Matt Cassel entered the 2008 NFL season with as many starts at quarterback as I have, which is to say none. He was a career backup in the truest sense. He had spent his entire collegiate career — first behind Carson Palmer and then behind Matt Leinart (who actually jumped him in the depth chart). Despite the fact that he never started at QB (although I do believe he started a couple of games at tight end for Southern Cal), he was drafted by the New England Patriots in the seventh round (16th pick; 230 overall) of the 2005 NFL Draft. And with the Patriots he remained, still the back-up to another QB — Tom Brady.
Then, against the lowly Chiefs, a Bledsoe moment occurred. Brady injured his ACL and MCL on a (clean) hit by Kansas City strong safety Bernard Pollard. The injury to the Pats’ QB pressed Cassel into action and, ultimately, the rest of the season. This situation lead many “experts” to write off the Patriots and start looking for other AFC East teams to win the division. Hey, the Bills were off to a good start. Even the Dolphins were playing better after dominating the Patriots in Week 3. Certainly there was no way the Patriots could perform the same under Cassel as they did under Brady…
And then something clicked. Some will point to the bye week giving him extra time to get adjusted, but he still did not seem completely comfortable until after the game against the Denver Broncos (Week 7). He seemed to start spreading the ball around more after that, rather than going to Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Since that game, Ben Watson has stepped up and so have the running backs, especially Kevin Faulk [4.5 catches per game since the Denver game, compared to 3.2 before and including that game]. Jabar Gaffney has also become a dependable target for Cassel. So the bye week and the game against the Broncos have catipulted the Patriots into playoff contention under a “maturing” Matt Cassel.
And, his numbers are impressive considering that he had not started at QB since high school. He is eighth in total passing yards [tenth in average passing yards per game], 11th in QB rating [89.1] and completion percentage [63.2 percent], and tied for eighth with 21 touchdowns. And despite being tied for the lead in sacks , he is fourth among quarterbacks in rushing yards [also, he and Tyler Thigpen are the only QBs to have a 300 passing/50 yard rushing performance on the season…although Cassel’s was a 400 yard passing day, with 60 yards rushing].
So this is all great for the young man. Even if the Patriots do not give him a long-term deal or the franchise tag, he is going to land somewhere as a starter. It is great for a guy who was patient and stepped up when his number was called. BUT, there are consequences to a career backup landing a starting gig.
People will remember the days of universities such as Alabama and Nebraska recruiting kids out of high school even if there was no place on the team for them to play. Certainly it loaded those schools with talent, but it also prevented other schools such as Auburn or Oklahoma from getting those kids and thus provided an advantage by exploiting those guys. However, since the reduction in scholarships, those programs have not been able to hoard all the top talent. And we have seen parity in college football because of it. The rise of programs like South Florida and Texas Tech and West Virginia and TCU and Boise State and Fresno State. And we have seen the drop (and in some cases a return) of programs such as Alabama and Nebraska and Notre Dame and Penn State and Miami and Florida State. There has also been a change in the mindset of high school athletes — they want to play and they want to play in the position of their choice [see Pat White’s decision to go to West Virginia]. School presitage does not matter as much, especially since so many teams make it to television (with games on TV from Tuesday to Saturday). So the hoarding appears to be over…
…or is it? Southern Cal has been successful under Pete Carroll — very successful — and as a result high schoolers want to play in Los Angeles. It is not just the California or west coast kids, but kids from around the country are going to play for Carroll. And because of that, the Trojans seem to be loaded with talent every season — there is no rebuilding year it appears. But kids still want to play. And there have been some Trojans leave for greener pastures [running back Emmanuel Moody, for example, is now with the Florida Gators]. Yet still, SC continues to pull in top-notch recruiting classes, including getting transfers from other universities (backup QB Mitch Mustain and leading receiver Damian Williams both transferred from Arkansas).
And Cassel’s success is only going to continue this process. If a guy like Cassel can go through his entire college career without starting a game under center and still land with an NFL team, remain with that team, and be a successful starter, then that will only make SC even more attractive. Sure, kids will want to start so some will not like riding the pine, but that is a major selling point that Carroll can use on the recruiting trails. “Even if you do not start here, I can make sure that you have the tools necessary to take it to the next level.” Cassel’s success, while certainly a product of his own athletic abilities, is a great recruiting tool for Pete Carrol and Southern Cal. And this will only add to SC’s hoarding of talent, and likely domination of the Pac-10.
Of course, Cassel could turn around and pull a Derek Anderson next year, but as of right now, Cassel has become an extremely valuable recruiting tool for a team already attractive to high school recruits.