Notebook | Experience is overrated? Cassel has Patriots in playoff hunt
Matt Cassel replaced injured Patriots QB Tom Brady, and Cassel, who never started in college, is now an NFL starter.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Leinart. Palmer. Cassel. Name the former USC quarterback and current NFL starter who gets on the field every week.
It's not Matt Leinart, the former Heisman Trophy winner and Arizona Cardinals first-round draft pick in 2006 who lost his starting job to Kurt Warner.
It's not Carson Palmer, another Heisman winner, who might need reconstructive elbow surgery and hasn't played much this season for the Cincinnati Bengals.
The answer is Cassel — Matt Cassel — the 230th player taken in the 2005 draft by the New England Patriots. Cassel was Palmer's and then Leinart's backup at USC, completing 20 of 33 passes for 192 yards in his five years in the program. The Patriots felt they got enough of a good evaluation from USC coach Pete Carroll to use a draft choice on Cassel, and he eventually became the backup to Tom Brady.
Cassel rarely saw the field in his first three seasons, with the superstar Brady guiding New England to three division titles and an AFC championship during Cassel's time there. And then fate struck — Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter of the first game against Kansas City, and Cassel was in.
"I had to find my helmet first, catch my breath and then warm up," Cassel said when asked what he thought when he realized he was the next man up. "From there, I tried to calm myself down and tell myself that I've been preparing for this for a long time and trust my preparation."
The sky was falling in New England. The Patriots' long run of playoff appearances and success could come to a screeching halt. Cassel was no Brady, the celebrity of a quarterback with four Pro Bowl appearances, three Super Bowl rings and supermodel Gisele Bündchen as his girlfriend.
Cassel is happily married and yet not as accomplished on the field as Brady. He has shown he belongs in the NFL. He's taken his hits — sacked 39 times — but has completed 64.6 percent of his passes and thrown for 2,784 yards, with 13 touchdowns to 10 interceptions. He had back-to-back 400-yard games last month, his 815 yards the highest two-game total in Patriots history. And perhaps most important, Cassel has New England in the playoff hunt at 7-5.
"I've been here for four years, and that's an indication to me that I'm doing the right things," Cassel said.
It helps that Cassel has a talented group of wide receivers. Randy Moss is cementing himself as one of the NFL's best of all time, and has 58 catches for 785 yards and eight touchdowns this season. Teammate Wes Welker is having a career year with 84 catches, second-most in the NFL. Welker caught six or more passes in the season's first 11 games.
"I was certainly confident that Matt would do a good job for us at quarterback," coach Bill Belichick said. "I think everybody else felt that, too. Especially in the Kansas City game, he made plays in that game to help us win, and we all saw that."
Brady was the first to send a text message to Cassel after the Kansas City game congratulating him for making the most of his opportunity. Cassel keeps a low profile but understands how fortunate he is to be a starter, living his dream.
"I didn't know if that opportunity was ever going to come," Cassel said. "I just continued to work hard."
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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