November 25, 2008


The Pats' system seems more important than Tom Brady (Gregg Easterbrook, November 25, 2008, ESPN: TMQ)

Cassel's recent deeds have been impressive. Two straight 400-yard passing games -- and since New England's running back corps is injury-depleted, his big outputs have come despite the fact opponents know the Patriots will throw on most downs. Much of the time Sunday, the Patriots were in a five-wide spread -- not much mystery there. Cassel is seeing the field and throwing to the correct man. Almost all NFL quarterbacks can fire the ball, but many never learn to see the field. Cassel has won the confidence of the huddle, which many highly drafted quarterbacks never do. And he doesn't panic if no one is open. Cassel's touchdown run against Miami may have looked like a called quarterback draw, but that was a scramble. Cassel saw his targets were covered but the middle of the field was open, and he made the high-percentage move. He's performing extremely well for someone who never started a game in college.

But unless Matt Cassel is one of the most gifted athletic prodigies of all time (and probabilities say he is not), the system he's in is causing him to succeed, rather than it being the other way around. How quickly we forget that just nine months ago, the New England Patriots were 35 seconds away from perfection! Then Brady got hurt and the New England system hiccupped. Now that's over, and the Patriots have adjusted, allowing their previously stellar performance level to return. From the start of the 2003 season until the first game of this season, when Brady was injured, the Patriots were 78-17 with two Super Bowl rings and a third title oh so close. This doesn't happen without excellent team players, top coaches and a well-run system.

Then Cassel was installed as the starter, and New England sputtered, going on a 6-4 stretch. Sports commentators wrote off the Flying Elvii. Lose a Pro Bowl quarterback, bring in a guy who hasn't started since high school, and "only" produce a 6-4 stretch? That's a testament to a good system. Now the sputtering appears over. Two and a half years ago, when Cassel was a total nobody, TMQ wrote, "This being New England, something tells you that if Cassel has to play, he'll look like a polished veteran." It's taken fewer than 10 starts for this prediction to come true -- incredible success for the Pats' system. Against the Dolphins on Sunday, the Patriots looked almost indistinguishable from last season, putting up points, completing curl pattern after curl pattern, protecting the quarterback, all with flawless timing and sound tactics.

Brady is a superb athlete, but right now he may be at some supermodel's Mediterranean seaside villa wincing, because Cassel is demonstrating that Brady was not essential for the Patriots to win. If New England had melted down without Brady, that would have cemented Tom's reputation as an all-time talent. If the Patriots end up having a great season without Brady, nobody will hold that against No. 12, but the focus will shift away from Brady and toward the New England team and system overall. Say what you like about Bill Belichick -- and there are many things not to like -- he runs the best ship in the NFL. And choose your nautical cliché: the ship has steered off the rocks, is back to flank speed, is headed to the blue water, etc.

...we have to recall that not only did Bill Belichick play an obviously already impaired Tom Brady in that Super Bowl but his slow and aged defense blew a 21-3 lead to the Colts the year before which would have given them anther Super Bowl ring. The system requires getting rid of older (higher-salaried) players precisely because they are all just as replaceable as Tom Brady. He's conspicuously failed to do that on the defensive side of the ball and it's caused nearly every one of their losses since the start of 2007.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 25, 2008 2:12 PM
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