Cassel displays brave face, big heart
OAKLAND, Calif. - Matt Cassel is going to remember 2008.
It's the year he made his first start since high school. It's the year he took over for Tom Brady and kept the Patriots in the playoff race deep into December. It's the year he became only the fifth quarterback in history to throw for 400 yards in back-to-back games. And it's the year in which his dad died while he was on the West Coast getting ready for a big game against the Raiders.
The Patriots won the "big game" by thrashing the once-proud Al Davis AC, 49-26, in car wash rains at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum yesterday. Cassel completed 18 of 30 tosses for 218 yards and threw a career-high four touchdown passes. He spoke briefly at the postgame podium, then dashed to the airport for a flight to Southern California. His dad's funeral is tomorrow.
"I just want to thank all my family and friends for all their support this week," he said in the Oakland A's weight room, which doubles as an interview room for Raider opponents. "It's been a tough week for me, obviously, and my family. The coaches, the players, Mr. Kraft, everybody has done such a great job of supporting me through this tough time and my family, as well. I just want to thank everybody for their messages and their condolences and we appreciate it as a family and I appreciate it as a person. That's really all I want to say about that, so thank you very much."
And then he was gone. Carried to SoCal on a private jet supplied by owner Bob Kraft. Cassel no doubt will be back at practice Wednesday in order to prepare for Sunday's game against Arizona at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots are still in a three-way tie for first place in the AFC East with two games to play.
Asked to characterize interactions with Cassel yesterday, teammates said it was pretty much business as usual with the QB.
"We all have tons of respect for Matt," said running back Sammy Morris. "I couldn't imagine what it's like to deal with that, especially in the middle of a playoff race, especially in the middle of the season . . . and to do it playing the position of quarterback, that's even rougher."
"We treated this just like any other game," added Wes Welker, who scored a touchdown on his 100th catch of the season in the second quarter.
Indeed, Cassel's teammates treated him the way they would in any other game. They took direction in the huddle, did their jobs, and celebrated after every score. They even watched with some wonder when Cassel got into a face-to-face jam with Raiders defensive end Derrick Burgess after an interception. Seeing the cocky QB in the face of a masked mastodon made everyone feel like things were normal.
But of course, things were not normal because when the game was over Cassel's teammates flew back to Boston while he went to Mission Hills, Calif., for his father's funeral. So much for business as usual.
The Raiders certainly were cooperative foils in the Cassel story. It is positively shocking to witness the deterioration of this NFL franchise. At this hour the Raiders would be road kill for the Detroit Lions. The are a bad team with players who appear to have quit. JaMarcus Russell is a double-wide QB with a better fastball than Papelbon, but he couldn't throw it through the uprights if he was standing on the goal line. Meanwhile, the all-powerful Davis has morphed into the hideous character on the cover of Jethro Tull's "Aqualung." The Raiders are 22-72 since Chucky and the Buccaneers crushed them in Super Bowl XXXVII.
How bad were the Raiders yesterday? The score was 28-7 with 13 minutes remaining in the second quarter. New England did not punt until the middle of the third quarter.
The Raiders went three and out on their first three possessions, then inspired mock cheers when they finally moved the chains on their fourth offensive series. Oakland committed seven penalties, including multiple false starts. Ex-Raiders Randy Moss (two) and LaMont Jordan scored touchdowns and made sure we all knew they were glad to be out of football Alcatraz.
All of which made this a relatively easy day on the field for Cassel.
"We knew Matt had a heavy heart and we wanted to get out there and get it done early for him," said Kevin Faulk.
A soaked Bill Belichick had a big hug for the QB when the game ended.
"I can't say enough about Cassel, having been through that myself a couple of years ago [Belichick coached a home game in 2005 the day after his father died in Maryland]. I know what that's like and I thought he did a great job in his preparation and his focus and he showed a lot of commitment to the team. He carried us a long way today as it was a tough situation."
Cassel came off the field with the game ball. A souvenir from a good day in the middle of a horrible week.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.