THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Brady’s backups eager to please

O’Connell, Walter relish the chance

Kevin O’Connell appears to have the inside track on the Patriots’ No. 2 QB job. Kevin O’Connell appears to have the inside track on the Patriots’ No. 2 QB job. (Stephan Savoia/Associated Press)
By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / August 13, 2009

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PHILADELPHIA - Barring the unforeseen or a last-minute bit of misdirection, quarterback Tom Brady will test his surgically repaired left knee for the first time in a game tonight when the Patriots open the exhibition season against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field.

While the welcome sight of No. 12 under center in a game for the first time since he tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in the knee in the 2008 season opener against Kansas City is the No. 1 draw for the Patriots’ first exhibition, there is quarterback intrigue beyond the next marker on Brady’s road to recovery and behind him on the depth chart.

The Patriots learned the hard way last year the importance of Brady’s backup. Matt Cassel salvaged a Brady-less season that appeared over before it began, leading the Patriots to an 11-5 mark. With Cassel now with the Chiefs, it is second-year signal-caller Kevin O’Connell and five-year veteran Andrew Walter who would be one snap away should disaster befall Brady again.

No one is hoping for such an occurrence, but Brady acknowledged its possibility when asked if he was nervous about returning to the field.

“No, I’m not. I’m really not nervous about any of that,’’ he said. “I mean, if someone hits me in the exact same spot, I mean, the exact same thing is probably going to happen. You know, it’s part of football and you line up and you play and it’s a physical sport. I’ve been playing for a long time and nothing like that has ever happened, so I’ve just put it past me. I really have.’’

Brady doesn’t want to look behind him, but the Patriots must. O’Connell, a third-round pick in 2008, would appear to have the inside track on the understudy role. He inherited the No. 2 job last year when Cassel ascended to starter. However, O’Connell has been inconsistent - and at times inaccurate - during training camp, perhaps prompting the team to bring in Walter, a former Raider who was signed Aug. 3.

“I put the most pressure on myself out of anybody just because I want to go out and do well and I hold myself to a high standard,’’ said O’Connell. “I think it’s just another chance to be in a competitive situation and be as successful as possible and learn from the things that come about in this game and apply them to the next.’’

O’Connell may be a callow QB by NFL standards, but he has more experience in the system than any of the other contenders for backup jobs. Walter has only been practicing with the team since Aug. 4, and the fourth quarterback, Brian Hoyer, is an undrafted rookie from Michigan State.

That’s why Walter tried to downplay the idea of competition at this point.

“It’s a process. There is no question about it. There is still tons of work on my end. I need to get caught up on a lot of things,’’ Walter said. “You can’t eat the elephant all in one bite.’’

However, Walter, who was a starter and a reserve during his four seasons with the Raiders, acknowledged the importance of exhibition games for a backup quarterback. In some cases, it can be the only game action they get.

“I just think any game is important, whether it’s preseason or whatever; it’s your résumé that is out there in front of everybody to see,’’ said Walter. “It’s what you put on tape. The goal is to win the football game as a team and then personally to play well and be on top of it mentally. I can’t say anything other that it’s your résumé and you want it to look good.’’

Brady, who once upon a time was a backup, said it best. “There are a lot of things that can be simulated in practice, but in the games they’re very different.’’

That’s why O’Connell said he’s eager for game action.

“I don’t know if it’s as much of an audition as an opportunity to get out under center in a game setting and kind of see where you’re at as a player,’’ O’Connell said. “I’ve worked really hard. I’ve been looking forward to these preseason games for a long time.’’

O’Connell said he learned from how Cassel put just as much time and effort into preparing for an exhibition game as a regular-season game.

Yet, Cassel is also a cautionary tale to not read too much into the preseason play of a quarterback.

Cassel’s performance in the preseason last year was universally panned. He completed 55.9 percent of his passes (19 of 34) for 165 yards, didn’t throw a touchdown pass, and had an interception. He quarterbacked 17 drives during the 2008 exhibition season and only two ended with points, a pair of field goals.

The lack of game-planning, the auditioning of players in different spots, and overall experimentation make it harder to judge quarterback play simply on its face in the preseason.

Still, O’Connell, who acknowledged he has had some ups and downs during camp, knows the significance of tonight’s game, not just for Brady, but all the quarterbacks.

“I’ve worked on a lot of things fundamentally, and I feel like I’m throwing the ball pretty well,’’ he said. “It’s just a matter of applying it in the games now. As we move forward, we got four opportunities and a lot of practices to get better.’’

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

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