September 09, 2008
Patriots Finally Realize The Biggest 'What If...'
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
The late, great Jim McKay of ABC Sports gave an eloquent opening to one of the most terse news bulletins in the history of television: "My father once told me that your best dreams and your worst fears are seldom realized."
He then told the world that the rest of the 1972 Israeli Olympic team had been killed on an airplane runway in a failed ambush to try and free them from Arab captors. McKay concluded with the three most memorable words of his brilliant career: "They're all gone."
The Patriots' worst fears were realized on Sunday. As for whether or not a Super Bowl bid is all gone, maybe, and then, maybe not.
Tom Brady, as was feared during the last thirty-six hours, was placed on injured reserve on Monday, ending his 2008 season. Bill Belichick announced this roster move at a 3:00 PM press conference. The head coach stopped short in disclosing the exact nature of Brady's injury, but sources close to the team have indicated that Brady has at least a damaged ACL and will need surgery.
As for whether or not the hit on Brady by Chief safety Bernard Pollard was dirty, all Belichick would say was "we always taught our players to hit the quarterback above the knee and below the shoulders." He did not come right out and say that he thought the play was clean. Pollard denies that he is a dirty player and would continue to pray for Brady.
So, Patriots, now what?
Belichick denied that he is bringing in recently released veterans for tryouts, most notably former Tampa Bay quarterback Chris Simms and former San Francisco quarterback Tim Rattay. Belichick asserted in the press conference that Matt Cassel is the starting quarterback for now, saying that "I think he showed that (Sunday), that he can go out there and manage the game and manage the team."
If Cassel is indeed the starting quarterback, what then of the horrid preseason performances? By the time the Patriots had suffered their fourth preseason defeat at the hands of the Giants, most everyone had Cassel out the door. It looked like Belichick would keep Matt Gutierrez and rookie Kevin O'Connell behind Brady. Instead it was Gutierrez that was let go.
Cassel played extremely well on Sunday, so called. He came right in and engineered a 98-yard touchdown drive, including a gutsy 51-yard bomb to Randy Moss to get them out of the shadow of their own end zone, and later a 10-yard touchdown pass to Moss which was a beautiful throw and a great leaping grab by Moss. Cassel did nothing to lose the game, made no mistakes, and ran a very conservative offense very well.
But this was against the Kansas City Chiefs. How will this play out against the rest of the league? The sworn enemy, the New York Jets, are next on the schedule. Chief defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham is top notch, but Eric Mangini might not be so conquerable.
All that said, here is how the Patriots can grow roses of success from the ashes of disaster.
Belichick and Josh McDaniels will need to retool the entire Patriot offense to accommodate Cassel. The offense will have to be dumbed down to a point where Cassel can deal with situations which aren't as intricate as to what Brady deals with. The offensive line might be licking its chops here, as a newfound commitment to the run game is likely in order. The Patriots will perhaps retain five running backs, and third string tight end Stephen Spach, the best blocking tight end on the team, should get his chance to shine like he did in the AFC playoffs last winter.
If you're worried about Moss, don't be. Moss won't care about being thrown to or not being thrown to as long as his team wins. Wes Welker might see a drop in production unless Cassel learns more about hot reads and quick-hit slot patterns. In any case, the offensive line must protect Cassel well, and Belichick will need to coach Cassel into avoiding sacks by scrambling outside the tackle box and throwing the ball away, or if a sack is imminent, to take the sack and not throw an interception.
One area where the Patriots simply will need to roll the dice is in Cassel developing a rhythm with his receivers. That will simply take time, as Cassel won't have the same feel for his receivers like Brady did. Cassel will never be able to dissect complex defenses like Brady can do, but Cassel will need to learn quickly to get an instinctive feel for the tendencies of his receivers and to avoid interceptions based on him throwing to a spot he thought a receiver was going to but didn't.
Superceding all this is the likelihood that this injury to Brady might actually help the Patriots rather than hurt them.
This is not to suggest that the Patriots are better off without Brady. But the Patriots are suddenly relegated to their favorite role, that of underdog. If teams let up on the Patriots and think that they are no good without Brady, the Patriots will take advantage of this in grand style. If teams stay disciplined and attack Cassel with poise and a decent game plan instilled in them, then the Patriots will have a hard time in any game they play.
For the Patriots to continue to win with the other team bringing their "A" game to the table, the offensive game plan must be simple and must not put Cassel in a position to lose the game. If Cassel can manage the game like Brady was supposed to do when he stepped in for Drew Bledsoe in 2001, the Patriots have enough material elsewhere to compete in any game. The Patriots are fortunate in that the rest of the entire NFL his no real dominant team, and both Indianapolis and San Diego flopped in their openers. If there was any year where a Brady injury might possibly be tolerated, this might be it.
The Patriot defense must also sound the call. Veterans like Tedy Bruschi, Richard Seymour and Rodney Harrison know the task in front of them. Be ready to withstand a hail of three-and-outs from the offense. Any field goal that could have been a touchdown helps. Resolve to do what the offense did last year, but in reverse: set a league record in fewest points allowed. Brady, after all, has zero career defensive interceptions and zero career sacks. This team is largely about Brady but not completely about Brady.
The more people say that the Patriots are "done" (Deion Sanders of the NFL Network said "Stick a fork in them!" on Sunday night), the better for the Patriots. But at the same time, Belichick must author the finest coaching job of his career to date. His handling of Cassel will be scrutinized by all, and not only by those in New England.
In 1972, the Miami Dolphins went 17-0 with their backup quarterback, Earl Morrall, starting most of the games in relief of injured Bob Griese. It can be done, Mr. Cassel.
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