logoby Tyler Carter

For those who arrived here expecting a moratorium, this link should appease you.  Feel free to return when ready to accept that, for at least the next calender year, Thomas Edward Brady Jr. will not take a meaningful snap from center for the New England Patriots.  Since he won’t be contributing it makes little sense to bring him up, and this column will do its part by avoiding all mention of him.

Injuries are an unfortunate and all-too-frequent reality of pro (and yes, fantasy) football.  No player is immune, and the teams that best deal with them, either through luck in preventing/avoiding them or  superior depth, will ultimately succeed.  To hammer the point home, here’s a relevant passage from Bill Belichick’s coaching biography on the Patriots Website:

In 2003, a 31-0 season-opening setback in Buffalo was answered…as the team rebounded to win 17 of the next 18 games despite using 42 different starters (then an NFL record for a division champion). In 2004, injuries were overcome yet again, as the Patriots used 40 different starters, including nine different starters in the secondary. In 2005, New England started 4-4, but went on to claim the AFC East title by using 45 different starters, breaking the NFL record that it had set two years earlier for the most starters by a division champion.

To summarize: despite averaging ~42 different starters per year over a three year period, New England won 45 games which included 3 division titles and 2 Super Bowl championships.  If nothing else, the Patriots dynasty has proven that it is possible to assemble a deep, talented roster that could annually compete in the salary cap-free agency era.

However, because of Brady’s (damn it!) durability and performance, quarterback is one position where New England’s depth hasn’t been tested; therefore with him sidelined it’s fair to wonder how the team will adjust.  Matt Cassel, the undisputed starter, has already attested that the playbook won’t change.  Even if that’s true, how will the personnel groupings/play selection be affected?  For example, in his 2008 AFC Preview, Gregg Easterbrook pointed out (as Mike Reiss and company did so weekly) that the 2007 Patriots used at least three wide receivers on over 75% of their offensive snaps.  Are the Patriots ready to hand Cassel the keys to that car, or will they switch to a more balanced attack?

Speaking of Cassel, all we have to judge him on is past performance, so let’s take a look at what he’s been able to do with his limited opportunities.  We’ll start by disregarding the following:

Preseason performance(s): As Coach Belichick bluntly pointed out following the third preseason game, the games don’t count!  What’s more, none of the Patriot units distinguished themselves in those exhibitions, so it would be unfair to single out Cassel (which many, including this scribe, were guilty of doing).

Mop-up duty: This is arbitrarily defined as any game in which Cassel attempted fewer than 5 passes.  On such occasions the outcome of the game had long been decided, and he was primarily in there to hand the ball off.

Applying these filters, we’re left with two samples:

2005 Week 17, January 1st , 2006.  Miami at New England

Best remembered for Doug Flutie’s drop kick point after, the first such attempted in 60+ years.  This was a game that the Patriots threw were fortunate to lose as they avoided hosting Pittsburgh (the league’s hottest team and eventual Super Bowl champion) on Wild Card Weekend.  Content to rest most of his starters after the 1st quarter, Belichick inserted (at the time) 3rd stringer Cassel, who directed the New England offense to 4 scoring drives (2 FGs, 2 TDs).  The final touchdown (which came as time expired) put the Patriots in danger of tying the Dolphins with a two-point conversion, but on the subsequent attempt Cassel rolled out and fired a perfect spiral to a group of cameramen (time index 1:49) to preserve a 1st round playoff date with Jacksonville.

2008 Week 1, September 7th, 2008.  Kansas City at New England

In a stunning span of 5:51 game time in a scoreless game, New England fumbled the ball for the second time in as many possessions, lost their starting QB and allowed Kansas City’s offense to drive 41 yards in 12 plays to set up a pooch punt that pinned the Patriot offense at their own two yard line.  Needless to say, when Cassel was thrust into this game the outcome was far from decided.  How he and the Patriot offense responded to their earliest big challenge is the subject of this week’s The Turning Point.

