April 17, 2014

Quicksand Cassel

logoby Dan Snapp
[email protected]

Remember the halcyon days of yore, when people routinely compared Tom Brady to Joe Montana? These days we’re left resurrecting the Ghosts of Patriots Misfortune Past.

Who does Matt Cassel remind you of most? Drew Bledsoe holding onto the ball too long, Tony Eason turtling under pressure, or Hugh Millen losing his bearings on fourth down? Is Deltha O’Neal the worst Pats corner since Duane Starks, Antonio Langham, or Chris Canty? And is Richard Seymour turning into Kenneth “Game Day” Sims before our eyes?

As our eyes tell us, and as the stats back up, the Patriots just aren’t a very good team. We suspected as much during preseason, but were willing to brush that off as just that – preseason. Surely with Brady back for the opener, they’d revert back to the dominance of ’07.

But the blowouts to Miami and San Diego taught us something else: with or without Brady, this team has serious issues to resolve. Former areas of strength now loom as gaping holes. Positions neglected in drafts and free agency are exploited as vulnerabilities.

For Bill Belichick, it’s the perfect storm: His MVP quarterback out for the season, his old standby vets with too many steps lost to make the plays, and a couple of years of tepid drafting leaving nothing in reserve.

Ehh, but forget about all that. Let’s talk about the quarterback, as it’s so much easier to blame it on the guy handling the ball.

Remember the fun days of the 1989 Patriots, with an aging Steve Grogan, an ineffectual Marc Wilson, a washed-up Eason and a we-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-this-guy Doug Flutie playing musical quarterback? How ’bout ’92, when the choices devolved to Millen, Scott Zolak, Tommy Hodson and Jeff Carlson?

Break out the turntable and chairs! Once again, we get a motley choice of  signal-callers to helm the team.

You could have Cassel, the guy we all thought wouldn’t make it out of training camp (and who’s done little since to dissuade us of that); Kevin O’Connell, the rookie third-rounder; or Matt Gutierrez, who was cut but found no takers elsewhere.

Ahh, but before the music starts, Belichick ruins our fun, and gives Cassel the chair. It’s official: for us to witness O’Connell in any meaningful action, the season will already have gone down the crapper.

 Said the coach in no uncertain terms on Tuesday:

“Matt is our starting quarterback. He gives our team the best chance to win.”

So there you have it. So long as the Patriots are in the running, Matt Cassel will be the guy. With the team one game out of first in a weak division, playing in a weak conference, and in a weak league overall, there are plenty of crappy teams out there to make the Patriots look above average. And keep Cassel under center.

That he stinks isn’t what’s so frustrating. It’s his abject mediocrity that’s so damnable. Cassel’s just good enough to beat the chaff, and just bad enough to lose to the wheat. But because of a blah league, it doesn’t matter if he plays like crop.

He represents that middle ground in sports you never want to occupy: like the coach who wins just enough to not get fired, or the NBA team not bad enough for the lottery yet not good enough to climb out of the first round. For the fans, it’s purgatory.

Mike Lombardi’s scouting report is less than glowing:

Cassel does not make very quick decisions and his accuracy on some easy throws is a concern. He looks like he cannot process the decisions with any real conviction.

Lombardi then offered grim portents of what lay in store for the Pats with Cassel in charge:

The Pats cannot play a game in the 20s. They will need to keep the score in the teens and get the game into the fourth quarter.

This isn’t a recipe for success.

Sunday night’s game felt like an old training video, with the Chargers representing the Dos and the Pats playing the Don’ts.

“When running play action at the goal line, throw to the man who’s open in the end zone. Ooh! Bad choice, Matt. Let Philip show you how. Now that’s the way to do it!”.

The case for Kevin O’Connell is that we don’t know Kevin O’Connell. He’s young, strong, athletic and a reasonably high draft pick. That’s it. And the not knowing, especially after watching Cassel’s fourth-down linedancing, has us feeling on solid ground when we think, “Anything’s better than this!”

But Belichick being Belichick, he’s probably right.

For one thing, he does know O’Connell, and Gutierrez as well. A change at quarterback could prove just as fruitless for the Pats now as it was in ’89 and ’92. It would be change for change’s sake, ultimately revealing what we already know is true:

This team’s problems run much deeper than quarterback.

