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Dan Shaughnessy

Slings inspire slang

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / November 24, 2008
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MIAMI GARDENS - We're finished talking about Matt Cassel "managing the game," right?

It's an insult of sorts. You never heard anyone talk about Joe Namath, Dan Marino, or Johnny Unitas "managing a game."

No. "Managing the game" is a euphemism for quarterbacks who are not wildy talented. It's a polite way of saying that your QB is serviceable with no chance to be great.

Remember when you were in high school and had a mad crush on that pony-tailed girl in study hall? And when you finally got up the nerve to ask her out, she said, "I like you . . . as a friend."

That's what we're doing when we tell a quarterback that he does a good job "managing the game."

Cassel has taken his talent to a whole new level. Evolving and improving every week, he's become much more than a game manager. Yesterday the Patriots QB was so good he inspired Randy Moss to invoke some urban slang.

Asked for a comment on Cassel's play, Moss said, "He's playing some hell-i-fied football."

Exactly what I was thinking while I watched Cassel dissect the Dolphins. Hellified. Hell as an adjective. Moss on wheels.

In yesterday's crucial 48-28 victory over the Dolphins, Cassel passed for 415 yards and threw three touchdowns, all to Moss. He completed 30 of 43 attempts. His only interception came on a tipped ball.

The key number is 400. Coming on the heels of Cassel's 400-yard game against the Jets, Mr. Understudy now has twice as many career 400-yard games as Tom Brady.

There's more. Only four other quarterbacks in NFL history have had back-to-back 400-yard games and they are Dan Marino, Dan Fouts, Phil Simms (another famous "game manager") and the immortal Billy Volek.

"I had no idea," Cassel said when informed of the 400 club. "That's a pretty cool stat - a good crew to be with."

The Patriots have been on a "Stayin' Alive Tour" since Brady went down with the mangled knee in the first game of the season. Cassel hadn't started a game since high school and many fans wanted him cut at the end of the exhibition season. He was thrown into the fire, and early on there were problems with holding the ball too long and failing to see open receivers. There was no rhythm. Some of us thought he was only there because there was no one else.

Cassel took most of the snaps in the preseason and he was familiar with the system. Oh, and it looked like he was capable of "managing the game" as long as the brilliant coaching staff didn't ask him to do too much.

Translation: no checking off at the line, no deep balls, nothing but short, safe stuff. The dreaded dink and dunk.

We're still seeing a lot of D and D, but Cassel has moved way past game manager. He's learned to get rid of the ball when he is pressured. He's been able to make plays with his legs. And yesterday he performed Brady-like surgery from a spread offense, working out of the shotgun most of the day. Every time the Patriots fell behind, he put them back ahead. Finally, the Dolphins broke and it was a blowout, with multiple fights and cheap shots.

"I think he's getting in his comfort zone," said Moss. "And at the same time he's gettin' in his, we're gettin' in ours."

Exactly. And this is a good thing for the Patriots and their fans.

The Dolphins insulted Moss with single coverage most of the day and he made them pay. He produced a couple of highlight-reel catches that would be bronzed in Canton (David Tyree style) if they'd been made in a Super Bowl. He was even better after the game, arriving at the interview podium wearing sunglasses, diamond earrings, headphones, and a black do-rag - then mocking the Fish for disrespecting him with only one defender.

Early in the season, Cassel was unable to tap into the Moss Vault. Not now.

It was unfair for anyone to critique Cassel after a few games. Practice and preseason fail to simulate game speed. It took a while for Cassel to get comfortable. Now he's there.

"I don't read the paper," he said. "I just knew the feedback I was getting from coaches. A lot of people casted me out. Some of the outsiders had different opinions, but that's what sports is all about."

"He seldom repeats mistakes and he usually executes the plays better the more times he runs them," said coach Bill Belichick.

Certainly the blossoming of Cassel is another brick in the wall of genius that is Belichick. He knew. When many others doubted, or perhaps thought the Patriots were arrogant or ill-prepared in the event of a Brady KO, the coach stayed with Cassel because he saw what none of us could see. And now he is being proven correct. Again.

This is not to say that Cassel is to Brady what Brady was to Drew Bledsoe. Brady's not going the Wally Pipp route. Most likely, Cassel next year will be someone else's starter, making the big iron and talking about his apprenticeship in Foxborough.

There's no certainty that the Patriots are even going to make the playoffs. But right now, fans are feeling better because if the Patriots don't get into the tournament, it's probably not going to be because of their quarterback.

Does Cassel consider "managing the game" an insult to his skills?

"Not at all," he said. "That's what you have to do in this league. That's what you have to do in the NFL is manage the game."

A perfect, predictable answer. Very Patriot-like.

But we all know he's better than that. He's playing hell-i-fied football. There's really no other way to say it.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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