Monday, October 06, 2008

The Cassel Factor

If the season ended right now, the New England Patriots would be in the playoffs and that alone should be enough to make any Patriots fan happy at this point. The bad taste of the Dolphins was washed away with a thorough whooping of the 49ers and now it's on to 2-3 San Diego.

Two weeks ago, the beating at the hands of the Dolphins was so bad that it made real analysis essentially useless. As I pointed out, if the Pats continued to play the way they had against the Dolphins, we'd be talking about record breaking losing streaks before long. Yesterday was insightful in showing exactly what the strengths and weaknesses of this Brady-less team are. But before looking to the rest of the team, let's start with Matt Cassel, who yesterday laid out in front of us exactly the kind of quarterback he is. Three games into the Cassel era and I'm convinced he's an NFL caliber backup quarterback, but he's not real starter material. He does a decent job of reading defenses and as he showed on the beautiful touchdown to Moss, he can throw a nice deep ball. I even saw him make a couple of nice audibles. Most importantly, he looks comfortable, not confused when he lines up behind the center. Despite that horrible loss to the Dolphins, this team could still win 10-12 games with Matt Cassel.

But Cassel's weaknesses are major weaknesses and are the sort of problems that I'm not sure more expierience or preparation can fix. Biggest of all problems is Cassel's utter lack of pocket presence, which has become glaringly evident after 7 years of Tom Brady. Cassel not only has no feel for the rush, he literally looks panicked every time he's hurried, a bit like Drew Bledsoe, only 100 times more timid. He was sacked 5 times yesterday and each one was bad- as soon as he feels the rush, it's as if he losses sight of what's going on downfield. To make matters worse, he has a tendency to tuck the ball, even though he lacks the athletic ability to do anything with it. And given Cassel's unique circumstances, I'm not sure there's anything he can do about these shortcomings.

Pocket presence is something a quarterback develops from experience, from literally sitting in the pocket and learning to feel the rush around him. And Matt Cassel simply doesn't have that experience. Before the Chiefs game, Cassel hadn't spent any significant time throwing the ball in a real game situation since he was in high school, playing againast guys like me- hardly the sort of preparation that gets one ready for the speed of the NFL. Cassel is clearly a good study, or he wouldn't have stuck around this long, but dealing with a live pass rush is not something you can study for, and this is precisely where Cassel's lack of college experience plays out. He looks terrible in the pocket because he's never actually had to throw the ball in a game situation againast actual athletes. And several games aren't going to make up for the years of experience he lacks.

What this means for the Patriots is that they absolutely must protect him for the rest of the season. This mean using max protect schemes, particularly given the receivers they have. They're better off protecting Cassel to give him a chance to get the ball to Moss in double coverage than they are trying to have him get the ball to Moss in single coverage under a heavy pass rush.

Other thoughts on the game and the rest of the team:

# I don't think Lawrence Maroney will ever be an elite running back. This is a team that really could have used the emergence of a superstar runner who could carry the team on his shoulders, and if Maroney isn't that guy now, in his 3rd year, then he'll never be that guy.

# The offensive line looked much better this week and I'm wondering how much of my criticism of them this season should fall equally on Cassel - Or alternatively, was this a mediocre bunch for years, made all the better by Tom Brady's pocket presence and decision making?

# I wonder if any Patriot fan would trade Stephen Gostkowski straight up for Adam Vinatieri. After going 20 of 26 his rookie year, Gostkowski is now 31 of 34 on field goals since the start of last season, including 10 of 10 this year. Plus, he kills the ball on kickoffs.

# I don't put too much credence in Cassel's two picks from yesterday. The first one sailed on him when he got hit and the second one came on a long bomb to Moss that every single Pats fan out there wanted him to throw. Even if some of those get picked, we want the ball going downfield to Moss.

# The defense was much improved from the Dolphin game, holding the Niners to under 200 yards on the day, but I'm just not sure how much to read into the performance. We'll learn a lot more againast the Chargers next week.

# Adalius Thomas looked like a monster and had me wondering where he was two weeks ago. He's the X-factor this year.

# I love Kevin Faulk, who's trying his darndest to work his way up the list of players most disliked by the Patriot haters. He's still got a bit more work to do if he wants to pass Troy Brown though.


Blogger McMc said...

Dude, no quarterback makes his line better because of "pocket presence". The fact is the Pats line was awesome the past few years and Brady's "presence" was merely being able to stand in one spot and wait for someone to get open. The line is beat up, plain and simple.

And I'm sorry, but a "thorough whooping" is no way to describe that 49ers game. It was 27-21 with 10 minutes to play for crying out loud.

2:45 AM  
Blogger lonely libertarian said...

What I mean is this- Brady has tremendous pocket presence, meaning he was very good at making plays or just getting rid of the football to avoid sacks. Cassel has taken a lot of sacks and has literally thrown the ball away maybe once. Not that the line hasn't struggled this season, but I think Cassel makes them seem worse then they are, and Brady always made them seem a lot better by keeping down the sack totals.

And I say thorough whooping because, if you actually watched the game, it was very clear the Patriots were in control. The Niners only held the ball for 6:46 of the second and third quarters (compared to 23:14 for the Pats) and did not get a first down, during which time the Patriots turned a 14-7 deficit into a 27-14 lead. The Niners did get on the board again in the 4th, but the Patriots responded with a nearly 6 minute drive to put the game out of reach.