Comments

  1. Boy, Dan, it’s really sad to see the way the Pats are playing. Did you see how Cleveland manhandled the Giants up front? I know that their front was different in the SB but I thought for sure that the Pats would be more versatile in that game and play smash mouth. Not doing so was a huge mistake and now the guys are a year older playing with an SB hangover. All of a sudden their schedule looks very daunting. And your right about the league. It sucks. But I think we’re seeing the changing of the guard. Look for unheralded teams to get better as the season progresses. Maybe Buffalo and Atlanta a la Tampa Bay Rays.

  2. David Clemeno says:

    Nice summary Dan; I guess the joy ride had to end some time. I kinda disagree with the focus on Cassel though. I find it hard to feel to much agita over him. He is what he is. It’s like getting annoyed at water for being wet.

    What has surprised me most is the play of the defense this year. They have given up big plays in every game, including the winning games. If we had an ’01, ’03, or ’04 defense, Cassel’s extreme mediocrity wouldn’t be such the issue that it is.

    I wonder why the defense is underperforming. Is it scheme? Is it coaching? Is it motivation? Nah, it’s none of that stuff. As Pats fans we have to face facts: Belioli has done a piss poor job of getting the Harrison, Bruschi, Law replacements. Given the excellence we’ve witnessed in the earlier part of the decade, this is the hardest realization for me. Yup, Belichik is human after all. The simple answer is that the players on defense are simply not good enough.

    I suppose the slide back is not really all that strange. With all the winning that’s gone on around here, it’s hard for the players to maintain that high level of focus, game in game out. Why should the architect be any different? How long can BB himself keep this up? Couple that notion with all the external media crap he deals with and it’s prolly natural for a let down like this. I wonder if the burning belly fire will ever return; nothing lasts forever.

    Oh well, I’ll still watch, but now with far lower expectations.

  3. I think its a legit question as to how long Belichick can keep this up, just because its not often that someone coaches in the same place for eight years.

    But I’m not sure it’s really about not being able to maintain a focus, though. I really think its more about him betting on the wrong horses for too long.

    I can’t say that their decision to move towards a spread passing, zone run blocking team (out of the belief that’s the way the league was moving at the time) has really yielded the results, has it? I say that with full acknowledgement that they DID go undefeated in the regular season last year, and reached their fourth Super Bowl. Still, the way they lost that game IS important though. They got beat up bad, in large part because they have become a purely finesse team because of Belichick’s strategic decisions.

    I also can’t say their decision to spend most of their personnel resources over the last several years on that offense has really done much for them either. As David notes, now they have a defense that just isn’t good enough, and even though they do now at least have some younger players, the core of that defense is virtually the same people its been for quite some time.

    It goes to David’s point that BB is human after all. He sure is. It was his decisions over the last several years that have put them where they are right now. Yes, if Brady hadn’t been hurt, those decisions might have a looked a lot better at the moment, but fundamentally, the same stuff would have caught up to them.

    Lastly, I still think he’s the greatest head coach they’ve ever had or ever will have and I laugh at the few who have gone as far as to speculate they’d be better with someone else. I feel like that’s ridiculous. Yes, I believe he screwed up big time with some of these strategic shifts over the years, but I still wouldn’t want anybody else coaching my team.

  4. The key point in the piece is the fact that the Patriots have done poorly in the draft for several years now. If you look at most of the recent choices, the first word that comes to mind is bust. I’ll go year by year for the last five years, since obviously like most Pats fans, I’m spending too much time thinking about what’s up with the team…

    2008 – Mayo appears to be the real deal. Outside of him, it’s too early to tell about the other players, although Slater is a bit of a head scratcher. For a specialist, he hasn’t shown much of a burst that you’d expect from a return guy.

    2007 – First round pick Meriweather is decent enough, hard to say if he’ll ever be a real impact guy, though. I don’t believe anyone else from that draft is still on the roster. Caveat is that picks were traded to get Moss and Welker. Home runs on both of those deals.

    2006- The best pick may be Gostkowski, but even then the team didn’t trust him with a 48 yarder in the Superbowl last year. Sad to say, but it’s probably time to add Maroney to the bust list along with Chad Jackson. What’s especially sad about Chad is that the Pats traded up to get him. The guy selected with the 52nd pick the Pats traded to get up to take Chad (Chad was the 36th pick) was Greg Jennings, now one of the best WRs in the game. Ouch.

    2005 – Logan Mankins is a stud, especially for what was at the time considered a very suspect first round selection. Outside of that, you have serviceable guys in Kaczur and James Sanders. Also selected, Cassel. Jury’s still out on him.

