RIVER FALLS — Whenever he's not throwing passes at training camp, new Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel can usually be found just off the hip of Todd Haley, talking in the coach's ear.
Not just a few words here and there. More like an excited preschooler talking about a new toy.
Most of the time, Haley listens or shrugs off Cassel's exhortations. Occasionally, the hyperactive quarterback's chatter becomes too much, and he has to tell Cassel to shut up.
Not that Cassel cares.
With a team to call his own for the first time since high school, Cassel is ready to put his imprint on the Chiefs with his arm, legs, even his mouth. So what if he gets shushed by the headmaster from time to time? This is Cassel's team, and he's going to do everything he can to make it successful.
"I'm not very patient, so I try to get out there and get in his ear as much as I can, give him my input," Cassel said Sunday at training camp. "He needs to tell me to shut up sometimes, but I'm going to keep coming at him."
The leadership role is relatively new to Cassel. He spent the previous eight years as the man behind the man, backing up Heisman Trophy winners in four years at Southern California, Tom Brady for four more in New England.
Cassel's future changed with one play.
It happened in the first quarter of the Patriots' season opener last season, when Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard charged up the middle on a blitz and hit Brady on the knee. Brady crumpled to the ground, and just like that, the 2007 NFL MVP's season was over, and Cassel was the starter — for the first time since his days at Chatsworth High School in California.
After a sluggish start, Cassel cozied up to the role, throwing for nearly 4,000 yards and 23 touchdowns to lead the Patriots to an 11-4 record. Brady recovered quickly during the offseason, so the Patriots traded Cassel — and linebacker Mike Vrabel — to Kansas City, the team that had inadvertently caused his change in fortune.
An odd cycle of events, for sure.
"It is weird and it's crazy how I show up here and see Bernard the first day and this is the team that gave me my start," Cassel said. "Unfortunately, it was through an injury to one of my friends, but at the same time it jump-started my career. I was lucky enough to take advantage of that opportunity, and now I'm here expecting big things for this organization."
The Chiefs have plenty invested in Cassel. They see him as the franchise quarterback that's been missing in Kansas City since Len Dawson's glory days and rewarded him this offseason with a six-year, $63 million contract that includes $28 million guaranteed.
Playing with the confidence that comes from a secure future and being the starter, Cassel was solid during the offseason minicamps, and it's carried over to the first part of training camp. Though still early — the first game is six weeks away — Cassel has looked the part of a No. 1 quarterback, throwing pinpoint passes, alternately scolding and praising his teammates, even giving the coach the occasional piece of advice.
"He's a good example of being the same guy every day," Haley said. "You're going to get great enthusiasm, he's going to be there standing at your hip, you're probably going to have to tell him to be quiet five or six times because he's excited. He's just what he's been. He's had a fairly solid start."
The question is whether he can keep it going once the season starts.
Cassel was already surrounded by successful players in New England. The Chiefs are coming off a two-win season and have won six games the past two years combined. The offensive line is questionable, the receivers are talented but inconsistent and the main running back, Larry Johnson, is coming off a season filled with injuries and legal troubles.
No matter to Cassel. This is a challenge, one he's waited eight years for.
"We've got everybody we need to win in the league, and now it's about going out and executing, finishing games in the fourth quarter and doing what we can do," he said. "This can be a very good team."