Crossposted from Pats Pulpit
So. Now what?
Now that we know NFL MVP and Patriots starting QB Brady is out for the season, what comes next? I put this column together for SB Nation site Pats Pulpit on Sunday, before the whole thing shook out. I stand by it (seriously--how can you get paid for this? I do it for fun and I know it's better than 99% of the sports-bloviating out there).
The Quarterback of the Future
The quarterback of the future is Tom Brady. I don't think that, even if we've lost him for the entire year, this team would seriously contemplate replacing him as the starter. In quarterback years, he's in his prime. His arm is good and his judgment and knowledge of the system have never been better. With the exception of his left ACL, his body is going to get a nice break from the weekly beating. Given the shallow pool of quarterback talent in the league (it's not even 32 deep) Tom Brady is still the near-term future of the team.
For that reason, I don't think you'll see a high profile signing like Daunte Culpepper for example. The cap hit would cripple the team's flexibility and introduce a complicated personnel dynamic. I think signing a guy like Sims is a backup the backup strategy, the judgment being that O'Connell isn't ready to be that close to live fire.
The quarterback of today is Matt Cassel. Cassel is an interesting story--one we're going to rehash ad nauseum this week. His last big game was in high school. He held a clipboard at USC for Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. A backup's backup, if you will. So why would he get the call from Pioli and Belichick? I think we saw part of the answer on Sunday, and, given the crap he took in the preseason, it bears looking at again.
Before yesterday, Matt hadn't played a serious down in a game of football since he was in high school.
On opening day in front a packed house, he took over one of the premier teams in the league, got the snap from center and took two backward steps into his own endzone to hand off.
On the next play, he lined up in his own endzone and did the same thing.
On his third serious play from scrimmage since losing in the 3rd round of his high school championship tournament, Cassel took the snap from center, faked a hand-off and launched a 50-yard strike to a wideout on a go-route who had sagged into the zone, hitting him in the hands and in stride. If you'd been standing on the cross-bar, you could have peed on his helmet.
98 yards later, the Patriots were in the endzone and on the board. Cassel's day: 13 of 18 for 152 yards, one TD and no INTs.
Patriot haters, people who don't know better, and some that should, have in the past derided Brady as a "system" quarterback. But he isn't--he's a talent, and one of the best ever. Matt Cassel may one day be a very good quarterback. But the numbers he put up on Sunday illustrate one thing: the difference between a great quarterback and a great system. Start with a great quarterback in a great system. Subtract great QB. What do you get? 13 of 18 for 152 yards and a touchdown. Why (in this case)? Because the quarterback place-holder we put in was able to execute the system. He didn't bring much to it--but he didn't get in its way.
You really can't ask for more than that from your backup. In fact, if your backup QB does bring more than that to the table, then you're brewing one of two things: either your QB-of-the-future-in-waiting, or a quarterback controversy.
Give Matt his due: pretty much everyone wanted him out. What he showed on Sunday is what some of us suspected: the pre-season was a long science experiment that worked to his detriment. He's ok.
Of course, the Chiefs aren't the best. But it was one to grow on.
Who Are These Guys?
Team identity--what do you do well, consistently. How do you win?
When Brady went down, I lost whatever detachment I usually muster (not much) and became simply a fan again. I was rooting for the guys to come together, to lean on each other and make room for Matt to fill the void. I stopped paying attention to the little things I like to watch like, "how quickly is Light getting into his pass set?" "Is the running back seeing the blitz?" "Is Mayo flowing to the ball?" "How's the communication in the defensive backfield?" "Is Wilfork dealing with the doubleteams?"
My stream of consciousness was more like, "comeon comeon comeon comeon!"
Hey, they did it. Tough to pull it together like that. And I think we got a glimpse of who this team might be this year, offensively at least:
Run, then throw. Morris looks good. Maroney looks good. Evans looks his solid self and LaMont looks ready. With the return of Faulk, there are some seriously talented toys in that backfield and lots and lots of possible combinations. The only moments of concern were when we were pinned on Matty's first series. Backup QB, on your own goalline--even the PeeWees know you're going to try the run. Later in the drive, we were knocking them off the ball and dominating the LOS. Could be shades of things to come.
In the air, we looked efficient. Less opportunistic than with Brady at the helm but by no means incapable. I think you can look for Cassel to improve over the next six weeks, too. Thomas showed his hands; it'll be nice if Watson can get healthy (and stay healthy, dammit). Welker is going to be even more key this year than last, though his catches will inevitably decrease.
Defensively, this team will need to step up. Of all the units, the most rapid maturation has to happen in the defensive backfield. O'Neal filled in pretty well--a couple of minor lapses but otherwise solid. Hobbs is still short and there's nothing to be done about that. He managed--he'll have to do better. There are some good teachers there, though--again, time.
At the end of preseason, looking at the youth, I predicted that it would take a month to six weeks for this team to really sort itself out. I stand by that. This will still be a good year, but a different one from the one we were all anticipating. The sorting is going to result in a different product.
You may recall a team of scrappers with a stifling defense and an offense that did just enough to win who walked away from the season with a Vince Lombardi Trophy in hand. Your 2001 New England Patriots were a team like that. But they weren't the first: the 2000 Baltimore Ravens did that, too -- and with a game-management quarterback (Trent Dilfer, anyone?) who stayed out of the way of the system. Is there anyone else besides me who thinks Matt Cassel has more tools (of his own and on the team) than Trent Dilfer did?
The Key Guy
Every success has a key guy--at least one, anyway. The Patriots have several lynchpins right now, guys who have to really step it up: Wilfork, Mayo, Merriweather, Hobbs. On offense: Cassel, Maroney/Morris/Jordan and whomever winds up at right guard. But there's one dude in particular who I'll be watching closely: Randy Moss.
If I had to guess at how Randy's feeling today, I'd go with "dismayed."
All he's ever wanted was to have a quarterback who he thought was just as good as he is. And he got it--then he lost it. How has our Randy grown? Moss can really make the difference this year. If he shuts it down because Cassel's no Brady, this could get ugly. That's a worst-case scenario.
On the other hand, he can do better than that--by a long shot. A strong endorsement of Cassel (and the concomitant change in offensive emphasis) as well as a commitment to both mentor and be led by Matt would go miles and miles toward a play-off run. It could make all the difference.
This is going to be fun--I'm serious. The expectations are shot and the pressure is off. Everything they get they'll fight for--against the competition and internally as they struggle for a new sense of themselves. For fans, it will be a ride. But, unencumbered by the stratospheric expectations of last year, I plan to enjoy myself a little bit more.