Wow. Who would have thought?
Who would have thought that, ten weeks after Tom Brady went down for the 2008 season, the quarterback position would have become the least of New England’s worries? Somewhere along the way, Mr. Matt Cassel has become a big-time professional.
Don’t be confused by your memories of the wide-eyed ninny running around the backfield during preseason games. What we have here, dear readers, is a bona fide NFL starter who passed for three touchdowns (30 of 43, 415 yards) and ran for another to propel his team to a 48-28 victory in a donnybrook with the Dolphins.
From an offensive standpoint, the holidays came early to New England. While Wes Welker (eight catches, 120 yards) and Jabar Gaffney (five, for 88) got open often, Randy Moss took advantage of single coverage throughout the afternoon, catching eight passes for 125 yards and three TDs.
Cassel began on a high note and kept singing, hitting Kevin Faulk (six grabs, 52 yards), Welker and Moss in succession to reach Miami’s 31. On first down from the 20, guard Stephen Neal was called for holding, putting New England back to the 30. (I, for one, am getting sick of the “least penalized team” graphic that shows up whenever the Pats commit a foul. For the record, they had six on Sunday.) Cassel hit Welker and Faulk to gain 18 of the necessary yards but couldn’t connect with Gaffney for the final two. Still, Gostkowski’s field goal at 10:13 told fans that the Pats had come to play.
After Cassel’s tipped-ball interception, Miami’s Chad Pennington (24 of 41, 341 yards, three TDs) made short work of a short field with a four-play, 42-yard touchdown drive to give the home team a 7-3 lead with 5:29 left in the first. New England’s defense failed to stop the Dolphins in the red zone all day, and even gave up 50 percent of third-down conversions.
Cassel put on his Casey Jones hat and engineered New England’s first TD effort of the game. The prettiest play of the drive (and an indicator of future success) came on a lofted ball to Moss along the right sideline where he plucked it out of the air with one hand for 22 yards. As he did for much of the afternoon, Miami’s Jason Allen had the task of covering Moss one-on-one on the play. Eventually, the Pats took advantage.
The QB scrambled to find Welker for seven on third and eight, setting up a successful sneak for the first down on Miami’s 37. Cassel to Gaffney, Cassel to Welker, New England on Miami’s 12. Ho, hum. Undaunted by a false start penalty on Neal (aaugh!), Cassel spotted a running lane on the first play of the second quarter and ran it for an eight-yard TD and a 10-7 lead.
New England appeared to take control in the next two possessions, yet appearances often deceive. After an ineffective demonstration of the Wildcat formation (and I’m as happy as anyone that I won’t be typing that phrase again anytime soon), Miami punted after three plays. Cassel overcame yet another false start penalty (this one by Nick Kaczur, because, hey, why should Neal have all the fun) by hitting Gaffney twice, on a slant-and-run for 21 yards and across the middle for 15. The Patriots stood on Miami’s 28-yard line, looking to add to their slim lead, but Sammy Morris fumbled on the next play. Normally, a writer would credit the Dolphins’ Matt Roth for ripping the ball out, but it’s hard to be sporting while watching your team sabotage itself.
Of course, Miami turned that miscue into points, managing to convert three third downs, something they hadn’t done in seven years (not true, but they were the league’s worst in that category). Pennington seemed to play catch with such receiving luminaries as Devone Bess and Greg Camarillo, getting his squad to the seven-yard line and scrambling for a TD from there. With about five minutes left in the half, Miami led, 14-10.
(And just to satisfy the curiosity of any long-time Pats fans, Greg Camarillo’s father is not former punter Rich. I wondered, too.)
Taking the ball at his own 22, Cassel slung it to Faulk underneath for 11 yards, then avoided pressure from linebacker Channing Crowder and flipped to Faulk again for seven more. He rolled to his right to find Gaffney for 14. From Miami’s 25, Cassel lined a pass to Moss at the 20, giving Moss room to stop, cut back, and race to the pylon for a 17-14 halftime advantage.
With three-and-a-half minutes gone in the third, that lead vanished as “Look How Annoyingly Efficient I Am” Pennington hit Ted Ginn for what looked like short yardage, only Ginn burst up the sideline for 46. A 16-yard completion to Camarillo put the Dolphins at the 20. Five plays later, Pennington found Casey Cramer in the back of the end zone for a two-yard touchdown pass and a 21-17 lead.
