I started writing this earlier this week. I hoped I'd have happier circumstances to write about, but what happened against PIT doesn't really change what I think here.
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I'll admit it--when I made my roster prediction for the season, I had Matt Cassel off the team. In my defense, though, I made this prediction back in July, before
training camp. I figured that, one way or the other, Cassel would play himself off the team--either he'd look good enough that the Patriots would be able to trade him, or that the Patriots might just cut him loose and let him try and latch on with another team.
I, too, was horrified at what I saw during the preseason; I was shocked at just how bad the Pats looked on offense. I wouldn't have been surprised if Cassel had been cut--I don't count myself as the world's most informed football fan, but, OTOH, I also know BB understands and sees one heck of a lot more than any of us fans do. But when the Pats kept him, I figured that there must be a logical reason; BB wouldn't make such a decision on the spur of the moment.
Like all of us, my reaction when Brady went down went roughly like this: "Oh s***! . . . I hope he's OK. . . . Oh s***! That means Cassel's the QB, at least for the rest of this game. . . . I hope he does better than he did in the preseason. . . ."
Remarkably, I realized that Cassel might just have what it takes on his very first series. He was handed the worst possible position--with the ball inside the 2-yard line, and rushing got them nowhere on first and second downs. At this point, I would have settled for anything other than a KC touchdown on a fumble/INT. Needless to say, Cassel had far more faith in himself, and in his teammates, than I--or most Patriots fans--had at that moment; the stands were just about numb in shock. So, with third-and-long, inside the 1, Cassel unleashes a beautiful bomb to Moss which takes the Pats out of the shadow of their endgoal, and out to midfield. Watching the video of that pass on NFL.com is remarkable--you can actually see the crowd coming to their feet as the ball passes by them on their way to Moss. Instead of having to punt, or, worse still, giving up points, Cassel leads the team 99 yards to a touchdown. With that drive, Cassel restored my faith that, even if the Pats weren't likely to win the Super Bowl, they weren't going to just mail it in, either.
Cassel's confidence in himself is, IMO, one of the main reasons he's still in the NFL. Think about it for a moment--we're talking about a guy who hadn't started a game at QB since HS, and spent his time backing up a bunch of Heisman and Super Bowl winners. In order to have a player like this as your backup, he has
to have enormous self-confidence. (In terms of self-confidence, he's had to have as much as Wes Welker and Dustin Pedroia, and maybe even more.) He has to come into work thinking "Yeah, I'm the backup, but I know
I can lead this offense if I get the chance." A lot of people vilified him when, before the Super Bowl, he said that he'd rather play and lose then sit on the bench and win. I don't think he'd still be here today if he thought otherwise. In other words, I'd wager that Cassel's train of thought this season has not
been about validating BB's faith in him, as much as it's been about showing he can be as good as he believes he is.
The maturation he's shown over the last three months has been nothing short of incredible. His first few weeks he was playing a game-manager role, very much like Brady's first year. (Although, as Tom Curran put it, he was a game manager "with the pocket presence of a squirrel.") Since the Denver game, though, he's taken on a much larger role--it now comes to the point where instead of winning in spite of Cassel, the team wins because of Cassel. Seriously, consider the Pats' last three losses--Cassel's play hasn't been the primary factor in any of them. (That's true even today, when his play was far worse than it was the last two weeks; Cassel didn't muff a kickoff, miss a field goal, or miss a block on PIT's D.)
That's not to say that Cassel is the reincarnation of the Tom F****n' Brady almost all of us grew to love last season. He could never
be that player. Remember that Brady, unlike Cassel, actually demonstrated that he could run a team in college: after all, he set an Orange Bowl record leading Michigan to a victory there, and was known for his ability to rally his teammates. He also didn't have the weight of having to take over for a QB who had just broken NFL records for wins and TDs. Brady could come in knowing "I've already done it, now I just need to translate my game to the NFL," a mindset Cassel simply cannot have.
Instead, though Cassel brings his own unique attributes--first, an ability to run that Brady, for better or worse, will never match. (If the defense parts like it did against Buffalo, Cassel can easily take off, knowing he can get 7-10 yards before anyone can reach him.) Second, and just as important, is perspective. If there is one thing that truly surprises me, it's how little he lets mistakes affect him. He doesn't ignore them--he does, in fact, learn from them--but even if one drive ends badly, he's ready to go as soon as the Pats get the ball back. The proof of this was in the JEST game--even with the Patriots down 18 with two minutes to go in the first half, Cassel still had faith he could make a comeback. Just as importantly, he played aggressive, but smart, football (see Rosenfels, Sage, for an example of aggressive but stupid football), running the two-minute drill to near perfection twice.
As Bob Ryan said, a DVD of the second drill should be sent to every HS and college in the country; what Cassel had to do
in that drive was far harder than either of Brady's SB-winning drives. Yes, his play this week was a disappointment, but, once again, he kept trying to make plays, and, given everything else that went wrong, I'm not going to hold that against him.
I don't know what the future holds; heck I don't even know what will happen the next four weeks. What I do know is that Cassel is giving 31 front offices ample demonstration of his strengths and
his limitations, his ceiling and
his floor. Those teams that are looking for QBs will look at his game films, and they'll see all the great passes that clanged off receivers' hands, and they'll also see the times when he locked in on one receiver and missed a wide-open receiver elsewhere. They'll also see his ability to run, and his ability to put passes where only his receivers can make the play.
Given his performance so far, and the remarkable lack of wear on his treads, so to speak, he almost certainly will find a starter's job somewhere else next year (preferably in the NFC
). This week doesn't much change the fact that the Pats may still feel compelled to use the franchise tag (or see the value in it); as I said in another thread, no QB faces the #1 defense in the league in nasty weather 16 times a year. (And given that Cassel grew up in LA, this may have been his first
game in nasty weather, ever; I expect he'll do better if he has to play another game in the elements.)
I'll conclude with one last thought:
Compares To: MATT CASSEL-New England...
That sounds a lot better than it did six months ago.