Commentary

Cassel has spent years preparing for leading role

Patriots QB Matt Cassel hasn't started a game since high school, but he's confident he is prepared as he steps in for the injured Tom Brady, Greg Garber writes.

Originally Published: September 12, 2008
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Matt CasselJim Rogash/Getty ImagesMatt Cassel was 13 of 18 for 152 yards and a TD after Tom Brady was injured against the Chiefs.
Three years ago, Doug Flutie found himself back with the Patriots in what would be his 22nd and final season as a professional quarterback. He'd played in the USFL and the Canadian Football League, and this was his second tour of duty in New England.

Flutie looked forward to film sessions with Tom Brady, who had led the Patriots to three Super Bowl victories in the preceding four seasons and won two MVP awards in the process. What Flutie didn't anticipate was an attitude from a rookie quarterback whose only start in college came at H-back.

"Matt Cassel -- aka, the Cass Dog," Flutie reminisced Wednesday. "First day, he steps into a meeting -- I had played 20-plus years of pro football, Tom had done all he's accomplished in the NFL -- and can't understand why he didn't have equal say. Matt didn't get that.

"Tom and I wouldn't give him the time of day in meetings. When he'd stand up with all these great ideas, Josh McDaniels, the offensive coordinator, was like, 'OK, Cass, settle down over there.' We were constantly trying to keep him in his place, but his personality wouldn't allow it."

At lunchtime Thursday, the Boston media descended on Cassell, who will make his first NFL start Sunday against Brett Favre and the New York Jets. In the wake of Brady's season-ending knee injury last Sunday against Kansas City, their mission was to discover just who Matt Cassel is.

"I don't really like to make comparisons to myself and Tom," Cassel said. "Tom is who he is and he was MVP of the league last year. I am who I am."

Cassel stepped in for the fallen Brady and completed 13 of 18 passes for 152 yards and a touchdown as the Patriots held off the Chiefs, 17-10. His signature moment? Taking the snap inside his end zone on the last play of the first quarter, Cassel produced a Brady-esque play-action fake and hit Randy Moss with a 51-yard pass play.

"Even back to day one," Flutie said, "the offensive line used to come back and say, 'Hey, there's something about this kid.' He always had a swagger every time he stepped under center."

This is a 26-year-old guy whose last start at quarterback came nearly nine years ago for Chatsworth (Calif.) High School -- and he completed only 3 of 11 passes and lost the Los Angeles City Invitational playoffs to Palisades, 49-42. How, exactly, do you develop a swagger when you don't play?

"I don't know," said Flutie. "I do not know, but it is there. The confidence level's amazing."

Before last Sunday, you could argue that Cassel's biggest game came 14 years ago, when he was a pitcher and first baseman for the Northridge (Calif.) team that reached the finals of the Little League World Series before falling, 4-3, to Maracaibo, Venezuela.

He was a terrific ballplayer from a baseball family -- his brothers Jack and Justin are both professionals, with the Houston Astros and Chicago White Sox organizations, respectively -- and he received a number of full scholarship offers. He decided instead to play football at the University of Southern California.

A good call, according to Bill Coan, his coach at Chatsworth. Cassel, he said, was too aggressive for baseball, the kind of guy who was waiting for Coan when he opened up the weight room at 6 a.m.

"Vivacious -- he is just 100 percent go all the time," Coan said Thursday. "He is just on fire, mentally aggressive, physically aggressive. If you aren't careful, he will come up and grab you and hug you and slap you on the butt."

Playing ahead of Cassel, Carson Palmer won the 2002 Heisman Trophy. Then Matt Leinart beat out Cassel for the job and won the Heisman Trophy in 2004.

"He watched guys under the pressures of the starting position; he knew all the rigors," USC coach Pete Carroll said Wednesday. "He was with those guys every step of the way, helping them and being part of it."

The only award Cassel won playing football at USC was the Howard Jones/Football Alumni Club academic award as the upperclassman with the highest grade point average (3.8).

"He got caught in a bad situation," said UCLA offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who was USC's offensive coordinator from 2001 through 2004. "We moved him to tight end, and one year he went out and played baseball. Turned out he pitched for one year and got drafted into big league baseball."

Cassel went in the 36th round of the 2004 MLB draft, to the Oakland Athletics, but decided to wait to see if anyone in the NFL was interested in a quarterback who had completed only 20 passes in 25 games as a backup.

He wasn't invited to the scouting combine in Indianapolis, but was impressive enough at USC's Pro Day to pique the interest of the Patriots. With the 230th choice of the 2005 draft -- only 25 spots ahead of Mr. Irrelevant, William Penn tight end Andy Stokes -- New England took him with an errant pick from the Vikings that had come through both the Jets and Raiders.

"You take a flyer on a kid who was impressive during workouts, with his size, arm, his intelligence," said draft guru Mel Kiper. "They liked everything they saw about Matt Cassel and that allowed them to say, 'Hey, late in the draft, let's catch a little lightning in a bottle.'"

Cassel made the team and played behind Brady and Flutie, another Heisman Trophy winner. Technically, Flutie was No. 2 on the depth chart but he admitted that Cassel already was performing better by season's end.

"I think the toughest job in football is always to be the starter, because everybody looks to you for guidance," Cassel said Thursday. "The second is being a backup quarterback, because at a moment's notice, like last week, you never anticipate it and you hope it never happens due to injury, but it comes up in this game a lot.

"You just have to be prepared."

For 14 years now, going back to Little League, Matt Cassel has been preparing for this leading role. He has been around terrifically talented players -- now he and the Patriots will discover whether or not he has the capacity for that kind of greatness.

Brady himself had an eerily similar experience, playing behind Brian Griese at Michigan when the Wolverines won a national championship, then getting drafted late by the Patriots and learning by watching an icon, Drew Bledsoe.

Cassel was not overly impressive in four preseason starts, completing 56 percent of his passes and barely keeping his No. 2 spot over Matt Gutierrez.

"I'm not saying he's Tom Brady -- no one is," Flutie said. "But it's going to be fun to watch him play. You just have to be patient with him the first couple of weeks because he's had no experience. [But] as far as throwing the football, his athleticism, his work ethic -- all top-notch.

"I think he's going to do very well."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.