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Quarterback reverse

Cassel starts while Palmer, Leinart sit

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / November 21, 2008
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FOXBOROUGH - Norm Chow always liked Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel and still considers him a friend. However, when it came to playing quarterback for him at Southern California, Chow, who was the Trojans' offensive coordinator for four seasons, always liked somebody better - first Carson Palmer, then Matt Leinart.

You can't quibble with Chow's choices - both Palmer and Leinart won Heisman Trophies and were first-round NFL draft picks.

But only one of Chow's USC passing pupils is currently a starting NFL QB, and it's not the two with stiff-arming statues. It's Cassel, who will lead the Patriots into an AFC East showdown with Miami Sunday at Dolphin Stadium. Football fate has finally smiled on Cassel, who is getting a chance to show what he can do.

That's something that didn't happen at USC, creating doubts that have dogged him his entire pro career, until now. The theory was that if Cassel wasn't good enough to start in college, why would he be good enough to start in the NFL?

"I think everyone thought that the normal progression would be from Carson to Matt [Cassel], and then that spring we picked Matt Leinart," said Chow, now offensive coordinator at UCLA after spending three seasons as offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans.

"Matt [Cassel] never had a chance to play. Back in Tennessee, I told him, 'When the draft is over, if you're not drafted, we'll call and get you a free agent contract.' I'm sitting in my office during the [2005] draft and someone says, 'The Pats took your boy.' What foresight by the Patriots. They knew what they were doing."

The Patriots had foresight, but only a seer could have foreseen the change in fortune for Cassel, Palmer, and Leinart.

Palmer, a two-time Pro Bowler, started four of the first five games of the season for Cincinnati, but hasn't played since Oct. 5 because of a right elbow injury. Leinart, who started 11 games for the Arizona Cardinals as a rookie in 2006 and the first five last year before breaking his collarbone, lost his starting job to Kurt Warner. Leinart has thrown just two passes this season for the NFC West-leading Cardinals.

Palmer, a close friend of Cassel's, said he's enjoyed Cassel's success.

"I watch all his games," said Palmer. "I try to make sure I keep up with it. He deserves it. He's a guy that's always worked hard, and it's fun to watch."

Chow called watching Cassel, who will make his 10th start of the season Sunday, throw the tying touchdown pass to Randy Moss eight days ago against the New York Jets "a thrill."

But even Chow acknowledges he has been surprised at how Cassel, who became the first quarterback to throw for 400 yards and rush for more than 60 (62) in a game in the Patriots' 34-31 overtime loss to the Jets, has developed while filling in for Tom Brady.

"I guess, to be real honest, you're pleased with the success, but I don't think anybody recognized him having as much success as he's having," said Chow. "Those telling you they did are full of baloney."

Few would have expected Cassel to rise to this level if they had seen the last time he played at Dolphin Stadium - Oct. 21, 2007. He was called upon to mop up for Brady early in the fourth quarter of a 49-28 Patriots demolition of the Dolphins, but was yanked after one series, which ended when he threw an interception to Jason Taylor that was returned for a touchdown.

"As a player, your confidence is shook a little bit but you have to tell yourself, 'Look, there is the next day,' " said Cassel. "Luckily for me, I was able to come back out the next week against Washington and have a good week, score a touchdown, and put together a scoring drive. That's football and that is sports. You are going to go through adversities on and off the field. You just have to continue to push through."

That's what Cassel did at USC during his junior season, when Chow and coach Pete Carroll elected to bypass him in favor of Leinart, then a sophomore.

Chow remembered that it was not an easy decision and that it was even harder telling Cassel.

"It was real close," said Chow. "There was a third guy, a young man that had transferred from Purdue, Brandon Hance. There were people in each camp.

"We had the meeting and we closed the door and [Cassel] was yelling and screaming. It wasn't an easy decision, nor was it easy on him. We laugh now, but we had some knockdown, drag-out fights in some of those meetings. It took him some time. He was very upset when that decision was made. We sat and asked if he wanted to transfer. He said he'd hang in. [The decision] wasn't because he was not any good; the two guys ahead of him happened to be Heisman Trophy winners."

Cassel is still friends with both quarterbacks he backed up at USC, so he's not about to gloat about the turn of events.

"Carson has been a starter and is an established guy; he is just injured right now," said Cassel. "I have had discussions with Matt, and I know he is eager to get out on the field. I am sure he will, and he is going to have a great career in the NFL. He is a great player, and I just tell him that he has to keep his head up, and I am sure he is."

Unlike at USC, there is room for Cassel, Palmer, and Leinart all to be starters in the NFL.

"We had a really good group while I was there," said Cassel. "We worked hard and made each other better through competition. It is fun to still have that connection and relationship with those guys."

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

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