THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

For some teams, Cassel could be viable option

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / February 21, 2009
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INDIANAPOLIS - It's the time of year when teams start to find faults - real and imagined - with the top prospects in the NFL draft. But the scrutiny of this year's quarterback crop has extended to Patriot Matt Cassel.

After his successful stint filling in for Tom Brady in 2008, Cassel, on whom the Patriots used the franchise tag at a cost of $14.65 million, would seem to be a viable alternative for teams entering April's draft in need of a franchise quarterback, such as the Lions and 49ers. However, whispers heard in NFL circles suggest Cassel's success is more a byproduct of the Patriots' system, the presence of wideouts Randy Moss and Wes Welker, and the guidance of departed offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels than his own ability.

That dreaded label of "system quarterback" - whether fact or trade posturing - could make it tougher for the Patriots to deal Cassel.

Speaking at the NFL Combine yesterday, McDaniels, who is now head coach of the Broncos, dispelled the idea that Cassel's success last season (63.4 percent completion rate, 3,693 yards, 21 touchdown passes) couldn't be duplicated in another locale.

"Matt Cassel is very bright. He's very athletic. He has a strong, accurate arm, and he has now a full season of game experience under his belt, and I think we all saw how much that meant to him as the season progressed," said McDaniels, who watched Cassel throw 14 of his 21 touchdown passes and just four of his 11 interceptions in the season's final seven games.

"He is a competitive player, a great person. There are a lot of things about Matt that are very ideal for that position; he's got size and all the rest of it. I was a small part of his success, and he was a big part of my success.

"I think whatever challenge Matt Cassel has in front of him, whether that be in New England or if it happens to be somewhere else, I think he's going to respond to it the same way he has responded since he walked in the door in New England, which is to meet it head-on with a great attitude, an incredible work ethic, and to try to do everything he can to make himself better.

"So, if that's what you're looking for in an NFL quarterback, you probably got a shot."

Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris agreed Cassel deserved a ton of credit for guiding the Patriots to an 11-5 season, but he said any team considering Cassel has to be cognizant of how he was used in New England.

"Environment is important," said Morris. "What you do with a guy is important. You better do what Matt Cassel can do if you decide to take him, if you decide to trade for him. Those are the important things, those are the important issues."

Part of the reason for the sudden skepticism could be that teams have had a chance to study tape of his play and see that 55 percent of the Patriots' passing yards were the result of YAC (yards after catch). That's compared with 42 percent the year before under Brady.

But at least one coach of a team that could potentially be in the market for a quarterback, Todd Haley of the Chiefs, said he thought punishing Cassel for being successful in the Patriots' system was patently unfair.

"I think that's unfair because that's all we know," said Haley, who has the added benefit of having former Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli as his boss in Kansas City. "He did what he had to, to succeed in what they asked him to do. I know that they adjusted to some of his abilities. They didn't play exactly the way they played with Tom Brady, so I think that's probably an unfair statement to say somebody is a 'system quarterback,' especially in that case because they're a game-plan team that changes from week to week."

"They're not a West Coast team that is running the same plays 20 times a game. I think there are some West Coast guys that are more system quarterbacks, but not Cassel, from what I see."

With 15 NFL starts under his belt, Cassel would seem to be a safer bet for teams such as the Lions, who hold the No. 1 overall pick and the 20th pick in the first round, and the 49ers, who hold the 10th overall pick, than lavishing riches on an unproven quarterback from the college ranks such as Georgia's Matthew Stafford or Southern California's Mark Sanchez.

Stafford was a three-year starter, but finished his career with as many interceptions (33) as starts. Sanchez made just 16 starts at USC.

Cassel would appear to be ahead of the QB learning curve, and any team interested would have to take into account how he handled the unenviable task of replacing a canonized QB like Brady,

"No question. To win that many games as a first-year starter, you definitely deserve credit," said Morris. "You deserve as much credit as anybody in this league. He made those guys competitive, and we all wrote him off that first game of the season."

McDaniels offered his seal of approval for his presumptive replacement, Bill O'Brien, whom the Patriots promoted to quarterbacks coach to replace McDaniels, who held that title along with offensive coordinator.

O'Brien, who served as wide receivers coach under McDaniels last season and was an offensive coaching assistant in 2007, is ostensibly the Patriots' offensive coordinator - the team has not named one, but sources with knowledge of the team's thinking have indicated O'Brien will have those duties with input from coach Bill Belichick.

"A very, very good friend of mine . . . and I know he's going to do a great job," said McDaniels. "He's ultra-prepared and the players respond to him. He got the opportunity to work with the receivers last year, and I think that's vital, and he'll do a great job. I know he will."

McDaniels was in a similar position in 2005, when the Patriots had to replace Charlie Weis. He was not given the title of offensive coordinator, but as the quarterbacks coach, he called plays with some input from Belichick.

How much input did Belichick offer to McDaniels in 2005?

"As much as Bill needed to give us," said McDaniels. "If he felt like it was going OK, then it might not be a lot. If he felt like we needed more, then he would give us more. He has a great sense of the pulse of that. If he really needs to step in and do a lot, then he will. But that's something that I'm sure he'll sense as he goes through this process."

Raheem Morris's offensive staff with the Buccaneers has a heavy New England influence. He hired former Boston College coach Jeff Jagodzinski as his offensive coordinator, former Patriots tight ends coach Pete Mangurian as his offensive line coach, and former BC offensive coordinator Steve Logan as running backs coach.

Morris said Jagodzinski's decision to interview for the Jets head coaching job against the wishes of BC, which fired him for doing so, was not a concern.

"No, I'm never one to knock a man for trying to better himself," said Morris. "No, knock against Boston College at all. They did what they needed to do and he did what he needed to do. He made a man decision and he dealt with the man consequences and that brought him down to Tampa."

Morris goes back with Mangurian, who gave Morris his first (paying) job in coaching, hiring Morris as a restricted earnings coach in 1999, when Mangurian was the head coach at Cornell.

The Patriots will play at Denver this season, which means McDaniels will get to face his former team. "Will I know that we're playing the Patriots? Sure, but I'll be just as eager to beat them as I will the other 15 opponents we play, too," said McDaniels. "It will be exciting and I look forward to the challenge because I know it will be one."

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

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