Yup. Casey Cramer. First NFL touchdown of his career. Went to Dartmouth. So, the Patriots defense got beaten by a guy who at one point had to choose between football and accounting. How totally awesome.
Looking to answer, Faulk’s running and Cassel’s passing moved New England to Miami’s 39. On third and ten, Cassel hit Moss crossing the field for 15 yards. After a 16-yarder to Benjamin Watson, Cassel read the Dolphin’s one-on-one defense and lofted a beauty to Moss in the right corner of the end zone. Moss outraced Allen to the spot, pulled in the pass and stutter-stepped in front of the end line for his second TD catch of the day and a 24-21 lead that his team would keep.
The Dolphins’ next drive ended in a Richard Seymour sack that forced a punt. From his own 15, Welker caught a pass for a modest gain to the 20, but “Mr. Six Catches Or More” took advantage of a fallen defender, veered toward the sideline past the blocking of receiver Sam Aiken, and found 64 total yards of daylight to Miami’s 21. A draw play to Faulk hit paydirt, as the Dolphin defense’s fear of passing broke open the middle of the field. Faulk got hit at the two and lunged over the line for a 31-21 lead to finish up the third quarter.
Not to make it easy, New England’s D gave up a touchdown in less than two minutes. I’m serious. Pennington threw six times, connecting on five, the last a 13-yarder to Ricky Williams. Yes, that Ricky Williams. The Patriots led 31-28, and it looked more and more as though the last team to have the ball would win it.
Like Sisyphus, Cassel set to work again, pushing his team up the field a bit at a time. His biggest shove came on third and 10 at his own 42, when he fit the ball into Gaffney’s arms as the receiver got hit for a 23-yard gain to the Miami 35. Two plays later, Cassel laid up a pass for Moss. The receiver leapt over Andre Goodman to grab it and flop into the end zone. Goodman was called for pass interference on the play (a silly call, as Moss had his hand draped over Goodman as the pass went up. Still, great concentration by Moss).
With a ten-point lead (again), special teams factored in, as Ginn muffed the kickoff and got hit at the 20 (shout out to fan favorite Ray Ventrone). Pennington’s next pass got picked off by Pats safety Brandon Meriweather, who returned it 19 yards to the 18. Gostkowski’s kick made it 41-28 with just over seven minutes left.
As crazy as the game had been, it got even stranger. New England’s Matt Light and Crowder got into a fight during – of all things – the field goal attempt. Crowder rushed in. Light pushed him down by his helmet (removing the helmet in the process). Crowder took a couple of swings at Light. Light swung back, grabbed Crowder’s dreads and proceeded to beat him about the head before getting swamped by a couple of Dolphins. Both players got ejected.
Somewhere, off in the distance, the music from the fight scene in “The Quiet Man” played.
Kickoff return issues came up again for Miami, as Ginn tried to retreat and reverse field but ended up on his own one-yard line. Pennington got the Dolphins to the 44 but threw four incompletions in a row. At that point, socially dysfunctional linebacker Joey Porter’s two (count ’em: two) penalties coaxed the visitors to the eight. Pats rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran four times in succession, breaking through on the final try for the 48-28 score.
Seeing as their QB has passed for over 400 yards in each of the past two games, the Patriots have come full circle. They have gone from a team that had to win in spite of Matt Cassel to one that can only win because of him. As strong as Cassel’s performance was, he got held back by penalties, a couple of dropped balls, a fumble and an interception that could have been caught (Moss got both hands on the pass and bobbled it, giving Allen time to knock it into the air).
(While we’re on the topic of interceptions, shouldn’t there be a “tipped ball” category? I mean, if there’s a stupid stat like “Quarterback Rating” where a running back who goes one-for-one seems perfect, couldn’t we distinguish the different types of passes? There could be a “No-fault” interception category and a “Regular.” Or even a subset for “What the Hell Was He Thinking?” I’m just saying, if you’re going to come up with a nincompoop stat like QB rating that no one really understands, you might as well get specific.)
In any case, New England showcased a solid offense that likes to make its own job more difficult than it has to be. They also displayed a defense that at times looks as though it would get pushed over by a thick fog. It seemed that, through most of the game Sunday, Miami’s offense had a better chance of getting stopped by divots. Much of the blame goes to the defensive backs, but the linebackers don’t seem perfect, either.
Hard to tell how much the defense can improve in the final five games. We know that Cassel will get tested next week vs. Pittsburgh. If you ask me, he’s already passed.
Chris Warner’s ‘Game Day Rear View’ appears after every game on Patriots Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.