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On football

Backup Cassel pitched well in relief role

By Mike Reiss
September 8, 2008
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FOXBOROUGH - There wasn't much more real estate to work with. Officially, the ball was on the 1-yard line, but it was really a quarter of a yard from the end zone. On the wrong end of the field.

This was the situation facing backup quarterback Matt Cassel yesterday.

Tom Brady had crumpled to the Gillette Stadium turf on the prior series, clutching his left knee while shouting in pain. It was a scoreless game, late in the first quarter, and he wasn't coming back.

So if the Patriots were to beat the visiting Chiefs on the NFL's opening weekend, they'd have to do it with Cassel - who hadn't played in the first quarter of a regular-season game since high school in Northridge, Calif. - at the helm.

He entered in the toughest of spots, but delivered the biggest of throws.

After two runs that went backward, coming dangerously close to a safety, Cassel was looking at third and 11 in a stadium that had gone eerily quiet following Brady's injury. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels radioed the play into Cassel's helmet, calling for a play-action pass, the hope to freeze the linebackers and safeties just enough to give receiver Randy Moss a chance to find open space downfield.

Cassel sold it nicely, pretending to place the ball between the "3" and "4" on Sammy Morris's jersey before dropping into his own end zone, never the place a quarterback wants to be.

With blockers holding up at the line of scrimmage, Cassel surveyed his options and noticed Moss had broken off his "go" route to the right because the coverage was in the spot Moss was supposed to be - and the safety and cornerback were standing flat-footed. So Cassel stepped into a laser that arced over the head of cornerback Patrick Surtain and into the arms of Moss.

It was a huge play, not just for what it ultimately set up - a touchdown to put the Patriots ahead, 7-0 - but also for what it meant to Cassel.

"After that pass, it definitely calmed the nerves down a bit and I said, 'I can do this', " Cassel said.

As it turned out, Cassel did enough to help the Patriots to a 17-10 victory over the Chiefs, one of the NFL's bottom-dwelling clubs. He finished 13 of 18 for 152 yards and one touchdown.

Equally as important was this stat: 0 interceptions.

The 26-year-old didn't make the killer mistake that so often accompanies a player with limited experience, while at the same time coming up with a few gutsy scrambles, none larger than his 9-yard scamper on third and 3 midway through the fourth quarter to extend the drive that set up Stephen Gostkowski's 37-yard field goal.

"We were rallying around Matt," center Dan Koppen explained of the feeling in the huddle when Cassel came on. "You have to play with the guys you got, and we have confidence in Matt, with how he prepares and practices. He was able to come in the game and manage and execute the game we wanted to."

Added receiver Wes Welker, "I think he did pretty well for a guy y'all thought should have gotten cut."

Still, make no mistake, this wasn't Cassel taking the team on his back and leading it to victory.

Instead, he managed the situation - and made a few big-time throws like his 51-yarder to Moss - and put the Patriots in position to win, which is generally what backups are supposed to do.

With Cassel pulling his part of the rope, the Patriots also received a crucial boost from a hard-charging running game, and defensive and special teams units that rose up when they needed to most.

The ground attack, for example, chewed up the final 34 yards on the team's second scoring drive, and totaled 126 yards on 28 carries for an impressive 4.5 average. Morris (53 yards, 10 carries) was particularly impressive, bringing a physical edge that helped settle down the offense at times. Laurence Maroney (51 yards, 10 carries) was also a spark.

Defensively, the Patriots knew they couldn't let running back Larry Johnson beat them, and they made sure it didn't happen - Johnson had 74 yards on 22 carries, for a less-than-stellar 3.4 average. Then, when they had other costly breakdowns such as safety James Sanders taking a poor angle on receiver Devard Darling on what turned into a 68-yard catch-and-run on the Chiefs' final drive, they slammed the door shut with four stops from the Patriots' 5.

Special teams, shaky at times in the return game, also delivered when it counted, with Ellis Hobbs's 51-yard kickoff return early in the fourth quarter answering the Chiefs' lone touchdown and shifting field position for much of the final 13 minutes.

All of that was instrumental in the final outcome, right there with Cassel maintaining a steady hand.

"As sad as it is, the train has to continue to move on," Hobbs said of the quarterback switch. "You saw a guy that's been taking a lot of heat come in there and do his thing. We're not going to shy away from letting [No.] 16 take us all the way, wherever that is. We're riding his shoulders [now]; if that's the case, that's the case."

It was good enough to beat the Chiefs, but will it be good enough should the Patriots be without Brady for the long haul? Will it be good enough next Sunday in East Rutherford, N.J., against Brett Favre and the Jets?

Those questions remain to be answered, but the players seemed to be preparing to find out.

"The show must go on and hopefully Matt Cassel is ready to step in," Moss said. "From a team standpoint we are ready to embrace him and let him lead us."

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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