logoby Chris Warner

Like a riddle that might have made you laugh in elementary school, this isn’t funny anymore.

During preseason games of years past, watching Matt Cassel had some entertainment value, like checking out a freshman trying to talk his way into a senior party (Look at him work so hard! What a precocious lad!). Now, though, it’s three years later and the kid still finds himself on the outside looking in. That’s not so entertaining.

Including Friday night’s 27-17 snoozer vs. the Eagles, the Pats’ three losses of the preseason have shown one consistent element of Cassel’s play: his inability to lead the team to touchdowns. He had a passing performance that you could find next to the definition of “mediocre” (8 of 14, 60 yards). Using the short passing game is great, but dinking and dunking without first downs is like a sprinter stopping at each hurdle: he just doesn’t get anywhere. When Cassel’s on the field, no touchdowns get scored (well, except by Tampa Bay safety Sabby Piscitelli. Let’s just move on).

Without an offense to move the ball, the Patriots defense sputtered, giving up a sustained drive from the outset. Donovan McNabb pushed Philly into field goal range, cruising for 76 yards in 14 plays, or just under 5.5 yards/play (I did that math in my head. Really). McNabb barely had to break a sweat, handing off the ball most of the drive and picking up firsts when they had to (except for an end zone pass on third down). Though this short-gain defense may fit aspects of New England’s “bend, don’t break” philosophy, it reminds us that, if you bend something far enough, it will break most of the time. Philly’s running game looked solid; meanwhile, McNabb had enough time in the pocket to write a short thesis.

It is said that a football team is like a three-legged stool, where all three legs – offense, defense, special teams – have to stay strong to support the whole. If that’s true, on Friday the Patriots resembled a floor mat. Special teams collapsed in the final four minutes, giving up a 101-yard kickoff return by Quentin Demps and a 76-yard punt runback by DeSean Jackson. In both cases, the returners could have been physics majors, because they found the path of least resistance through New England.

At least we know that Chris Hanson shall never again punt the ball inbounds with less than 15 seconds left on the clock. Ohhh, thank goodness it’s preseason.

Because little has been funny about these scrimmages, I thought I’d pose some riddles. These are the kind that might make you think a bit. Laugh? Not so much.

What do Matt Cassel and Usain Bolt have in common? They both celebrate their sprints a little too much.

Cassel’s primary first down came on a 22-yard scamper, after which he jumped up and pumped his fist. Now, it’s not like he put his arms down and started pounding his chest before getting tackled, but Cassel didn’t exactly set any world records, either. And he doesn’t have a cool nickname like “Lightning” Bolt.

I’ve been hard on Cassel (stormed him? Laid siege? Never mind), so I’d like to say a couple of things in his defense. One, he had about the same amount of time to throw as one of those camera exposures that captures a bullet going through an apple. Two, we don’t see what the coaches see. To outsiders, Matt Gutierrez (14 of 20, 217 yards, two TDs) seemed to have the team in his control. If Gutierrez can do the same thing with the starting offense vs. a starting defense, then I’ll believe it.

Of course, that won’t happen on Thursday at Giants Stadium. Is there any way to measure what kind of roster-clipping dungfest that’s going to be? Shouldn’t they at least give out free popcorn or posters or something?

You want another riddle, don’t you? Coming right up!

Why didn’t the offensive line cast a shadow? Because at this point they can’t even block the sun.

Look, I know Dante Scarnecchia is the best offensive line coach in the NFL. I know that time and again he’s taken undrafted and/or unwanted players and formed them into a cohesive unit. But he’ll have to be a professor at Hogwarts to work his magic with this lineup. They haven’t blocked for the run. They haven’t protected their quarterbacks. They couldn’t work as nightclub bouncers because they let anyone through.

What’s bothersome about their recent performance is that teams have learned the key to disrupting the Pats’ offensive machine is pressure (what took these teams so long, I’ll never know). Offenses need order; defenses trust mayhem. In the preseason, defenses can outshine offenses because it’s a lot easier to muck up a play than to run it with precision; that said, it would have been nice to see Cassel get more chances to go through his progressions. But I assume we’ll get that chance on Dungfest Thursday.

What teams use false advertising? Patriots’ “special” teams.

I wonder what the tenor of conversation would have been like this week if Demps had gotten tackled at the 40 and the Patriots defense had held? The score would have been 10-3 at the half instead of 24-3. Gutierrez could have engineered a 17-13 come-from-behind win. Instead, New England’s less-than-special units gave up two TDs in about thirty seconds (I’m exaggerating, but not by much). It felt like watching a novice birthday party clown giving out candy: unsettling overall, and you wonder if it’s doing anyone any good.

Where’s my man Matt Slater? What happened to the excitement he’d shown on kickoff returns? If Victor Hobson turns out to be a special teams ace, is that enough to keep him on the roster? In a half where the team seemed more desperate for a spark than the main character in a Jack London story, nothing happened. They just gave in, laying down to rest as the cold overtook them.

Why was Chad Jackson’s TD catch like a big wedding? Everyone’s all excited about the reception.

As great as it looked, Jackson’s go-up-and-get-it touchdown catch revealed nothing new about him as a receiver. To that point we knew that he had good hands, great athleticism, and a shaky knowledge of the playbook. As far as I could tell, “Hey Chad, go up for a fade pass against a backup” failed to demonstrate improvement in his comprehension of the offense. Once he starts consistently coming back for passes vs. man-to-man defenses and settling down in the open spot of zones, then we can relax a little more.

Speaking of relaxing, let’s end on a few positive notes.

Why was Gutierrez successful? He had a Jones for the end zone.

I now renounce my nickname of “Catch-Juggle” for C. J. Jones. Whether running along the sideline or into the end zone, Jones found open spots and went after the passes thrown to him. Do they keep him over, say, Matthew Slater? I doubt it, but it’s nice to know that they have another option at the sixth receiver (after Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Jabar Gaffney, Jackson and Kelly Washington).

Why was the Philly running back flustered? He got Redd in the face.

Outside linebacker Vincent Redd continues to intrigue. He’s gotten limited playing time (that might change against the Giants wannabes – hooray!) but has shown the ability to set the edge and get after the quarterback. He’ll make an interesting decision for Bill Belichick and company, because in order to make the practice squad, they’ll have to cut him, and if they cut him, another team will pick him up.

The fact that rookies like Redd and Gary Guyton will get a lot of playing time on Thursday could make that game exciting. (What? Too optimistic? Yeah, you’re probably right.)

Has the rookie running back been slacking? No, he’s BenJarvus.

After weeks of getting absolutely hammered in training camp, it appears that BenJarvus “Capital J in the Middle” Green-Ellis has figured out the basics of blitz pickup. On at least two occasions he could be seen stopping Eagles rushers from getting to Gutierrez during the team’s end-on-a-happy-note, 99-yard drive with under a minute left. With Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk and Lamont Jordan in the fold, G-E (he brings good things to life) won’t make the final roster, but he’ll be a solid practice squad addition who could figure in the Patriots’ future plans.

For the next (and mercifully, last) scrimmage, keep an eye on the undrafted rookies and other bubble players. This isn’t a game as much as a tryout. How they fit into the final roster is another riddle.