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March 03, 2006
Showing Both Greatness And Fallibility
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net

First in a series of positional analysis for the 2005 New England Patriots. Today: Quarterbacks.

Few Patriot fans will forget the night Tom Brady’s playoff record went from 10-0 to 10-1.

Ugh. No more playoff perfection. The loss column no longer shows a zero. One loss. There goes all the veneer from Brady’s illustrious brief career. No longer can Brady be deified. This forever taints Brady. You’ll never look at him the same way again.

Whoops. These are the Patriots, not the Red Sox.

Brady has done so much right in his five seasons with the Patriots, he deserves a playoff mulligan now and then. Joe Montana, Bart Starr, Johnny Unitas, Terry Bradshaw, Brett Favre, none of them went undefeated in the postseason. Bradshaw himself said to Brady on the Super Bowl XXXIX victory podium, “You know it’s not really this easy, don’t you?” Brady instantly agreed.

And the Denver Broncos hammered that point home to Brady in January. His first playoff loss ended the Patriots’ dream of three straight Super Bowl wins, at least for the moment. The bumbling Patriots coughed up the ball three times, and Brady threw two picks which helped Denver, a team the Patriots could have and should have beaten, advance to the AFC Championship Game. The lasting image of Brady in the 2005 season will always be throwing that interception to Champ Bailey, which he returned 100 yards but failed to make it into the end zone.

And it is a shame that the season had to end like this. It was a strange season, littered with injuries, but the Patriots were remarkably still in a position to win another Super Bowl heading into Denver. Brady had perhaps the best regular season of his career, with a personal high in passing yardage and his second highest completion percentage and passer rating. He held the Patriots together when times were at their worst, and shook off a few bad games here and there to get the team in a position to make a run at the Super Bowl.

Seven times during the season, including the postseason, Brady exceeded 100 passer rating points. His best effort came in the game at Atlanta, where he hit on 22 of 27 passes for 350 yards, three touchdowns and a 140.4 rating. In the 28-0 shutout of Tampa Bay, he threw three more touchdown passes and finished with a 122.8 rating. His 4,110 passing yards led the league.

But Brady could not do it all by himself, nor could he come through all the time. The low point of the regular season was a 26-16 loss at Kansas City, where he threw 4 interceptions, completed only 22 of 40 passes and finished with a passer rating of 42.5. He had only a 69.3 rating against Carolina (loss), a 78.1 rating against San Diego at home (loss), and a 79.9 rating at Denver (loss). In the 40-21 loss at home to the Colts, Brady managed a glittering 121.4 rating, but the defense was too beaten up to work their usual magic on Peyton Manning.

Brady seemed to set the tone for an historic postseason run with a terrific game at home against Jacksonville in the Wild Card round. He threw for 201 yards and three touchdowns, managed a perfect game, and had a passer rating of 116.4. For one night in January, the Patriots looked like their old Super Bowl selves, and seemed to be jelling at just the right time. Everyone was back for this game, and Brady looked like he was picking right up from last January.

But the following week at Denver, Brady showed everyone that even he is fallible. To expect him to go undefeated in the playoffs for his entire career was unrealistic. This was a game where few Patriots, if any, played well. Brady could not provide the impetus for the Patriots to overcome five turnovers because he himself was also snakebitten that night at Invesco Field. The evening grew even more ignominious the following week when Denver was blown out at home by the eventual champion Pittsburgh Steelers. It was a season gone bad, and a true championship team that simply didn’t have it that evening.

Brady might greatly benefit from that loss in Denver. Assuming free agency or the sad situation that is the CBA bargaining sessions don’t kill the Patriots as we currently know them, Brady will wreck himself in the offseason to get ready for 2006, and you might just see a repeat of 2003, when the Patriots followed up a 9-7 campaign with a stunning 14-2 regular season (the first of two such seasons in a row), both seasons ending in Super Bowl wins. No one hates to lose more than Brady, and he will feed off the bad memories of that loss in Denver as he approaches 2006.

Who will back him up will bear watching. Veteran and local favorite Doug Flutie saw next to no action in 2005, and became noteworthy only for some dropkick field goal in a meaningless season finale, the first successful dropkick in the NFL in over 50 years. What will bear watching is the development of third string quarterback Matt Cassel, who caught everyone’s attention in the season finale at home against Miami.

The aforementioned “meaningless” game, which was more valuable for the Patriots to lose rather than to win, featured Cassel in the starring role. Cassel riddled the “A” Dolphin defense for 168 yards on 11 of 20 passing, two touchdowns and a passer rating of 116.3. Cassel would have led the Patriots to overtime if he doesn’t overthrow (on purpose, most people believe) the two-point conversion which would have sent the game to an extra frame. In any case, the former USC backup to Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart showed on that one day that he may be worthy of the number two job in 2006 and not Flutie, or any other established veteran.

The starting job is Brady’s as long as he wants it, of course. But Cassel should draw a ton of attention in training camp this summer. As for Brady, he needs to draw strength from the great things he has done, and draw inspiration from the Denver playoff loss. It should be a great quarterback year for the Patriots in 2006, and Brady might just have gotten himself a terrific understudy for years to come.

Now, all the Patriots have to do is to teach Cassel how to dropkick.

Next installment: Running backs.


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