New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called for two consecutive off tackle runs (the first right, the second left) to start the drive.  Kansas City defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham anticipated such conservatism, putting 8 men in the box on each play and rotating his secondary depending on where Moss lined up:

Situation: 1-10-NE 2 (1:36)
New England Formation: Big I, Moss split right
Personnel: TE 82 Spach, LT 72 Light, LG 70 Mankins, C 67 Koppen, RG 74 Yates, RT 77 Kaczur, TE 86 Thomas, WR 81 Moss, QB 16 Cassel, FB 44 Evans, RB 34 Morris
Kansas City: Base 4-3
Personnel: LDE 90 McBride, LDT 93 Tyler, RDT 72 Dorsey, RDE 91 Hali, OLB 59 Edwards, MLB 55 Thomas, OLB 56 Johnson, LCB 23 Surtain, FS 47 McGraw, NE Public Enemy #1 SS 49 Pollard, RCB 44 Page
Play result: S.Morris up the middle to NE 1 for -1 yards

Situation: 2-11-NE 1 (:58)
New England Formation: Big I, Moss split left
Substitutions: None
Kansas City: Base 4-3
Substitutions: None
Play result: S.Morris left guard to NE 1 for no gain

Summary: DTs Tyler and Dorsey took turns shoving back Yates and Mankins respectively to disrupt the play in the backfield and nearly force a New England safety.

Inexplicably, someone on KC thought the ball spot after the second play was worth challenging (inconclusive at best based on two different pre-instant replay camera angles).  What effectively amounted to a timeout gave New England’s shell-shocked offense time to regroup and draw up an appropriate play against the NFL’s top 3rd down defense from 2007 (statistic courtesy of Greg Gumbel):

Situation: 3-11-NE 1 (:21)
New England Formation: Ace Twin TE
Substitutions: WR 10 Gaffney in for Evans
Kansas City: 4-3 over, McGraw initially lined up next to Johnson
Substitutions: RCB Flowers in for Pollard, Page shifts to SS
Play result:  M.Cassel pass deep right to R.Moss to KC 48 for 51 yards

Summary: By keeping both TEs on the field, the Patriots prevented Kansas City from going to a nickel package.  McGraw back-peddled prior to the snap for a Cover 1 look.  Cassel and Morris convincingly sold the play action as Page crept up to provide run support (the two initial rushing plays may have helped set this up as well).  Moss blew past Surtain’s soft single coverage to settle underneath Cassel’s touch pass, and tacked on 22 yards after the catch (YAC) before McGraw finally brought him down on the GU logo.

A gutsy play action bomb was anything but conservative under the circumstances, and perfect execution across the board led to New England’s big play conversion, the most critical offensive play of the young season.  With more room to operate, and undoubtedly more confidence, the Patriots featured two consecutive 3 WR formations, forcing the Chiefs to counter with their first Nickel (5 defensive backs) packages of the drive:

Situation: 1-10-KC 48 (15:00)
New England Formation: Ace 3 WR, Washington slotted left, Thomas lined up as H-Back left
Substitutions: WR 15 Washington in for Spach
Kansas City: Nickel 3-3-5
Substitutions: LB 53 Williams in for Edwards, CB 39 CB Carr in for Tyler
Play result: S.Morris left end pushed ob at KC 39 for 9 yards

Situation: 2-1-KC 39 (14:39)
New England Formation: I formation 3 WR, Washington slotted right
Substitutions: FB 44 Evans in for Thomas (offset right)
Kansas City: Nickel 4-2-5
Substitutions: LDT 95 Edwards in for Williams
Play result: M.Cassel pass short right to K.Washington to KC 36 for 3 yards

Summary: On the first play, Williams lined up as an edge rusher and Page once again cheated up towards the line, but key blocks by Thomas (on Thomas), and Washington (on Flowers) allowed Morris to dart up the left side for a big gain.  On the second play, McGraw came up from his safety spot for run support while Surtain, Flowers and Carr respectively played ~ 5 yards off of Moss, Washington and Carr.  Noticing this cushion, Cassel quickly slung the pass to Washington.  With Moss crossing over to block Flowers, Washington’s free release allowed him to pick up an easy 1st down.

Five plays later, the Patriots capped off their 98 yard, 4:51 drive with their first touchdown of the 2008 season, a 10 yard scoring strike to Moss (formation: shotgun 4 WR).  In seven total drives (not including kneeldowns), Cassel led the offense to three scores (2 TDs, 1 FG).

Silver Lining

Here are Cassel’s passer stat lines from his two ‘meaningful’ appearances:

2005 Week 17: 11-20, 168 YDS (8.4 Y/A), 2 TD, 0 INT, 116.2 RAT
2008 Week 1: 13-18, 152 YDS (8.4 Y/A), 1 TD, 0 INT, 116.0 RAT

Of course, this is too small a sample size to draw any hard conclusions from.  The most we can say is that Cassel has been efficient and effective in the limited time he’s led the Patriot offense.  And while Mike Reiss hasn’t yet broken down the personnel groupings/play distribution, the team certainly didn’t appear to curtail the playbook with him in there (at one point they even called a flea flicker!).  If his encouraging early play continues, there is no reason to believe the Patriots can’t once again contend this year.