Cassel's win haul quite acceptable
FOXBOROUGH - He's not Tom Brady, and no one is asking him to be Tom Brady.
He's Matt Cassel, and he shares one goal with his coach and his Patriots teammates. All he wants, and all they are asking, is for him to make continual improvement, to be the best 2008 NFL quarterback he can be.
They're not playing for the future. They are all about the present, and this season. Nothing else matters to them. Everyone wants to keep getting better; it's as simple as that.
"Last year was last year," said tackle Matt Light. "It was a fluke."
"This was a big game for us because it was one where we were down in the fourth quarter," Cassel said. "And it's up to us to come back and, in the face of a little adversity, to fight, and we did that as an offensive unit. Everybody stepped up, and I thought that was a big thing for this offense to prove it can do it in tight games, because I'm sure there are going to be a lot of those down the road."
A year ago at this time they weren't games as much as they were artistic demonstrations of How To Play Football. The seventh game of last season was a 49-28 win at Miami. That followed a 48-27 win at Dallas and came just ahead of a 52-7 destruction of Washington in what ended up a perfect regular season.
The seventh game of the 2008 season took place at Gillette Stadium yesterday. It was a major struggle to beat a St. Louis Rams team that was playing without its best offensive performer, Steven Jackson. The score was 23-16, and the Patriots had to come from behind in order to get it done. They are now 5-2 with Matt Cassel at quarterback. They all know Tom Brady won't be walking through that door and they are happy with the quarterbacking they are getting from his replacement.
"Matt's a good quarterback," said coach Bill Belichick, who once again referenced the idea of enjoying the win for a little while. "He's played good all year and I expect him to do that."
If the mentor was aware this was Cassel's first official comeback victory he didn't let on. If the mentor was particularly pleased that Cassel pretty much eliminated the hold-the-ball-too-long sacks that have been plaguing him in recent games, he neglected to say so. But both those things were true. Even with two interceptions, this was a nice game for Cassel.
He was 21 for 33 for a career-high 267 yards, one TD pass, and those two interceptions. One of the interceptions bounced off Randy Moss's hands and into the waiting arms of a grateful Oshiomogho Atogwe, who would consider it a thoroughly wasted day if he didn't come up with at least one pick. The other was an overthrown pass in the direction of Wes Welker that was hauled in by Fakhir Brown.
Ah, but the touchdown pass came after all that, and tells you something about the current quarterback of the Patriots.
The Patriots had a rough third quarter, if you want to know the truth. That second INT interrupted a promising drive that included a 20-yard hookup with Welker. A bit later the Patriots moved to the Rams 36 but were unable to gain a needed yard for a first down on either third or fourth down. The Rams' offense showed its appreciation for the stout work of the defense by going to the Patriots' 7, whereupon Josh Brown gave St. Louis a 16-13 lead with a 25-yard field goal early in the fourth.
Cassel and Co. got the game evened up with a short drive culminating in a 41-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal, a drive that was set up by a very poor (29 yards) punt by Donnie Jones. But the signature drive came on the next New England possession, when, after the defense came up with a very nice three-and-out, Cassel took over at his 47 with 6:57 left and directed the team into the end zone for his first career fourth-quarter comeback win.
The drive began inauspiciously when Chris Long sacked Cassel for minus-8, but The Kid answered on the next play by hitting Moss on a left-to-right slant across the middle for 23. With Kevin (Mr. Reliable, Mr. Clutch, Mr. You-Can-Count-On-Me, etc., etc., etc.) Faulk contributing 12 yards on the ground, the Patriots got to the Rams' 15. On first down Cassel found Faulk in the northwest corner of the end zone for a touchdown pass that reflected well on both men. It was the kind of pass that easily can be overthrown and the kind of catch on which a lot can go wrong. But it all went right and the Patriots had the lead, and, eventually, the game.
Let's just say The Kid threw the appropriate pass at the appropriate time. That's all anybody can ask.
"He was in one-on-one coverage and I just tried to put it out there and give him an opportunity to make the catch," Cassel said. "He did a great job. He did what Kevin Faulk does best."
Cassel doesn't have to worry about getting a swelled head from listening to Faulk, whom we shall put down as a hard marker.
"Cassel did his job to help us win the game," said Faulk. "That's all you can say about it. That's what we want to do, win games no matter what it takes, and he did that."
He got a little more love from Welker. "He really played well today," said the great wideout. "He made all the right reads and was seeing the defense really well.
"To finally get that [winning] drive really fit together and put points on the board - and not just points, putting a touchdown up there where they would have to go the distance to come back - that was big for us."
Agreed Light, "He was making good downfield throws, and we were moving the ball. I thought we moved the ball well all [game], except for a few situations. The turnovers are the turnovers; you're going to have that. But it didn't slow down anything that we were trying to get done."
The rest of the team is not fixating on the quarterback. They accept the judgment of the coach that he is the person best-suited to lead them in the absence of You-Know-Who, and they add their own powers of observation. They had to like what they saw yesterday.
Anyway, the coach has the final say, and this was Coach Bill's final say: "He works hard, gets better, understands the mistakes and things he hasn't seen before and goes on and usually those aren't a problem going forward."
They're 5-2 with Matt Cassel. Surely, you don't think they should be any better.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.