Also, the Patriots out gained the Niners, 377 to 199, and had 25 first downs to the Niners 12.

9:14 AM  
Anonymous rose said...

mcmc is dead on. The Patriots offensive line was by far the best pass blocking O line anyone our age had ever witnessed last year. How many times did brady sit there bobbing up and down with no one near him, followed by announcers praising his "pocket presence".

If something gets repeated often enough it becomes fact apparently.

The Pats o line is a shell of itself this year. I'm not saying Cassell isn't at fault. I'm saying the myth of Brady's pocket presence would've been exposed this year...exactly as it was in last year's superbowl.

Roethlisberger, Romo and Peyton have pocket presence.

12:08 PM  
Blogger lonely libertarian said...

Brady is as adept at feeling the pass rush and getting rid of the football as any quarterback in NFL history. If you haven't seen that, then I'm not sure what sort of football you've been watching.

To bring up the Super Bowl is rather pointless, because every non-mobile quarterback in NFL history struggles against a successful 4 man pass rush. It's tough to be a quarterback when you don't have time to throw the ball and there are 7 defenders dropping into coverage.

12:48 PM  
Anonymous rose said...

Wow. As adept as anyone ever? I can't even express how absurd I find that. I've watched plenty of Pats games over the years. Brady is utterly average any time the pats o-line doesn't let him operate in a vacuum. When they protect him, he gets credit for pocket presence. When they're merely average and Brady self-destructs, it's always on them.

Aside from presence, Brady lacks many QBs ability to throw from multiple angles while getting hit, or with obstancles in front of him. Most of his success has been had while throwing from a stationary position inside a massive pocket.

I don't see the point in going further with the argument though. You're watching a different game than me.

2:08 PM  
Blogger McMc said...

If Brady has such great pocket presence, how come he didn't sense Bernard Pollard's head lunging toward his knee??????

Seriously though, it's not pointless to bring up the Super Bowl. The SB for Brady was what some QBs face almost every week. He got sacked 5 times and hit a lot because he did what he always does: stand in one spot forever. This time though, defenders actually got to him.

I admit there's obviously some hyperbole, but I think it's pointless to praise someone for "pocket presence" just because they step up when they see the pass rush coming.

One final note: When's the last time Brady made a throw on the run? When's the last time he ever had to?

2:11 PM  
Anonymous rose said...

It's hilarious the way this stuff works.

If Brady were on a bad team he'd be exposed.

If Brady were on a team with a great offense and a bad defense, he'd be Drew Brees.

But since Brady was on a great team and won superbowls, everything he does is "the best ever".

2:21 PM  
Blogger lonely libertarian said...

1) As I said earlier, quarterbacks who face consistent pressure from 3 and 4 man rushes don't play well and rarely ever win. If you can ever find a quarterback who played a great or even a good game againast that sort of a pass rush, I'd love to hear about it. The Giants could do it last year because of the talent they had (still have apparently) on their defensive front. You all may remember the Giants-Eagles game from last year when Donovan McNabb took a beating. It's why I say the Super Bowl isn't all that worth talking about, precisely because it was the sort of situation no quarterback could succeed in, at least, not a non-mobile quarterback.

2) Rose, your right about Brady being a traditional pocket quarterback, but those same points apply to Dan Marino, Dan Fouts, and even Peyton Manning.

3) Brady tends not to throw on the run because he doesn't like to throw on the run. Where other quarterbacks may break the pocket and scramble, Brady tends to either step up, maneuver in the pocket, or just throw the ball away.

4) I think you all forget how often Brady was just willing to throw the ball away- I know it drove Patriot haters crazy because announcers tended to over praise him for it.

5) Look Rose, we can debate the quarterback thing again and again, but how many good or great quarterbacks can you name me that played for consistently bad teams? Maybe it's not fair and we judge quarterbacks too harshly, but this isn't just me or even just the media talking- this is literally how NFL personnel types look at the game.

The truth is, I don't know what Brady would be on a bad team- I don't know what Peyton would be on a bad team either. Dan Marino had a few losing seasons in his career, on pretty bad Dolphins teams, but even those teams had decent offensive lines- Marino never had to deal with the Texans offensive line of the David Carr era.

Yes, quarterbacks are judged in a large part by winning, but, if you don't agree with that, who are these great quarterbacks who played for terrible teams?

3:06 PM  
Anonymous rose said...

I believe that in general, the "consensus" is generally a pretty indicator of all things sports, or otherwise. When a lot of people, experts even, believe something, it is usually true. Point spreads are a perfect example of consensus and they are tough, if not impossible to beat for 99.9% of people out there.

I think the consensus is way off in terms of how we measure players in the NFL. Situations and surroundings can literally make or break the player. There are lots of great QBs that will go down in history as gigantic busts that would have succeeded brilliantly if they were afforded what Brady has had. Similarly there are a lot of average QBs who have become stars.

I see what I see, that's all I can say. Manning is a pocket passer, but I see him time and time again make throws in traffic, on the run, while getting hit, off his back foot, while having a lineman driven in to him...plays Brady can not make. I see brady succeed doing things Manning does in his sleep.

If Peyton went down and Matt Cassell stepped in for him the Colts would be the worst team in the NFL.

3:59 PM  

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