Is Matt Cassel the Poor Man's Tom Brady or the Rich Man's Billy Volek?
You know Matt Cassel?
The preseason PR story turned most coveted quarterback in the NFL.
The second coming of Tom Brady? Not so fast.
There is no denying that Cassel was impressive last year. As a regular season starter for the first time since high school, he led the Patriots to an 11-5 record on the year and posted back-to-back 400-yard passing games in weeks 11 and 12.
Even Tom Brady hasn't done that.
Want to know who has done that, though?
In 2004, Steve McNair struggled with injuries for the Tennessee Titans, giving Volek the opportunity to start eight games and play in 10.
In that time Volek compiled 2,486 yards, completing 61.1 percent of his passes. He threw 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions to a receiving corps that included Derrick Mason, Drew Bennett, and Ben Troupe.
It’s a Team Sport
There is no position in sports that gets more praise, more criticism, or more attention in general than the quarterback.
Occasionally the QB deserves the volume of cheers or boos headed his direction. Often times the quarterback is receiving attention that should go to his teammates or coaches.
Any quarterback has to be proud of an 11-5 record, whether he threw for 2,000 yards or 4,000. The reality is that football is a team sport, and Cassel's success had to do with him being a reaction, not a catalyst.
The Pats' 11 wins came against the second, third, fourth, seventh, 10th, 11th (2x), 12th, 17th, 25th, and 31st picks of the NFL Draft. The five losses came against the 16th, 17th, 25th, 27th, and 32nd picks of the draft.
Playing with a fantastic defense and with a very talented offense, Cassel helped New England win the games they should. In all reality, Brady would have won 14 to 16 games with the same schedule.
As a starter, Volek was 2-6 in 2004 on a team that was reeling from the losses of Eddie George, Justin McCareins, and Jevon Kearse. The Titans did not have enough talent surrounding the quarterback for Volek, let alone McNair, to win.
It was interesting to watch Cassel’s progression throughout the year. With a backfield by committee and high percentage passing options, then-offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was able to keep the Patriots' train rolling for the most part.
Statistically, Cassel was solid, even very good in some instances—he was far from Tom Brady, however.
Cassel never really found a rhythm with Randy Moss, the best jump-ball receiver in the NFL, because he has a very pedestrian deep ball. Overthrows, underthrows—Moss was half as effective as he was in 2007.
Many of the short passes went to Wes Welker, the premier possession receiver in the NFL. This is where Cassel proved to be more effective, but he was working with the best in the business.
We all saw what Brady did in 2007 with the same passing attack, and although Laurence Maroney was injured, the 2008 Patriots had a bigger (2,278 to 1,849 rushing yards) and better (4.4 to 4.1 YPC) rushing game than the 2007 version. Cassel did add 270 rushing yards (3.7 YPC) to Brady's 98 (2.6 YPC).
We Play to Win the Games—and Get Paid
Every pro athlete dreams of having his most successful season during a contract year. As a businessman, you hear a kah-ching! with every successful moment.
Had Cassel encountered this success one or two years ago, he would still have been coveted by other teams, but as an inexpensive insurance option, he would have remained a Patriot.
The most recent situation like Cassel's was Damon Huard in 2006.
Huard had bounced around the NFL and even spent time as Brady's backup before Cassel.
In his 2006 contract year, he backed up the injury-prone Trent Green.
As usual, Green went down, and Huard was able to win three of five starts with an 11-1 TD-to-INT ratio, good enough to keep Kansas City in the playoff hunt. The Chiefs rewarded Huard with a three-year, $8 million contract and the starting role in 2007.
It’s funny how KC will be starting another backup who flourished in a contract year.
As for Volek, he didn't have the good fortune of being in a contract year during his 2004 breakout.
He was in a similar situation to Brady, replacing an aging vet.
Volek stuck it out in Tennessee, playing some in 2005, and it looked like he would get an opportunity to start in 2006 after McNair went to Baltimore.
The Titans never felt that way.
Tennessee brought in Kerry Collins and drafted Vince Young in the 2006 offseason.
Volek felt deceived, had a rift with Jeff Fisher, and was sent to San Diego after completing 64.3 percent of his passes for Tennessee in the preseason.
There was an unbelievable multiplier effect that made Matt Cassel this season.
First, Tom Brady was injured.
Of all of the predictions before the season, this was the one nobody made.
Brady is a media darling, and when he fell, it was perceived that the Patriots would be lost without him—never mind the fact that New England is a team built on defense and efficient offense.
Second, it's New England—or sports’ version of Hollywood.
With the Patriots, Red Sox, and Celtics, the Boston sports machine has been through the roof.
No matter how many degrees of separation there are between the playing field and the issue at hand, it will be blown up to catastrophic proportions.
Third, Cassel had a story.
No, he hadn’t started a regular season game since high school, but he did start all four of the team's preseason games in 2008.
Cassel wasn't a rookie, and he wasn't a former bag boy either. He played behind Heismans at USC and an MVP in New England.
At 26, Cassel is entering his athletic prime, and the Patriots would not have had him as their backup QB if he was just some charity case.
Back to Reality
For those with high hopes in the Midwest, there’s going to be some letdown for Chiefs fans next year.
Not only did KC make a critical error in trading away Tony Gonzalez, but they also have questions in the backfield. Their defense has improved, but they need time to gel and cannot afford any injuries.
Most backups in the NFL could have broken the 10-win mark in New England last season, Billy Volek included.
As long as Brady remains healthy, the Patriots' only real question marks are games against Baltimore, Tennessee, Miami, and Indianapolis.
Double-digit wins are not a goal; they are a requirement.
It's been amazing to watch the Matt Cassel saga this offseason.
If the Patriots thought he was an elite quarterback, don't you think they would have gotten more in return for him?
Matt Cassel is a former backup who proved he is a starting-caliber quarterback, nothing more and nothing less.
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