Obama’s In, Cassel’s On His Way
I have never used this website as a political forum, nor do I intend to, but after President-elect Barack Obama’s historic and decisive victory Tuesday night, at the very least I must congratulate my fair city of Boston on it’s seventh major title this decade. This one we can share with the rest of the country.
Speaking of something that at one time seemed highly implausible but has slowly gained steam, let’s talk about the Patriots and their quest for a sixth consecutive AFC East crown.
It’s there for the taking folks, and the steady improvement of Matt Cassel is the reason why.
After a disappointing trip to Indy, we’ll get the negative out of the way first. The Patriots had that game in hand and blew it. Jabar Gaffney blew it by dropping what should have been the defining touchdown pass of the Cassel era thus far.
Bill Belichick blew it by wasting his timeouts. He gave away one on an awful challenge of the number of Colts on the field that would have resulted in a measly five yards if upheld. And he surrendered the team’s last game stoppage when he apparently second-guessed himself after keeping the offense on the field on a fourth and 1 late in the game, trailing 15-12. He sprinted up the sideline in pursuit of the line judge as Cassel appeared to get the first down and was rewarded the timeout retroactively.
David Thomas also had a hand in the demise, as he was whistled for an unnecessary roughness penalty that turned a third and 1 into a third and 16 on New England’s final drive. Unfortunately, because Coach Bill had no timeouts remaining, he couldn’t challenge the spot of the ball before the penalty — which replay indicated might have been a foot or so short of where BenJarvus Green-Ellis actually landed. That could have been the difference between the doomed third and 16 and a far more manageable first and 25.
Mental and strategic mishaps notwithstanding, the Patriots looked good on a national stage against a desperate rival. They had an excellent gameplan — which was centered around keeping the ball away from Peyton Manning — and executed it to near-perfection. The defense did an admirable job of slowing a Colts offense with its full arsenal of weapons. Most important, Cassel was exemplary in leading the offense.
Each week he looks more confident and makes stronger throws. He’s starting to read defenses, as evidenced by his recognizing and calling out the blitzers on a critical third and 8 at the beginning of the four quarter. After alerting the offensive line of where the pressure was coming from, he dropped back and delivered a dart to Randy Moss on a quick slant for a first down.
Cassel is also seeing more of the field. On a third and 4 in the second quarter, after surveying the middle of the field and seeing nothing, he found Gaffney — his third option — on an 11-yard sideline out pattern. Simply put, he’s beginning to understand how to take command of the offense. While he’ll never have the pocket presence of Tom Brady (who does?), he’s more mobile than Brady and has used that mobility to his advantage (34 rushes for 101 yards on the season).
It’s clear that the coaching staff is using the Brady schematic from 2001 to bring the new guy along. Most of what they’ve had him do has been safe and conservative — basic screens, check down passes, quick outs and hooks — but slowly they’re integrating some bolder plays. The gaffed-Gaffney play (a would-be 39-yard touchdown strike that Cassel put in a perfect place on the sideline at the five-yard line) was a glimpse of a what could become a more prolific air attack as he continues to progress.
There’s no doubt Cassel has the arm to get the ball downfield. He’s now starting to show the poise required to do so on a more regular basis, which should soon be paying dividends given the ongoing presence of one Randy Moss.
Again, to underscore the path Cassel is taking right now, look at the numbers from his first half-season: 67 percent completion percentage, 1566 yards, 7 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 83.4 quarterback rating. That means his projected final stats would be something in the neighborhood of 3300 yards, 16 touchdowns, 12 picks and a rating around 85 (assuming he improves a bit).
Brady’s first season? 2843 yards, 63.6 completion percentage, 18 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a quarterback rating of 86.5. Obviously Brady entered another realm beginning in the fourth quarter of the Oakland game in the playoffs, but it’s indisputable that Belichick is using the same system to hone Cassel as he did Brady. Whether or not that translates to victories in the postseason remains to be seen. But the Pats have positioned themselves to be there, yet again, and this time without the league MVP. That’s pretty special.
Looking at the AFC East — which is cumulatively as strong as it’s been throughout the Patriots’ reign — it’s evident New England has an opportunity to deal some serious blows to its divisional rivals in the coming games. Over the next three weeks they’ll host Buffalo (5-3) and the Jets (5-3) before traveling to Miami (4-4) for a revenge match with the Dolphins. Two wins will put them at 7-4 with a 3-2 record in the division, and assure them of holding first place going into the stretch run.
Considering how the defense has plugged holes in the secondary and stayed an elite unit, and how the coaching staff has craftily worked around the losses of its top three running backs while bringing along a new field general, it’s starting to look like a throwback year in Foxborough.
Implausible as it may have once seemed, Cassel’s Patriots could well be on their way to an AFC East title.
YES WE CAN!