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Backup Cassel hoping to send out right signals

Call them what you will -- preseason games, exhibition games, glorified scrimmages. Regardless of the name, outside of the organizations that play them, most regard them as meaningless displays of football. But for a backup quarterback these games may be the most meaningful he plays all year, the only opportunity to test his skills in the crucible of organized chaos that is an NFL contest.

"It helped me a great deal," said former Boston College quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who before becoming a two-time Pro Bowler with the Seattle Seahawks was a clipboard holder for Brett Favre in Green Bay for three seasons.

"I hear guys like [Washington Redskins running back] Clinton Portis complain about there are too many preseason games, but for me if there were not four preseason games I never would have made it in the NFL. My second year in the league in Green Bay I was competing with Rick Mirer for the backup job and they had drafted Aaron Brooks. No one was giving me much of a chance to make the team, but I played well in the preseason."

Preseason can be a proving ground for a backup, a springboard to show he is capable of being more than an understudy and good buddy to the starter. Tonight the spotlight will be on Matt Cassel, who figures to see extensive playing time when the Patriots open up the exhibition season against the Buccaneers in Tampa. Cassel will not only be playing to solidify his No. 2 job in New England, but auditioning for a leading role down the line.

Hasselbeck got his big break when Favre got hurt seven snaps into a 1999 exhibition game against the Denver Broncos. The Xaverian High product came off the bench and threw three touchdown passes in the first half of Green Bay's 27-12 win.

"That game gave me a lot of confidence," said Hasselbeck, who was acquired by Seattle in a trade in 2001. "It definitely helped start the ball rolling for me."

The 6-foot-4-inch, 230-pound Cassel has been an understudy emeritus since leaving Chatsworth (Calif.) High, backing up Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart at Southern Cal and now two-time Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady.

In college, Cassel threw a total of 33 passes. In two seasons with the Patriots, the 25-year-old has completed 18 of 32 passes for 215 yards and two touchdowns in eight games. He threw just eight passes last season, completing five. That's a good drive for Brady.

During the 2006 exhibition season, Cassel was 49 of 82 for 680 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. His 93.5 quarterback rating was higher than Brady's (93.4).

"Yeah, it's definitely valuable time," said Cassel. "If I don't get a ton of reps during the year like I haven't in years past, then this is a very important time for me because it's a season within a season itself. It's four games. It's intense competition against good competition and other teams. We're running our offense and we're trying to make it go."

Most view the backup quarterback gig as one of the cushiest in sports. Club Med with a clipboard, it's been called. But there is pressure to produce when called upon. For every Steve Young sitting behind a Joe Montana there is a Rohan Davey, whom the Patriots released during training camp in 2005 after spending three seasons trying to groom him into a reliable backup. Hasselbeck said backups feel the pressure that comes with playing time in the preseason.

"I knew I was fighting for my football life," he said. "If I didn't play well in limited opportunities I'd be out of football and looking for a 9-to-5 job."

Game action is not the only basis on which a backup quarterback will be judged -- practices, meetings, and overall preparation also play a large part -- but when evaluating a quarterback's command of an offense and ability to function under pressure there is no substitute for game action.

"It's easy for some guys to sit in there and make the right reads and play with confidence, and make your drops and steps when you know you're not going to get hit," said Hasselbeck. "It's more difficult when you're playing against a team you haven't practiced against and you know that they're going to hit you, hit you, hit you."

Cassel said he has sought counsel from other backups on how they handle the situation, including longtime Philadelphia Eagles second mate A.J. Feeley. Of course he doesn't have to go that far for advice from a former backup. All he has to do is turn to Brady. No. 12 beat out veteran Damon Huard for the Patriots' No. 2 job with a strong preseason in 2001 and then was thrust into action when Mo Lewis drilled Drew Bledsoe, forever changing the course of Brady's career and the New England franchise.

"I have obviously spoken to Tom a number of times about his role and where he was and how he felt and how he approached the game when he was in my position," said Cassel. "It's one of those things I just got to go out and be prepared when my time comes. I've been in the system for a while now and know what I want to accomplish with each given play, so I just have to go out and execute at this point."

That's ultimately what it comes down to, said Hasselbeck.

"When you play no one ever says, 'Oh, he didn't get as much practice as the starter,' " he said. "Your role is to play as good if not better than the starter with limited practice."

That's a tough task, but if a backup is up to it with the shortage of signal-callers in the NFL the reward can be elevation to a starting role. That was the case this season for Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Schaub, who parlayed playing second fiddle to Michael Vick into a starter's job with the Houston Texans.

"That's definitely the goal," said Cassel. "You always want to go out and perform well. But it's not just about performing for other teams, it's about performing well for this team and being accountable for your teammates."

If things go the way the Patriots expect this will be the season for Cassel. After the preseason he'll go back to pushing Brady in practice and signaling in plays, but if he plays well tonight and the rest of the preseason one day he could be the one gracing magazine covers.

Once a backup doesn't mean always a backup. Brady and Hasselbeck are proof of that.

"I looked up to the Mark Brunells and the Rich Gannons, guys who had been somebody's backup and then got their chance and then they really [stepped] up," said Hasselbeck. "They were backups to somebody else's guy and somebody said, 'You're our guy now, you're our quarterback.' "

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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