logoby Dan Snapp

Out here, they call it “Minnesota Nice”.

It’s the comment that sounds complimentary, but turns sour the more it ruminates in your skull. Depending on the source, it’s either a sincere belief people here are more kindly, or more passive aggressively, that every smile cloaks a dagger.

Matt Cassel is the recipient of the Oscar of backhanded compliments for quarterbacks: “Good game manager.”

After the Patriots’ huge win over the Jets Sunday – and let’s not understate this, it was enormous – “manager” has been the predominant description for Cassel’s role in the offense. Said Coach Belichick right after the game:

I thought Matt took care of the ball. It wasn’t perfect. He had some rough spots in there, but he did a good job making good decisions and didn’t put us in any bad situations, and made some good, positive plays by managing the game well.

The sentiment was echoed in every game story and pundit’s take thereafter, and the dreaded moniker settled in around Cassel’s shoulders: “Game manager.” It’s the descriptor to which no child aspires when tossing the ball around with his friends.

“Here’s Montana with the throw!”
“Here’s Elway with the bomb!”
“Here’s Hostetler with the handoff!”

It just doesn’t happen.

In context, it sounds a compliment, but it’s not much of one. It’s saying that within the minute parameters of what we allowed you to do, you soared. It’s saying, “Hey, you did great: you didn’t screw up.” It’s the soft bigotry of low expectations.

This commentary is admittedly unfair to Cassel, as he did indeed do all that was asked of  and expected of him. He is rightly praised for his performance. But something still gnaws at you.

The Pats won by two scores, but with something missing. The Jets bemoaned their missed opportunities, but the Patriots could claim their share. Four times in the red zone, they settled for three. That’s the kind of thing that can come back to haunt a team, like it did for the Vikings against Indianapolis Sunday.

Just as we knew last year that the Pats would have to count on the running game somewhere down the line, so too do we know that at some point, Matt Cassel’s going to have to win a game with his arm.

Have no doubt, the scenario will occur: the Pats down 10 with eight minutes to go in the fourth, against a D more stalwart than what the Jets had to offer. And that defense will know Cassel will be throwing. The original game plan long dismissed, the clock the enemy, and everything riding on whether Cassel can be more than just a manager.

That’s the scenario Tom Brady faced in his third game as a starter. Down two scores against the Chargers, Brady engineered two fourth-quarter scores, with Adam Vinatieri kicking the game-winning field goal in overtime. It was the first moment many of us thought we might have something more than just a stopgap in Brady. 

As monumental as Brady’s accomplishments were in 2001, in hindsight he had it easy: he didn’t have to replace Tom Brady.

There’s much to like in Cassel’s manner. He’s poised and confident, with a strong arm and seemingly a good understanding of the offense. From what we can tell, it looks like he’s proficient going through his checkdowns. It’s obvious he doesn’t have Brady’s pocket presence (a gift Brady shares with very few QBs), nor Brady’s uncanny ability to hit his receivers in stride.

Belichick noted that the Jets took away Randy Moss with help over the top most of the day, so it’s to Cassel’s credit he didn’t try to force anything there. This also left CBS cameras hovering on Moss’s face on the sideline, praying for a scowl or a pout. Cassel will have to find a way to get to Moss at some point. Man cannot live by dumpoff alone.

Arguably, recognition is Brady’s greatest asset: of  the defense at pre-snap, of the adjustments at the snap, and of receivers changing routes midstream. In the first two games, Moss had two notable instances of changing his route when reading an opportunity for something bigger; in both instances, Cassel was right there with him. Cassel was 1-for-2 in executing on those bombs, but 2-for-2 in the recognition. This gives room for hope.

When the time comes, a game situation will dictate that Cassel run the offense, not just manage it. And he’ll have the chance to break free of the maxim that threatens to define his career.

Let’s just hope he can manage that.