Commentary

Patriots' Cassel finding comfort zone

Originally Published: November 17, 2008
By Bill Barnwell | Football Outsiders

Last Thursday night against the Jets, Matt Cassel permanently distanced himself from his previous identity as the quarterback holding back the Patriots' offense from its greatness of a year ago.

Although Cassel will never be Tom Brady, nor can he help the woeful coverage exhibited by the Patriots' secondary, Cassel's work both in the air and on the ground resulted in what our statistics report to be the best game of any quarterback so far in the 2008 season.

Cassel recorded a total of 244 DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) in the 34-31 overtime loss to the Jets, surpassing the 222 DYAR earned by Drew Brees in the Saints' narrow loss to Denver in Week 3. It seems counterintuitive to think that the two best games of the year were played by quarterbacks in losing efforts, but it's more of a fluke than anything else. In the other five games this year in which a quarterback has thrown for more than 200 DYAR, his team is 5-0. Both Cassel and Brees had incredible games and led an offense that produced more than 30 points. Unfortunately, they were both let down by their defenses -- and, in Cassel's case, a coin flip.

There are several changes that show the maturation of Cassel as an NFL starting quarterback, but one that stands out is his improved pocket presence. Over the past three games, Cassel has been sacked only four times in 121 dropbacks (3.3 percent). In his first seven games, he had 227 dropbacks with 28 sacks (12.3 percent). Cassel's newfound comfort in the pocket is logical and reasonable. With the best players at his level attempting to sack him in a meaningful regular season encounter for the first time since high school, it's no surprise Cassel had a lengthy adjustment period. Some credit also must be given to returning right guard Stephen Neal, who has helped shore up the line since returning from the physically unable to perform list.

One of the ways Cassel has begun to avoid sacks is by eluding rushers and getting into the open field, something he did very successfully against the Jets. He picked up 22 DYAR on the ground by successfully running for four first downs, including a fourth-and-1 sneak that kept a second-quarter drive alive. He also ran for 9 yards on first down, and had another long run called back because of a questionable holding call.

Cassel was successful on the ground, but he had little support. He gained 62 yards on eight carries -- the rest of the Patriots' backs gained only 63 yards on 17 attempts. Cassel was essentially a one-man show, and although he didn't have the home run throw that marked the Brady-led attack from a year ago, Cassel succeeded through excellent work underneath and the depth of his efforts.

Although Cassel was only 3-for-8 on third down, it had a lot to do with the spot the Patriots' running game was putting him in, as five of the eight third downs came with 10 yards to go or more. He converted on the fourth-and-1 that tied the game at the end of the regulation, however, and had a significant impact on first down, when he had 12 passes of 8 yards or more, putting the Patriots in very manageable situations. All in all, he picked up successful amounts of yardage (45 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 60 percent on second down, or 100 percent on third or fourth down) in 32 of his 57 dropbacks (56 percent) on Thursday. The average NFL quarterback is successful on only 45 percent of his dropbacks.

That the Patriots lost a thrilling game may temper some of the enthusiasm about Cassel's day, but when it comes to Cassel's performance, he could not have done much more to push the Patriots toward a win. Playing anywhere near that level on a consistent basis will ensure the Patriots have a quarterback who can lead them as far as their defense can take them -- and give them an interesting decision to make when Cassel becomes a free agent this offseason.

Here are the rest of the best and worst players of Week 11, according to the Football Outsiders DYAR statistics.

