Matt Cassel: The NFL's Most Unexpected Surprise

Cody SwartzSenior Writer INovember 13, 2008

When Tom Brady blew out his knee less than halfway into the first quarter of the first game of the season, the Patriots were done. Finished. Didn't stand a chance to compete for the division.

Man, were we all wrong.


His little-used backup Matt Cassel, who had not started a game since high school, has guided the Pats to a 6-4 record and second place in the AFC East. Who would have thought?


Not me. Like every other NFL fan, I expected the season to be all about what the Patriots could have done with Tom Brady as their quarterback—not what they actually have done with Matt Cassel.


And sure, there has been a lot of talk about Brady. How could there not be, coming off a historic season in which he led the Patriots to a perfect 16-0 regular season record, threw a new league record 50 touchdown passes, and won the NFL MVP award? Brady was the man in New England, and so of course, Brady is missed. Badly.


But give some credit to Matt Cassel. He's displayed confidence and leadership as the man behind center for a team that regularly rolled up 35 to 40 points last year with Brady.


Cassel has thrived under the tutelage of Belichick's talented assistant, Josh McDaniels. Both the Patriots' offensive coordinator and quarterback coach, McDaniels has developed Cassel into—dare  I say—the best QB in the AFC East.


In Thursday night's showdown against the mighty Brett Favre and the first place 6-3 Jets, Cassel played a nearly flawless game, completing 30-of-51 passes for 400 yards. He threw three touchdowns, including the game-tying 16-yarder to Randy Moss on fourth and one with just a second to play in regulation.


Most importantly, he threw no interceptions.


It's not his fault the defense gave up 31 points, plus three more in overtime. It's not his fault they couldn't stop Favre or the running game. Cassel did his part. He led the Pats to 31 points. That should be enough to win a football game.


It was the ninth start this season for Cassel, who probably had more pressure on him than anyone in the NFL after Brady went down. Replacing a living legend is not easy. Nor is it fun.


Yet Cassel has done it. Granted, he's not Brady. And the Pats would probably be at least 8-2 or 9-1 with Brady. But I think Pats fans are pretty content with a 6-4 record in the highly competitive AFC East, and with a quarterback who is gaining strides with every game.


Cassel's maturity this season is evident. He has struggled early, throwing just three touchdowns against four interceptions in his first five games. But in the last five, he has turned it around.


Cassel has thrown seven scores against just three picks. And his Pats have won three of their last five games, and their two losses have both been three-point losses against playoff-caliber teams.


Cassel won't win MVP this season. He can't win Comeback Player of the Year because he has never played before. And although he's basically a rookie, he's not. He's had three years of riding the bench with the Pats.


But there is no denying that Matt Cassel is the NFL's most unexpected surprise. He has put the Pats in a strong position to win their sixth consecutive AFC East title and make a deep playoff run.


Who would have thought?