like, 'that basically sums it up right there.'"
Yes, college did not quite go as Cassel might have hoped when he signed with USC. First he backed up Heisman Trophy winner and eventual No. 1 overall pick Carson Palmer, then when Palmer left for the NFL, Cassel narrowly lost the competition to Matt Leinart to replace Palmer. Yet despite never starting a game at quarterback in college, Cassel was able to put on an impressive enough showing at USC's pro day to end up being a seventh-round pick in the 2005 draft. Cassel finally got his break, becoming a starter for the first time since high school in 2008 when Tom Brady went down with a knee injury, and he has put together an impressive NFL career that is now in its 11th season.
On Sunday, Cassel will lead the Dallas Cowboys against the Seahawks and his former coach, marking the second time in his career Cassel has started an NFL game against Carroll—he faced Carroll in 2010 while with Kansas City, beating the Seahawks 42-24 and came off the bench for Minnesota in a 2013 loss at Seattle—which is two more games than he started in four seasons playing under Carroll.
Despite Cassel never winning the job at USC, Carroll isn't surprised to see his former player succeeding in the NFL. Cassel lost a competition to Leinart that was so close, Carroll calls it a "kind of a coin toss," then Leinart played so well he never gave Cassel a chance to take the job away.
"He was an amazing kid," Carroll said of Cassel, who also played baseball at USC. "Extraordinary energy and toughness, played two sports. And when he couldn't get in at quarterback he just wanted to play and he got in on special teams and played some tight end, he would do anything. He was just a great, competitive kid. I thought it was really a cool story when he went to New England and how he kind of captured them when he first got there. They really liked him as a backup and kind of moved him into some good opportunities as soon as he got there. I'm not surprised that he could do anything, because he's such tough kid and he's so smart and all that. We just couldn't get it going at SC."
From his time at USC to becoming the Cowboys starter this season with Tony Romo sidelined, Cassel has had one of the strangest careers you could imagine for an NFL quarterback. He was drafted despite never starting in college; his professional career outlasted that of Leinart, who started ahead of him at USC; he had the franchise tag placed on him by New England after the 2008 season despite the presence of some quarterback named Brady on the roster; he has played in the postseason and in a Pro Bowl; and he has been traded three times—from New England to Kansas City, from Minnesota to Buffalo and from Buffalo to Dallas this year after Romo went down with an injury.
"I think that I never take anything for granted," Cassel said. "Obviously I was a guy that came in and had to work for everything I ever received in the NFL and I still take that same mentality. And I never sit there and I never feel comfortable. I think that just goes back to my history and everything else. I remember coming in my first day at rookie camp, and they put up the depth chart and I'm the fifth guy. There's [Tom] Brady, Rohan Davey, Doug Flutie, Chris Redman, and then myself. I'm fifth on the depth chart and I was like, 'OK, I've got some work to do.' So I've just been a grinder and I had my opportunity and played well for New England. Switched teams two years later, had a Pro Bowl year. I've had a few injuries here and there. Obviously last year was a disappointing year just because – worked so hard and I thought that our team had a great opportunity to be a good team. Broke my foot in the third game of the year in the second quarter, the start of the second quarter. I've played good football, but again I think I'd love to see the consistency of it just continue to go up. Where you just continue to play use my experience and get better."
Cassel, who took over the starting job last week, replacing Brandon Weeden, threw three interceptions in his first game with Dallas, but both the Cowboys and Seahawks expect to see a better version of him this week.
"He just came into a team, learning a whole new offense," Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennet said. "It's just like you going and you have to learn a whole new place and you don't understand what's going on, but Cassel's proven in the NFL. He's been to the Pro-Bowl, he's had big contracts, he's led the Patriots. I remember when he went (11-5) and didn't go to the playoffs that year. He's a great quarterback, he knows the game. He's a veteran. He just has to get comfortable and I think he's obviously going to get comfortable and we just have to play him good because he knows what to do now. It's one more game, one more week where he can learn."
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett agrees that his team should get an improved version of Cassel with another week under his belt. Garrett, who was Miami's quarterbacks coach in 2005, has been a fan of Cassel's since he came out of USC, and was actually on the phone with him during the seventh-round of the draft discussing a possible rookie free-agent deal when the Patriots drafted him. A decade later, Garrett is coaching Cassel and hoping the onetime Trojans backup can help the Cowboys start to dig out of a 2-4 hole by beating his former college coach.
"It's great to have him here, certainly a very physically capable guy, and he goes about it the right way," Garrett said. "He's smart, he's tough, he's a veteran player, and he did a lot of good things against the game the other day against the Giants. Certainly the turnovers were the negative. But he's only been here for a little bit, he continues to learn our offense and how we want to do things, and I think he'll get better and better as the weeks go on."