NFL relief aces have pitched in

Matt Cassel gets thrown into his first professional start today against the Jets. Matt Cassel gets thrown into his first professional start today against the Jets. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / September 14, 2008
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Matt Cassel doesn't have to look far - just two lockers over - for inspiration and reinforcement.

Tom Brady, the franchise quarterback that Cassel will replace today when he makes his first NFL start, once was Cassel, an unheralded, untested backup given the task of preserving a Patriots season that seemed all but over.

Brady, whose 2008 season came to a painful conclusion last week when he tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee against Kansas City, got his chance when Drew Bledsoe suffered a sheared blood vessel in his chest during the second game of the 2001 season. Brady not only replaced Bledsoe, he supplanted him by leading the Patriots to their first Super Bowl title.

Brady may be an extreme rags-to-Armani tale, but NFL history has its share of backup QBs who were questioned when they first stepped under center and ultimately canonized for their performance. Cassel will attempt to join the likes of Brady, Earl Morrall, Kurt Warner, and his opposite number today, Brett Favre, as second-string quarterbacks who proved to be first-rate.

Perhaps the patron saint of reserve signal-callers is Morrall, who twice rescued Don Shula teams and led them all the way to the Super Bowl.

In 1968, when Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas hurt his arm during the preseason, Morrall led the Baltimore Colts to the NFL championship and an appearance in Super Bowl III, winning league MVP honors along the way. He reprised his super-sub role for the undefeated Miami Dolphins in 1972, when Bob Griese broke his leg during the fifth game of the season. Morrall led Miami to nine wins as a starter during the regular season and two more in the playoffs, before Griese capped the perfect season (17-0) in Super Bowl VII.

The 74-year-old Morrall, who now lives in Naples, Fla., said the best piece of advice he can offer Cassel is to stay within himself.

"Don't try a lot of heroics. Just play smart," said Morrall. "You've got to just work with what you're given and keep the confidence of the guys. Don't try to do foolish things out there."

That's what Cassel did last week against the Chiefs, when he led the Patriots on a 98-yard touchdown drive.

"He came in and he did a great job taking control of the huddle," said left guard Logan Mankins. "No one started losing their mind or tried to talk. We just let Cassel run the show, and he did a good job of it."

A cautionary tale

When Morrall replaced Unitas in 1968, he was a 34-year-old veteran with 64 career starts. However, he had spent just one week in Baltimore's system. Cassel has had four years in New England.

"That's so important," said Shula. "That's one of the toughest things for a quarterback - to go from one system to another, no matter how good you are.

"If you all of the sudden have to worry about what the play call is, the terminology and all those things, it just makes the job that much tougher. If that's all the same, then you just step in and you know the personnel and they know you from practice."

Cassel hasn't started a game since his days at Chatsworth (Calif.) High in 1999, serving as a backup to Brady and to a pair of Heisman Trophy winners at Southern Cal. But at least he's had four seasons on an NFL roster. When Warner took the reins of the St. Louis Rams in 1999, he was a 28-year-old Arena Football League refugee with exactly one NFL game under his belt. All Warner did was throw 41 touchdown passes to win MVP honors and guide the Rams to a Super Bowl championship.

Brady split time with Drew Henson at Michigan, and even Favre, the NFL's all-time leader in passing yards, touchdown passes, and completions, was second-string before getting his shot with the Green Bay Packers in 1992, when Don Majkowski got hurt in the third game of the season.

However, for all the backup QB success stories, today's opponent offers a cautionary tale, one Patriots coach Bill Belichick is very familiar with.

In 1999, the Jets, coming off a season in which they had reached the AFC title game, lost starting quarterback Vinny Testaverde in the opener against the Patriots, when he ruptured the Achilles' tendon in his left foot in the second quarter.

Testaverde was replaced by fourth-year quarterback Ray Lucas, who had never started an NFL game, and veteran Rick Mirer. The Jets, coached by Bill Parcells and with Belichick as an assistant, limped to an 8-8 season, finishing tied for last in the AFC East.

Greatness not required

When Brady took over, there was a sense that he had that certain je ne sais quoi that all great QBs have. Before his first start, teammates talked about his presence in the huddle and how cool he was under pressure. Those comments now seem prescient.

"He just has an energy from within that comes out, and it really shows everybody else that this guy wants to make things happen," said wide receiver Curtis Jackson, who was on New England's practice squad in 2001.

Yet Brady's first start was not statistically a harbinger of greatness. On Sept. 30, 2001, Brady was a pedestrian 13 of 23 for 168 yards with no touchdowns, but no interceptions, in a 44-13 victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

Former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, who came off the bench for the Baltimore Ravens in 2000, replacing an ineffective Tony Banks, and led them to a Super Bowl title, said Cassel can do that.

"No doubt. I'm not saying he's going to go out there and be Tom Brady now. I do think he can be Tom Brady in 2001. I think he can be Tom Brady in 2002. I think that's realistic," said Dilfer, now an analyst for ESPN.

"They had a very balanced offense. They weren't real complicated. They dinked and dunked you to death, played good defense and won close games. The quarterback was expected to play well, but not asked to heroically make multiple plays a game."

Both Morrall and Dilfer said the key for Cassel is to let the team around him, which both agreed is still elite, help him win by being a caretaker not a risk-taker.

"That's the thing. You got to play good football, sound football. Don't make too many mistakes," said Morrall. "You still have to make plays. There were times I checked off and made changes, but I wasn't trying to throw a bunch of TD passes or hit the home run. I would take it if they gave it to me, but I picked and chose my plays in the game."

However, both Morrall and Dilfer, who was the No. 6 overall pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1994 and went to the Pro Bowl in 1997, were more established in their careers when they rode to the rescue. Cassel, who is in the final year of his contract, not only has the pressure of replacing Brady, he could be playing for his place in the league.

"I think he has a great opportunity to define himself as a QB," said Dilfer. "He's playing for the opportunity to play for the next eight or nine years in this league, whether it's as a backup to Tom Brady or a starter on another team and the way do that is by winning football games, not throwing for 4,000 yards. If he can win and play well doing so, he'll be a quarterback in this league for a long time."

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