Quarterbacks
Rk
Player
Team
CP/AT
Yds
TD
INT
Total
DYAR
Pass
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
EYds
1.
Matt Cassel NE
30/48
400
3
0
244
222
22
660
Weird directional fluke: Cassel was 16-of-19 on short passes to the left and the middle, but only 12-of-20 on short passes to the right.
2.
Peyton Manning IND
30/46
320
2
0
167
167
0
479
Manning had an incredible first two drives in the third quarter: 7-of-8, 101 yards, six first downs, one touchdown.
3.
Aaron Rodgers GB
23/29
227
2
1
157
152
4
396
The Week 10 performance by Kerry Collins wasn't a fluke; the Bears stuck with a similar game plan against Rodgers, isolating their corners in man coverage far too frequently, and Rodgers took advantage of it with the same route tree that Collins used. One weird quirk is that Rodgers completed 11 passes to his running backs and tight ends, with only one of those catches good for a first down.
4.
Jeff Garcia TB
23/30
255
0
0
156
140
17
418
Garcia is the football equivalent of a late-career Tom Glavine, just throwing up junk and barely avoiding danger seemingly on every play. He was at his best Sunday, slipping through sack after sack and keeping plays alive for countless seconds before barely finding a late-breaking receiver.
5.
Jay Cutler DEN
19/27
216
1
0
124
124
0
334
They aren't great fantasy numbers, but Cutler will be happy with his performance. Although he was inside the red zone four times, Cutler completed only one pass inside the Falcons' 20. It was his last one, a touchdown pass to Daniel Graham for the winning score.
6.
Shaun Hill SF
15/20
213
2
0
105
107
-3
295
To say Hill was streaky would be an understatement. He started the game off with eight consecutive successful plays, but by the end, even the Rams had wisened up to his act, as Hill had seven consecutive unsuccessful plays.
7.
Brett Favre NYJ
26/33
258
2
0
97
105
-8
329
A brutally efficient performance, Favre managed to avoid the ugly interception that's haunted him even during the Jets' winning streak. That Patriots defensive backs were often 10 yards away from Jets receivers when Favre threw the ball helped this problem out dramatically.
8.
Kurt Warner ARI
33/44
395
1
1
86
86
0
368
Warner converted six of the 11 third downs he faced. In Week 12, he gets his return match against the Giants, who benched him for a rookie Eli Manning and then cut him, even though the Giants were 5-4 with Warner under center. The Giants went only 1-5 with Manning under center for the rest of the season.
9.
Chad Pennington MIA
16/22
174
0
0
83
81
3
254
Continue to make fun of Pennington's arm at your own peril. He was 4-of-4 on passes that went 15 yards or more in the air.
10.
Ben Roethlisberger PIT
31/40
308
0
0
83
83
0
334
Roethlisberger was 7-of-14 on passes to Nate Washington and Santonio Holmes, and 24-of-26 on passes to everyone else.
Rk
Player
Team
CP/AT
Yds
TD
INT
Total
DYAR
Pass
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
EYds
11.
Drew Brees NO
25/36
266
1
1
71
71
0
301
Brees was an absolute killer on second down: 12-of-14, 145 yards, eight first downs and a touchdown.
12.
Kerry Collins TEN
13/23
230
3
1
66
66
0
215
Collins had 79 DYAR on throws to Justin Gage (even with the interception), minus-13 DYAR on throws to everyone else.
13.
Eli Manning NYG
14/23
153
1
1
56
56
0
205
14.
Matt Ryan ATL
20/33
250
0
1
55
47
8
251
The 250 yards is nice, but the Broncos' pass defense is awful. Ryan should have done more, although he didn't get much help from his running game.
15.
JaMarcus Russell OAK
15/22
156
0
0
42
42
0
181
Two weeks ago, Ronald Curry was a healthy inactive and had reportedly played his last game for the Raiders. In Week 11, he had more targets than anyone on the team. Oakland isn't like a soap opera in the way that some athletes and franchises are; it literally has a cast of characters like a soap opera, where players' careers take shocking turns and old characters get written off and then introduced anew out of nowhere. Maybe Lane Kiffin will hop out of the shower and reveal that the entire 2008 season was a dream.
16.
Ryan Fitzpatrick CIN
29/44
261
1
0
34
32
2
326
It's hard to do a lot when you get sacked eight times, but some of that is Fitzpatrick's fault. It's his responsibility to identify and call out blitzes, and adjust his protection and routes accordingly. In exciting news, though, Chris Perry made his return! The result? One strangely timed carry for 5 yards, one incompletion, and one catch for minus-4 yards. The futility watch continues.
