Monday, September 08, 2008

Say It Ain't So

Woe is me, Tom Brady is out for the season. Yesterday afternoon, the sports viewing population let out a collective sigh the likes of which has never been heard before. It's not just an all-world quarterback that was lost, but a potential championship season. And sure, the Patriots extended their NFL record regular season winning streak to 20 games, but come on, that was all lost as well. It's time for the Boston faithful to retrieve their pre-Red Sox 2004 "the end is near" attitudes because good God, Tom Brady tore up his knee.

Before thinking too hard about the fate of the 2008 Patriots, lets take a trip back to 2001. The Patriots 100 million dollar face of the franchise, Drew Bledsoe, had just injured a blood vessel on a vicious hit from Jets linebacker Mo Lewis and looked to be out for an extended period of time. The Patriots were 0-2 and had only won 7 of their previous 26 games dating back to 1999. For those of us who'd been excited by the Parcells-Bledsoe Super Bowl run of 1996, those days were looking more and more like a distant memory.

Enter Tom Brady, a 6th round draft pick in 2000, heading into his first start in a game against the 2-0 Indianapolis Colts. Exit my youthful hopes that my Patriots could always, always (even in 1990 in the midst of a 1-15 season), turn their season around. I didn't even bother to watch the start of that Colts game, but when I did tune in, something strange happened. Rather than crack like my hopes and dreams, the Patriots rallied behind their rookie quarterback. The defense harassed Peyton Manning for 60 minutes, the rushing attack came on strong, and throwing a careful mix of screens and short passes, the Patriots defeated the Colts 44-13. It turns out to be a recipe for success over the course of the season and it's a story everyone knows all too well.

What we tend to forget how hopeless the Patriots season looked in September of 2001. We tend to forget who was on that Patriot team. There was no Randy Moss on that team, only Troy Brown and David Patten. That team had a rookie Richard Seymour, but didn't have Vince Wilfork or Ty Warren or Jarvis Green. That team did have Antwoin Smith, but does anyone doubt that Lawrence Maroney or Sammy Morris could have been 1,000 yard rushers for that 2001 team. Far too many pooh pooh the thought that Matt Cassel is the next rags to riches story without putting the entire situation into perspective. Football is about the team and outside the quarterback position, the Patriots have a damn good team. They went 16-0 last season, not solely because of Brady, but because of the talent around him.

Even considering Matt Cassel and considering 2001 Tom Brady, this version of the Patriots is more talented than the 2001 version. Take that for what you will, but I take it as a sign that the team isn't going to just call the season lost and the team has a fighting chance. Obviously, if Matt Cassel does his best impression of Ryan Leaf, the Patriots season will be lost, unless they manage to get another capable guy in there. But if Casell can do his best imitation of 2000's Trent Dilfer or 2001's Tom Brady, then why the hell shouldn't the Patriots still be contenders. Again think back to 2001- that team didn't even throw the ball down the field, relying instead on screens and short passes. With Moss, as they showed yesterday, these Patriots under Cassel have the potential to do even more than those 2001 Patriots.

The real question isn't whether Cassel can come in and be a star, the real question is whether he's an NFL quarterback and from what limited regular season play I've seen from him, I believe the answer is yes. I was impressed yesterday when he came in without a lead, without any points on the board, and backed up to the two yard line and led the Patriots on a 98-yard drive. I was impressed yesterday with the lack of interceptions. And I was impressed in Cassel's only other regular season game where he received significant playing time, way back in 2005, when he almost beat the Dolphins in a season finale with most of the regulars resting. That Dolphin team, if you remember, had won it's final 6 games to finish 9-7. And Cassel played well after coming in at the start of the 2nd quarter, completing 11 of 20 passes for 168 yards, 0 Ints and 2 TD's. If you were curious, that puts Cassel at 24 of 38 for 320 yards, 3 TD's and 0 Ints in 6 career quarters of significant NFL play. Not half bad and it certainly doesn't make me think that the 2008 preseason version of Matt Cassel is the one closer to the real thing.

I can already hear the pain in the voices of Patriots fans, but come on- Have a little hope. We've been through worse. No our offense won't set records this season and no, we don't have an easy track to the division title and a first round bye. But that doesn't mean it's not within our site. To repeat myself, we did more with less back in 2001. Or in other words, we're still a lot closer to the AFC elite than we are to the basement. Belichick and McDaniels will adjust the offense and we'll see game plans designed toward Cassel's strengths and designed to hide his weaknesses. We'll also return to the rushing game, something we should have been doing anyways, and a strategy that should be made easier given the number of running backs we've kept on the roster. More than anything else, let's not forget the ability of this team to rally in the face of adversity. For the other 52 players on the team, Brady's injury may be- in a way- a blessing in disguise- removing the weight of expectations from their shoulders. For the first time since, gee, maybe 2004, the Patriots will not be the darlings of the NFL, which maybe, just maybe, can relieve the team of much of the pressure they played with all of last season. There's still a lot of talent in New Engalnd. And most importantly, there's still Bill Belichick. Yeah we all love Brady, but it's in Bill we trust. I hope no one forgot that part.

Updated 9/8/2008 @ 11:55 AM : No one should misread the Patriots looking at other quarterbacks as a sign of the apocalypse. Belichick wouldn't have stuck with Cassel as his backup if he wasn't comfortable with Cassel as his backup. Chris Simms and Tim Rattay are coming in because they now have only two healthy quarterbacks. They'd be insane to play out the season with only rookie Kevin O'Connell on the bench. Maybe another backup will eventually press Cassel, but I guarantee you, the thought is just to get a backup with some experience, not to literally find a new quarterback. That's why we may see Chris Simms or Tim Rattay, but I'd be willing to be we don't see Daunte Culpepper.


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