The last time Matt Cassel started a game at Arrowhead Stadium, it was for a Chiefs organization in the clutches of crisis — at least however much that word can be used for a crumbling NFL franchise.
The “Save Our Chiefs” movement had prevailed on about 25,000 fans to dress in mournful black for that November 2012 game against Cincinnati, and it lived up to the hype.
The beleaguered Cassel was yanked from what became an eighth straight loss for the lamentable 2-14 team whose lone achievement was to stoke the critical mass for regime change.
If it’s too generous to call Cassel a victim of the dysfunction that was consuming the franchise, he was less a cause of it than he was a symbol or symptom.
So his return to Arrowhead on Saturday with the Minnesota Vikings arrived at a particularly advantageous time:
Artificial as the circumstances were, the Chiefs nevertheless uncorked another dud preseason effort in what has become an increasingly worrisome run-up to the real season.
In a 30-12 loss to the Vikings that began with Cassel hitting Cordarrelle Patterson for a 53-yard touchdown, the Chiefs’ issues were best summarized by their ongoing failure to muster a touchdown through what is now their first 16 possessions of the preseason with Alex Smith at quarterback.
If per protocol the starters barely play in the final preseason game Thursday at Green Bay, chances are they’ll go into the Sept. 7 opener against Tennessee unacquainted with the end zone since their playoff loss to Indianapolis in January.
It’s true that the Chiefs were without four offensive starters: superstar running back Jamaal Charles (foot), top receiver Dwayne Bowe (quad), slot receiver Junior Hemingway (hamstring) and right tackle Donald Stephenson, by the choice of coach Andy Reid.
But as Smith put it, “It’s not unreasonable to think we’re going to play games this season without those guys.”
Not at all, in fact.
Punished under the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, Bowe is suspended for the regular-season opener. Stephenson will miss the first four games for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
That’s why Reid kept him out as he tries to sort out and solve the reality of what the offensive line will be for the first month of the season.
So of those presences would have made some difference Saturday.
But that doesn’t nullify a bad night for Smith, either.
When he wasn’t doing the do-si-do or scrambling for safety because of his suspect line, he was misfiring and misjudging in ways he simply never did last season.
Smith puts a premium on ball security, to the point that at times he’s been accused of being too conservative … but also to the point where he threw only seven interceptions last season with his 23 touchdown passes.
Most uncharacteristically, he threw two interceptions in the red zone and finished with a wretched 40.3 rating against a Vikings team working to recover from having the most porous defense in the NFL a season ago.
Fixable mistakes, Smith said, adding, “Mistakes I don’t think I’ll make again.”
His track record is long and strong enough that he has credibility when he says it.
Just the same, his rough night at one point converged with the ghosts of Chiefs past:
After he averted a third-quarter sack and was wrestled down a few yards later, the press-box play-by-play announcer had a momentary dose of déjà vu and said, “Matt Cassel on the carry.”
So with plenty to fret over for Chiefs fans, there was a certain strange symmetry to having this game feature Cassel essentially outplaying Smith as the Vikings otherwise clobbered his former team.
Smith finished 14 of 24 for 140 yards and the two interceptions and was sacked three times; Cassel completed nine of 17 for 152 yards with a touchdown and an interception and also was sacked three times, fumbling one for a safety reminiscent of his 2012 turnover binge.
But in this jumbled mess on Saturday, there is a Cassel Doctrine here to be considered.
The Chiefs may or may not return to the playoffs this season. Based on the limited and artificial sample size of the preseason, though, they appear more on trajectory to take a step back than a step forward.
Yet even if it becomes a step back, it will be in the context of what’s happened since Cassel last appeared here:
The Chiefs started all over, first by terminating the chaos of the previous administration. They reorganized and hired an established head coach in Andy Reid and a bright, dynamic general manager in John Dorsey, and they brought in a really good quarterback in Smith.
They started last season 9-0, finished 11-5 and, of course, they led Indianapolis 38-10 before their epic playoff meltdown.
That infuriating game eclipsed the broader meaning of the season, but it shouldn’t be forgotten.
The Chiefs rehabilitated themselves and poured a new foundation.
The turnaround was more than anyone could have expected or asked, even if the 9-0 start had an element of fool’s gold to it because of the cushy schedule.
It also in a sense warped the timetable.
This wasn’t going to be fixed overnight, and it’s nowhere near that now. It’s not clear the Chiefs even have improved their personnel from last year to this.
But this also all remains in the fog of the preseason.
And it’s all a galaxy away from 2012.
Imperfect as they appear to be, as long as it might take to really get this all right now and nerve-racking as they are making it now, the Chiefs, in fact, have been saved since then.
And Cassel’s return was a timely reminder of that.