17.
Sage Rosenfels HOU
13/18
192
0
1
33
37
-4
159
18.
Gus Frerotte MIN
14/20
138
1
0
33
34
-1
184
What a start to the game Frerotte had. His first four plays: incomplete pass, sack, sack for 11 yards, muffed snap. Can't they just teach Tarvaris Jackson the Wildcat?
19.
Kyle Orton CHI
13/26
133
0
0
21
21
0
162
He wasn't ready to come back yet, but he had a very strange day when you split it by receiver. He was 6-of-7 when throwing to Matt Forte, and 4-of-4 to Greg Olsen, but 1-of-4 to Desmond Clark, 0-of-4 to Marty Booker, and 0-of-2 to Devin Hester.
20.
Jake Delhomme CAR
10/19
98
1
0
11
11
0
122
Something's wrong with Delhomme. Whether it's a mechanical issue or an injury, Delhomme's looked very bad the past two weeks against two bad (outside of Nnamdi Asomugha) pass defenses. He's sailing a lot of his throws, and although the Panthers are a remarkable 8-2, Delhomme's playing scarily bad at the moment.
Rk
Player
Team
CP/AT
Yds
TD
INT
Total
DYAR
Pass
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
EYds
21.
Tony Romo DAL
19/27
198
1
2
10
10
0
156
Although the second interception wasn't his fault, the first certainly was. Quarterbacks double-pumping on the quick slant almost never successfully complete the pass, and they very often throw interceptions. After a few early drives on which he looked rusty, though, Romo appeared to settle in. The biggest difference between a pre-injury Romo and Sunday night's version was that Romo appeared to be uncomfortable leaving the pocket, while he normally excels in making plays on the run. A lot of that has to do with ball security, and how confident (or in this case, not confident) Romo was with gripping the ball, being able to balance it properly while running, and then transfer the ball quickly for an accurate throw. If Romo can't do that reliably, he'll still be better than Brad Johnson, but he won't be Tony Romo.
22.
Daunte Culpepper DET
20/34
207
1
2
5
3
3
225
23.
Tyler Thigpen KC
19/38
235
2
1
-1
-15
14
260
After his first three games, Tyler Thigpen had a minus-58.4 percent DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) and had accumulated minus-281 DYAR. Since then, his DVOA is a very respectable 13.6 percent, and he's picked up 279 DYAR.
24.
Joe Flacco BAL
20/33
164
1
2
-7
-25
18
192
Flacco was impressive in avoiding the pass rush, although he got help from some awesome blocking by Willis McGahee. Of course, that second interception was very much not his fault, as his pass went through Derrick Mason's hands, hit him in the helmet, and then bounced to Aaron Ross, who returned it for a touchdown. That play took a 20-10 game and put it out of reach at 27-10.
25.
Philip Rivers SD
15/26
164
0
2
-8
-12
4
148
26.
David Garrard JAC
13/29
135
0
1
-18
-26
8
174
Garrard now has as many interceptions against the Titans in 2008 (three) as he had against the entire NFL in 2007.
27.
Marc Bulger STL
34/53
295
1
2
-38
-42
5
276
28.
Jason Campbell WAS
22/33
162
1
1
-47
-54
7
129
An uneven day; Campbell had a string of eight straight completions, which was nice, but was only 4-of-13 on third and fourth down, killing plenty a drive in the process.
29.
Matt Hasselbeck SEA
17/29
170
1
3
-119
-127
9
27
Hasselbeck made 4-of-13 look good. Try this on for size: 0-of-6 with two interceptions on third down.
30.
Donovan McNabb PHI
28/58
339
1
3
-150
-152
2
120
McNabb may very well have had the worst third-down performance of the three, though. He converted only three of 18 third downs, throwing in an interception, a lost fumble and two sacks.
Five most valuable running backs
Rk
Player
Team
Rush
Yds
Rush
TD
Rec
Yds
Rec
TD
Total
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
Rec
DYAR
EYds
1.
Pierre Thomas NO
88
1
56
0
57
28
29
192
Thomas will lose virtually all his playing time next week when Reggie Bush returns, but he's shown over the past two years that he could very well be the next Mewelde Moore, a third-stringer who has to leave his first team to emerge as a player somewhere else. Thomas was responsible for seven first downs and a touchdown on just 20 attempts.
2.
Steve Slaton HOU
156
1
0
0
51
51
0
137
