Wednesday, September 10

New England Patriots: Building Cassels in the Sky

It is time for Matt Cassel to direct the New England offense. While some fans choose to lament the Patriots plight, opposing fans unite and celebrate, and Tony Romo does his best to appear sincere in his sympathy, it is simply time to move on. For the NFL mainstream media I know this is difficult, just ask Aaron Rogers. However, pondering the what might have been is a fruitless endeavor. Brady is gone and there are still 15 more games to be played. The Patriot's season will ride on the thing that elevated them to their first championship and began the decade of success and subsequent ire from others in the league: cohesiveness.

When Drew Bledsoe got the blood vessels in his chest rearranged by Mo Lewis in 2001, the Patriots and fans thought the season was going to be worse than the awful mess that many thought it would be in the first place. Brady was an unknown, much like Cassel is now and like Cassel he was never a superstar starter in college. Brady did have more starts in college, but never a full season and either sat behind or split time with other Michigan quarterbacks. It goes without saying that Cassel will not be another Tom Brady, unless a shark attacks the same person in the same spot twice in a lifetime. (Shark attack used here because you are acutally more likely to get struck by lightning than getting attacked by a shark, although one must wonder if someone who was indeed attacked by a shark would venture into the very same beach where they experienced that trauma but then again some of those surfers are crazy.) If last season showed us anything it was that you could be one of the best teams in history and still not take home the title. Even if Cassel performs close to Brady's level, the success in the post-season is not a given.

Cassel will need to make throws, there is no doubt. The Patriots offense is built much differently than when Brady stepped in back in 2001. Back then the Patriots offense had little running game to speak of, relying on big Antione Smith and Kevin Faulk to squeeze out yards a little at a time. The passing game consisted of a short, west coast style variety led by veteran receiver Troy Brown, rookie Deion Branch and an emsemble cast of others including David Patten. It was hardly as potent and sophisticated as the layered passing attack of today's Patriots with the dominant Randy Moss, speedy Gaffney, and slippery Wes Welker. The running game is also higher octane with Lawrence Maroney starring and capable back-ups Sammy Morse and Lamont Jordan helping along with the eventual return of Kevin Faulk. Where Brady had to do more with less on their improbable run, Cassel now needs to do less with more. It is not necessary for Cassel to fling the ball deep downfield, just keep the chains moving, just finish drives, and don't make the defense stay on the field for extended periods of time.

One of the most important factors to Cassel is Brady himself. When Bledsoe went down, obviously he was upset but he took it upon himself to aid Brady in his game preparation. Even after he was medically cleared to play and Belichick made it clear that Tom would continue to be the starter, Bledsoe gave Brady his knowledge on what he saw was going on, and how to handle certain situations he had learned from his years of experience. It made a big difference, even if Brady goes down as the better quarterback which he no doubt will, when you are a first time starter in the NFL, you need that help. Bledsoe became the prototypical back-up; he had veteran experience to share with the younger starter, prepared himself each week as if he would be playing, and wanted desperately to play. Drew Bledsoe's legacy will not be of a champion, but he places high on some of the NFL all-time quarterback lists (5th in attempts and completions, 7th in yards, 13th in passing TDs) and led the Patriots to a Super Bowl all while playing on some very bad Patriot teams. He was a 7 time pro-bowler as well. The one ring he does have is bittersweet because it came the year he lost his job as a starter, but he did have a big hand in that championship. Not only in helping Brady prepare, but also stepping in when Brady went down in the AFC Championship game. Brady had his ankle rolled over and Bledsoe came in and promptly completed a TD just before halftime. He finished the game and completed a big upset over the #1 seeded Steelers, never to play in a Patriots uniform again.

Brady's competitiveness and sour taste from last year's Super Bowl loss may keep him introverted and silent to the press, but he cannot abandon Cassel. One of the attributes Belichick noticed about Brady when they first drafted him was Tom's ability to decipher what the defense was doing and memorize what transpired on the field. It was said that Brady could recontruct an entire game worth of plays in his head before he ever saw it on film. That kind of insight, shared with Cassel, will only make him a better QB. Brady is a consumate team player, and although he cannot lead the team now in games, he can be just as valuable as anyone taking the field on Sunday. It may help that there will be no tension about Brady losing the job like there was with Bledsoe, Tom should give every effort to teach Cassel all he knows. By Cassel's accounts that's what Brady has been doing, but now Brady has to do it from the sidelines and Cassel has to apply it.

A factor that Catfish touched on during our conversation mere hours after the injury was the mindset of Randy Moss. Last year Moss proved he is one of the greatest wide receivers ever and maybe the best as far as sheer talent goes. After the game on Sunday Moss took a shot at Bernard Pollard and the hit he laid on Brady. Hopefully that was just the emotion acting without the benefit of intellect after seeing the other half of the tandem that broke two single-season TD records last year for receiving and passing. Moss has been known to dog it on the field before and if things go bad early for Cassel in the next few weeks, Moss might return to that form. The TD Cassel rifled to Randy in the back of the endzone Sunday might be a precursor to a productive connection between the two, only time will tell.

The defense now faces a stiff challenge. When the season began, the Patriot defense was preparing to employ the "bend but don't break" policy where they give up yards, but not touchdowns. It works well when the offense is high octane and the strong point of your attack, but now things have changed. Even in the loss to the Giants last year, the defense held the offense of New York to 17 points. It was even seen on Sunday against the Chiefs, the Pats D will let you creep into the red zone, but often you're left with a field goal after 3 down and goal to go futile attempts. Richard Seymour looked healthy finally and strong on the D-line. Throw in Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren and the Patriots are solid up front. The rest of the defense has been seen as old and slow and capable of giving up big plays to fast, young talent. Jerod Mayo is looked to as an answer at linebacker, as well as Shawn Crable for injecting some youth and quickness to the veteran core. However, the experience and heady play of Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi counts for more. The defensive backfield is where most of the uncertainty lies. With Asante Samuel leaving for Philly, and Tank Johnson lost in the pre-season, the Patriots seem vunerable. Rodney Harrison can still it and help with the run, but lacks that step he had years ago. The addition of Deltha O'Neal might help somewhat but between him, Lewis Sanders, and Ellis Hobbs, there are lots of question marks. If the Pats D can be sturdy it will help, if they are dominant it will assure the Pats of a playoff birth, and if they are opportunistic it could propel a deep playoff run.

The sports pundits have been racing to predict where the Patriots will end up with some saying they will still conquer the AFC East and others saying they will be on the wrong side of a Wild Card playoff spot. It is far from certain how they will fare with the unproven Cassel and the easiest schedule in the league according to last year's records. Although the blogs and message boards and the T-shirts praising Brady's injury see this as an advantage for their team's chance for the Lombardi trophy, I don't see any of the other AFC teams looking forward to meeting a Belichick-coached team in the playoffs. As if enough eyes weren't on New England's match-up with the Jets this weekend to see number 4, Matt Cassel will be heading into a hostile environment on the road to face a bitter rival. What will Sunday and the rest of the season hold for the Patriots? The answer is clearly in their hands.

No comments: