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No longer a backup, QB Cassel growing into new role with Chiefs

Everywhere Matt Cassel went, a great quarterback got there first.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Everywhere Matt Cassel went, a great quarterback got there first.

Not one but two Heisman Trophy winners kept him on the bench throughout his college career at USC, denying him even one start. Then he was drafted by New England and found no less than a Super Bowl MVP was in charge at his position.

Now he's in Kansas City, and are things ever different. That's not Matt Leinart, Carson Palmer and Tom Brady he's competing against anymore. It's Tyler Thigpen, Ingle Martin and Brodie Croyle.

At 27, Cassel has a team to call his own for the first time since high school. From the first day of spring drills, a team is finally counting on him not to follow, but to lead; not to hold the clipboard, but to help design plays to put on it.

This weekend's mandatory minicamp brought all the Chiefs players on the field with their new quarterback for the first time. The realization is sinking in that his time is finally at hand.

"Slowly but surely," he said Saturday with a grin. "We're building chemistry, we're building rapport and everybody's working hard."

Although coach Todd Haley refuses to name a starter at any position, there is no question in anyone's mind who the No. 1 quarterback is.

"He's running the team," said wide receiver Bobby Engram. "And I'm very impressed. He's a very sharp guy. He's watching film, he's drawing up plays, he's coaching everybody up. He's shown early on that we're going to be able to rely on him."

Another tip-off about who's running the show is the fact that Cassel will be paid almost $15 million this year. After he replaced the injured Brady in the season opener last September and proved his worth by throwing for 3,693 yards and 23 touchdowns, the Patriots made him their franchise player. The trade to Kansas City soon followed.

So now he's got all the money he could want, the chance to start that he's always craved and Cassel is, by all accounts, a very happy man. When he was first presented to the Kansas City media, he shook hands and introduced himself to every reporter, broadcaster and photographer in the room.

"I can't even tell you the feelings I have, the emotions," he said. "I couldn't be more excited."

Chiefs fans are excited, too. After the team won only six games in two years, the coach and general manager both were told to clean out their desks so an entirely new day could dawn for Kansas City.

"Everything's new," Cassel said. "It's a new environment, it's new teammates, getting to know my linemen, getting to know my receivers, getting to know my running backs."

Haley, the offensive coordinator the past two years at Arizona, is not known as an easy man to please. But when asked about his new quarterback, he seems almost to gush.

"He's the leader for every workout group. It's hard to outwork this guy," he said.

"When he's done working out, he's upstairs bugging us. He's making drawings, coming up with ideas, wanting to talk football, all the time on top of working out real hard. He's lost some weight, has his body in shape. We want our quarterback to be one of the hardest workers on the team. I think he's clearly shown me that."

Even with his naturally upbeat, sunny outlook on life, there were times when Cassel did get discouraged. But now he believes even that is going to work to his advantage in Kansas City.

"You get toughened up," he said. "There's going to be a lot of adversity that comes up during the season, whether we lose a game, whether it's a tough play or an interception or something like that. You have to be able to overcome it and be mentally tough.

"You continue to be mentally tough and you continue to push through and know there's a bright spot at the end of the tunnel."

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