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Bob Ryan

Cassel plays his part

Understudy to star is ready

It was a satisfactory evening for backup Matt Cassel, who directed an 87-yard scoring march. It was a satisfactory evening for backup Matt Cassel, who directed an 87-yard scoring march. (BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF)

FOXBOROUGH - Can't get hurt if you don't play.

And just about everyone you've heard of on Your Patriots did not play in last night's 27-20 exhibition game triumph against the New York Giants, which makes it a very successful evening.

Game 4 of the exhibition season has a special feel. It is Last Chance Saloon for the kids and the pickups who are struggling to make the squad. The cut down to 53 is tomorrow at 4 p.m. Coach Bill and his cohorts will be poring over the tapes (which everyone still refers to as "films") from sunup till sundown today, and they'll start all over again tomorrow. There will be some heavy-duty lobbying, but in the end one opinion will carry substantially more weight than everyone else's. You can be sure about that.

"Got a look at a lot of our guys tonight," said Bill Belichick. "I thought they competed well."

Coach Bill got some help from his coaching rival. Giants boss Tom Coughlin apparently didn't read the Exhibition Game 4 manual, because he actually started the game with recognizable offensive and defensive units. This is not to say they played very much, but the fact that they played at all gives Coach Bill a chance to evaluate his fringe people somewhat better than if they hadn't. He didn't exactly thank Coughlin for doing that, but you could tell he was darn grateful.

There was another category of player happy for last night's game. Matt Cassel doesn't have to worry about making the team. No issue there. He is Tom Brady's official backup. Last night was a very special occasion because Cassel actually got to take snaps in an NFL stadium before real live paying customers and a probing press. This is not something that happens very often, so to Matt Cassel, there is no such thing as a "meaningless" exhibition game. To Matt Cassel, an exhibition game is a precious opportunity to, well, play. When this may happen again, no one can tell.

In the funny little world of backup quarterbacks, there is no one quite like Matt Cassel. There may never have been. All backup QBs know the drill: They aren't going to play unless the starter is knocked into next Thursday. But the others can all sit around and daydream about recent past glories somewhere. Not Matt Cassel. He last started a regular-season game at Chatsworth (Calif.) High School. That's what happens when you make a decision to go to Southern Cal and you find yourself the backup to not just one, but two Heisman Trophy quarterbacks, Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. It kinda makes a guy wonder why he didn't go to San Jose State.

But the Patriots somehow saw something. They made him a seventh-round pick in 2005, and here he is. Scores of QBs would love his gig.

So from Palmer and Leinart he has gone to Brady. He ought to know what a quality QB looks like.

Anyway, last night was a rare chance to play. He started the game and played long enough to go 10 for 14 for 99 yards, with no TDs and no picks. The important thing is that he got his team into the end zone, orchestrating a 13-play, 87-yard, second-quarter touchdown drive before giving way to Vinny Testaverde and rookie Matt Gutierrez, each of whom also directed scoring drives in their apparent competition to be the backup to the backup.

"The main thing is for our offense to go down and score," Cassel said. "I'm happy we were able to accomplish that."

Matt Cassel fits the modern QB mold at 6 feet 4 inches and 230 pounds. In his first two years backing up Mr. Brady, he is 18 for 32 for 215 yards, two TDs, and one interception. His QB rating is a respectable 84.8. He may have a unique background, but when's the last time anyone accused Coach Bill of being stupid? Coach Bill doesn't stand on ceremony. If he thought he could find himself a better candidate to backup Brady, don't you think he'd be here by now? Clearly, Coach Bill & Co. are satisfied with Matt Cassel's progress. He's the backup for a reason.

Cassel thinks he's ready to play, but he is very well aware that the coaching staff, not to mention the fans, hope they never see him working on his résumé. Well, if the Patriots are up by 40, that might be OK. Otherwise . . .

"I feel confident," he said. "I've been here three years. If, God forbid, something did happen to Tom, I'd be ready to go."

Is there a stranger position in sport than backup QB? You're expected to be 100 percent ready to play if needed, but you also know that everyone hopes it never happens. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on your career. In a better world, the backup QB is, you know, Doug Flutie. Or Vinny Testaverde. You know, someone who has been there and who is very happy to have an excuse to get out of the house.

Now here's a guy who hasn't had a career since high school. He had to stand around in the baseball hat watching two glamour boys throw all the TD passes, get all the girls, and walk off with the sport's biggest prize. Now he wears the baseball hat and holds the clipboard for another Golden Boy. Isn't he getting a little tired of all this?

"As long as I'm in this role," he shrugs, "there are no what-ifs. My job is to stay ready and be accountable to my teammates if anything ever happened to Tom. You take care of yourself, and then everything will take care of itself - if it's meant to be."

You know what? He's 25. There could be a lot of interesting chapters left in his book.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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