Typically, a young professional athlete's improvement is subtle and incremental, until one day you realize, Hey when did so-and-so learn to do such-and-such? (Someday, we hope to plug ‘‘Ben Watson’’ and ‘‘make a catch in traffic’’ into that sentence.)
The development of Matt Cassel, the accidental heir as the New England Patriots quarterback, is an exception — his progress from week to week is so obvious and rapid, even Fred Smerlas is on the verge of noticing.
And we’re not just talking about the big things, like, say, expertly conducting a late drive to beat the St. Louis Rams. Consider the small things, the intangible traits that came so naturally to his fallen predecessor and mentor.
In his first few performances after Tom Brady’s left knee was turned into lunch meat, Cassel’s inexperience was painfully obvious. (You may have heard this elsewhere, but he never started a game in college. No, it’s true! Not one!)
He was much too quick to abandon the chosen play and scramble aimlessly. He lacked poise, patience, and polish. The Patriots were getting pummeled in the press for not having an experienced backup to Brady on hand, and there were more than a few moments when the criticism seemed justified.
Well, how do you like him now? Still prefer Daunte Culpepper, Tim Rattay, or Brad Johnson? Yeah, neither do I.
A new man
So many optimistic adjectives suddenly apply to Cassel: calm, efficient, confident, accurate. He hit Randy Moss on a quick slant Sunday that was so perfectly thrown, it looked cribbed from a Brady highlight reel.
He’s developing a better feel within the pocket, deftly stepping into his throws when the rush closes in from behind him, no longer blindly scrambling into sacks. (The Colts’ pass rush did not get to him once Sunday night, which is astounding given the success Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis have had against the Patriots in recent years.)
He’s more selective in picking his spots to run, and we’ve come to realize that’s the one thing he does better than Brady — he’s remarkably agile for a 6-foot-4-inch, 230-pounder. He’s selling fakes better and throwing more precise screen passes. It’s almost as if he’s learning how to be instinctive, and his accelerated progress has been a joy to behold.
Yes, I'm convinced: Matt Cassel has what it takes to be a legitimate and successful starting quarterback in the NFL, though of course I hope it’s not in Foxborough beyond this season. I did not become a believer easily. My expectations for (and opinions of) Cassel fluctuated wildly during the first few weeks of the season, depending more or less on whether the Patriots came out on the right side of the scoreboard on that particular Sunday. In retrospect, it was probably unfair to suggest, in the aftermath of an embarrassing loss to the Chargers, that Cassel’s destiny was to be a clipboard holder for the 2010 Toronto Argonauts. My bad there.
Given the skeptical tone of those of us who yelped that the Patriots were a hopeless cause without Brady, it’s no wonder that his coach’s voice carries a hint of vindication when discussing his new quarterback. We’ll never truly know if Bill Belichick’s faith in Cassel was genuine or born out of Bernard Pollard-induced desperation — it certainly remains suspicious that he had visits scheduled for Rattay and Chris Simms before Brady went down — but this much is certain: He is making a habit of praising Cassel effusively and with little provocation.
“Matt has continued to improve every week since Week 1,” Belichick said during a conference call Monday. “It doesn’t surprise me at all. He works hard; he is a very attentive, smart kid who has good talent. Every opportunity he gets a chance to practice, take reps, and play I think he improves. He’s worked hard on it, and I think that has shown up in his performance on a consistent basis.”
Work in progress
Although his plaudits are surely sincere, Belichick knows better than anyone that there will be growing pains, recurring flaws, and further frustrations along the way. Cassel’s game still needs alterations here and there. He falls into the habit of staring a hole through his first receiving option, which means a useful role player such as Jabar Gaffney has become something of a forgotten man (save for the occasional game-altering drop). He remains somewhat skittish in the red zone, where the traffic is congested and second thoughts can lead to disaster. Under Cassel’s direction, the Patriots are leaving too many points on the field.
One cure: Throw the ball 12 feet high in Moss’ general vicinity, and let him take care of the rest. We say that with tongue partially in cheek, but there is some truth in the suggestion: Cassel and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels must find a way to get the football into the superstar receiver’s hands more often. He is the lone game-changing weapon on the Patriots’ offense, and perhaps some of those field goals would turn into touchdowns if Moss got more touches. Sunday night, John Madden astutely summed up the situation: “Matt Cassel takes what the defense gives him. Tom Brady takes what he wants.”
Cassel’s numbers through his first eight games are remarkably similar to Brady’s during his first handful of starts in ’01, but no observer with a shred of common sense would dare suggest he is on a similar career path.
Such a notion is absurd — Brady’s pure talent as a passer was vastly underrated in his early seasons, and anyone who watched him closely in the aftermath of Drew Bledsoe’s franchise-altering injury in 2001 saw extremely encouraging attributes immediately, even when the stat sheet suggested mediocrity.
Brady had mastered the subtle aspects of quarterbacking by the time he started his first NFL game, and they were so immediately noticeable to us because they were such unfamiliar characteristics in a Patriots quarterback — the rocket-armed but satisfied Bledsoe never sweated the small stuff.
The supremely gifted Brady did. Much to our pleasant surprise, so does Matt Cassel. He’ll never approach Brady’s professional accomplishments — hell, few will – but he’s a better football player than anyone outside the walls of Gillette Stadium thought.
Of course, he still should be obligated to donate a knee to Brady, should it come to that.
OT columnist Chad Finn is a sports reporter for Boston.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org