Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Corner of "42nd Street" and Route One

As understudies go, Matt Cassell wasn't quite Ruby Keeler. Close, though.

In his first action in an NFL game where the issue was in doubt, Cassell turned in the following contributions to the Patriots' 17-10 victory over the Chiefs last Sunday. He averaged over 8 yards a pass attempt. Cassell made a big play to get out from inside the Pats' five-yard line (a skill at which Tom Brady is unsurpassed in history). He led a 98-yard touchdown drive, led another TD drive after the Pats forced a turnover, and, above all, had no interceptions.

That's more than just "managing the game." Those are positive contributions that any quarterback would be happy to turn in each Sunday. Brady, Peyton Manning, anyone. So Cassell handled his traumatic battlefield promotion better than anyone, himself included, could have imagined.

As to whether Cassell can keep that stuff up for an entire season, nobody knows and Bill Belichick doesn't intend to try and find out. Cassell will be given the playbook many NFL quarterbacks receive, a one-page memo that reads "Don't fuck it up."

A large number of NFL teams have had winning seasons with the quarterback mandated to do as little as possible. Some, very few but some, have won Super Bowls that way. I am almost prepared to say that the Patriots can do the first, and more than prepared to say they won't do the latter.

Overreaction is the natural state of mind of New England sports. Many persons who understandably were devasted by Brady's knee injury are now saying that things won't be too bad for the Pats this season-that they could even be great.

All things are possible. But quarterback is kind of an important position. Losing a Hall of Fame quarterback, the reigning Most Valuable Player, leaves a team weaker-much, much weaker. It's all very well to say the rest of the team can make up for Brady's absence. Some games, they will. Some games, they won't come close.

For all the good things Cassell did against Kansas City, the Pats only scored 17 points, and needed a goal-line stand to beat a team minus ITS starting quarterback (I know, it was only Bradie Coyle) that figures to be prominently mentioned in "what should they do with the first draft pick?" speculation by November. This performance should generate neither extreme pessimism nor any form of optimism about the Pats' prospects the rest of the way.

The unknown is the scariest thing of all. As of today, the Patriots are an unknown quantity-unknown to themselves as much as to the rest of us.

If fans and media need an emotional benchmark by which to evaluate the Patriots, let me suggest an easy one. Curiosity.


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