A legend is gone, and the New England Patriots need a replacement. They call on a young, untested player waiting in the wings.
He does well initially, but a few weeks into the season, he struggles. The fans start saying, "End the experiment. Bring in a veteran." Bill Belichick, however, sticks to his guns: He trusts his staff's ability to evaluate young talent, and they feel he's got what it takes; that young talent just needs a bit more time.
Ultimately, the young, inexperienced player becomes a more experienced one, and when the Patriots need him most, he delivers.
Obviously, this is the Matt Cassel story, but it's not only his story; it's also the story of the Patriots' kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who was asked to fill the very large shoes of the legendary Adam Vinatieri. In a sense, Gostkowski had it even rougher than Cassel, since he was replacing a player who was still playing every week.
Gostkowski was lights out during the 2006 preseason, converting 9-of-9 field goals, including a 54-yard kick against the Giants. A couple of weeks into the season, he had a three-game stretch where he made just two of five kicks (two of the three misses were blocked), and vocal Patriots fans were asking Belichick to bench him. They wanted him to bring back Martin Gramática, whom Gostkowski had beaten out for the job in the preseason.
Belichick, though, wisely never lost his faith in Gostkowski, and he delivered down the home stretch. Gostkowski converted 8-of-8 field goals in his rookie postseason and became only the second rookie in NFL history to kick a game-winning field goal in the playoffs. And, of course, this year Gostkowski was voted to his first Pro Bowl.
(Cassel's 2008 season has followed much the same arc, but that's for part two of this story.)
The ultimate lessons here? First, the Patriots know how to nurture talent properly. They went out of their way to protect Gostkowski from having to deal with the media in the run-up to the AFC Championship Game in 2007, just as they kept the game plan relatively simple for Cassel's first couple of games. If other teams managed responsibilities and expectations as well as the Patriots, there'd be far fewer first-round busts.
Second, the Patriots know how to find talent that fits their philosophy: hard working, easily coachable, intelligent, with the physical attributes they want. They found those things in Gostkowski in 2006, just as they found them in Cassel in 2005.
Cassel's story is far from complete; even the chapter on the 2008 season has at least one more game to go, and maybe more, if the Patriots get the help they need.
Coming in parts two and three: a look at the 2008 season, and where Cassel might play in 2009.