Apparently Slaton really needed the rest last week, so we vote that he gets benched every other week so he can put up days like this. The bulk of his value came on the 71-yard touchdown scamper he went on in the third quarter, but Slaton had six more runs of 7 yards or more. The Colts' rush defense had been improving, but might need to go back to the drawing board now.
3.
Marion Barber DAL
114
1
39
0
48
29
19
212
Barber absolutely carried the team on his back in the fourth quarter, breaking countless tackles and lunging forward for extra yardage and first downs. Although he might not have the numbers of other backs, Barber deserves to be in the MVP discussion because of how much of the offensive game plan has been built around him over the past few weeks.
4.
Brandon Jacobs NYG
73
2
0
0
48
48
0
126
It's hard to understate how impressive Jacobs' performance in the first quarter was, as he simply knocked the Ravens' defense for a loop. Jacobs carried the ball eight times for 70 yards and two TD plunges against a defense that's absolutely shut down the opposing running back over the past few seasons. What's even more impressive is how Jacobs did it. Although the Giants' offensive line continues to be an elite run-blocking unit, Jacobs simply powered over and through Ravens' tackles like they were ill-designed speed bumps.
5.
J.J. Arrington ARI
40
1
21
1
45
23
22
128
Arrington's performance at Cal and in the combine was very reminiscent of Marshawn Lynch, his successor at Cal. Regardless, after coming out and being selected by the Cardinals in 2005, a poor 112 carries behind a terrible line his rookie year led Arizona to sign Edgerrin James to a big-money deal. With an improved line and James on the bench after only two years as the starter, Arrington's proving to be an effective change of pace to Tim Hightower. He even vultured two touchdowns on Sunday, while gaining successful yardage on eight of the 12 plays on which he touched the ball.
Least valuable running back
Rk
Player
Team
Rush
Yds
Rush
TD
Rec
Yds
Rec
TD
Total
DYAR
Rush
DYAR
Rec
DYAR
EYds
1.
Julius Jones SEA
19
0
-5
0
-35
-26
-9
-27
Oh, was this ugly. Ten carries that resulted in exactly zero first downs, one successful gain of yardage, and a fumble. With 19 yards on those 10 carries, perhaps Jones decided it was time to pay homage to his preceding back in Seattle, Shaun Alexander.
Five most valuable wide receivers and tight ends
Rk
Player
Team
Rec
Att
Yds
Avg
TD
Total
DYAR
EYds
1.
T.J. Houshmandzadeh CIN
12
16
149
12.4
1
69
201
Houshmandzadeh gave hope to fantasy owners who stuck with him and his brutal second-half schedule by putting on a clinic against the Eagles, primarily avoiding Asante Samuel in the process.
2.
Justin Gage TEN
4
6
147
36.8
2
65
136
Any time you can average nearly 37 yards per catch, even if it's just a catch per game, you're doing something right. Only 12 receivers since 1995 averaged more than 35 yards per catch in a game in which they caught four or more passes, highlighted by Qadry Ismail's legendary six catches for 258 yards and three touchdowns against the Steelers in Week 14 of the 1999 season.
3.
Hines Ward PIT
11
12
124
11.3
0
51
149
Ward was Ben Roethlisberger's bailout package; 11-of-12 is simply an astounding day, and 64 yards after catch aren't bad for an old guy.
4.
Wes Welker NE
7
8
108
15.4
0
47
118
Speaking of yards after catch -- Welker's always going to be a valuable player, but when he can get the ball in stride and make people miss, it turns a good player into an excellent one. Welker picked up 10 or more yards after catch on four of his seven catches.
5.
Ted Ginn Jr. MIA
4
5
51
12.8
0
47
127
Ginn didn't get the ball a lot, but he made up for it by making things happen when he did -- he picked up three first downs as a receiver, and ran the ball in for a 40-yard touchdown on the ground.
Least valuable wide receiver or tight end
Rk
Player
Team
Rec
Att
Yds
Avg
TD
Total
DYAR
EYds
5.
Santana Moss WAS
5
11
29
5.8
0
-40
16
Moss drew the returning Terence Newman in coverage. In Week 4, the Redskins worked on Newman to the tune of 6-of-7 for 97 yards, three first downs and two touchdowns. Newman got his revenge on Sunday.

Bill Barnwell is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com.

Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) is a staff writer for Grantland.