    2004 – Wilfork was a nice pick. While Ben Watson has shown flashes, it’s becoming easier by the day to slide him into the bust category. He certainly can look great from time to time, but can’t stay healthy, and he drops way too many passes.

    So in the last five years, the team has picked up two studs in Mankins and Wilfork. Other than that, those drafts have resulted in only a handful of guys that are even on the roster. And even more troubling is that the team hasn’t done well in the late rounds, where you need to find affordable talent.

  5. Don’t forget Hobbs in 2005. And I think David Thomas will emerge.

    I was tempted to write about Maroney this week, but he was out Sunday night so it didn’t seem timely. I’m not ready to give up on him yet. I remember the burst he had his rookie year, and how I thought at the time I’d never seen a Patriots back who was so quick to the hole. And I still have on tape his performance against Wisconsin when he tore them up for 200+ yards.

    Maroney was quoted earlier as saying there is an issue, and he knows what it is, and the coaches know, but that’s all he would say. My first thought was that this guy still hasn’t learned how to shut up to the press. But my next thought is that he’s got injuries he’s not allowed to reveal, but he wants desperately to explain his lackluster play, so he hints at it.

    Lingering injuries would explain the difference in burst between ’06 and the last two years. He just hasn’t been the same runner as when he was a rookie. Even with the late production last year, he wasn’t breaking monster plays like he did in ’06.

    There’s a dynamic player here that we’ve only seen in glimpses his rookie year, and I really want to know why.

  6. gutes 4 president says:

    The “potential” of maroney. This guy by all accounts should be an absolute stud. He’s not. He’s never been. Will he ever be? What has he ever really done? I mean really done. A few good playoff games? Antowain Smith had a few good playoff games too. His measurables are so high everyone wants him to be the next (fill in with your favorite RB). This is his third year. He’s a first rounder. What running back takes time to develop? Get on the field and start ripping off 100 yard games. At the very least stop bellyaching to the media about a mysterious “issue” that you have.
    I have a diagnosis… pu**yitis.

  7. I agree he should shut the hell up. And I agree he’s proven little in New England, and that he’s long overdue to really break out.

    But I’m biased by his time at UMinn. He was a stud there, and I don’t think it was any mitigating circumstances like a monster line or lesser competition. He was the feature guy for the Gophers, ahead of Marion Barber, who has turned into a stud back in his own right. Impressive as Barber was at Minnesota, Maroney was the guy.

  8. Pretty hard to get out there and start ripping off 100 yard games for a team that throws 60%+ of the time and has an offensive line that can’t win a straight up physical match up to save their lives, and what’s worse, isn’t exactly the Broncos with the zone blocking either.

    I’m not defending Maroney here because I don’t care one way or another about him anymore. Its pretty unreasonable, though, for anybody to expect the f**king New England Patriots to have the prototypical first round ‘stud’ back who routinely . Not when the OC likes to throw on first and goal, as he has so often in the past. All that did was score them a bunch of meaningless points and make them soft as jello.

  9. Hear, hear.

    Can we change the site name to United Patriots Fans for a More Dedicated Ground Game?

  10. I like my acronyms to sing, Dan. Fans for Aggressive Ground Support, for example.

    Oops. Well, you know what I mean.

    On Maroney, though, even though I was greatly impressed by him in December and January last year, I wouldn’t have to travel far now to place that pick inexorably in the ‘Blew It’ camp.

    I mean, look, they have FIVE freaking running backs now. FIVE! He’s no better than a role player in that situation, even if he WAS healthy (he isn’t, that looks almost certain). He’s certainly going to be getting role player snaps in a situation like that.

    So do you use a first round pick on a guy that’s a role player? Especially when your defense is crying out for a lot more than that, and has been for awhile? I don’t even want to go to drafthistory.com to remind myself of the defensive players that were taken shortly after he was picked. I’ll bet dollars to donuts, though, that there’s at least one DL, LB or DB that could be helping them right now.

    As I said above, the front office has been scuffling ever since Jacksonville. For the most part, that’s been proven now.

  11. A revisionist history indulgence, with regard to Maroney, is found in wondering how Joseph Addai would have worked out in NE. I recall him being an RB that the Pats were interested in selecting during that draft. He would have been a better fit, especially with his ability to catch passes. Addai caught 40 passed in each of his first two seasons, whereas Maroney’s caught but 26 in his entire career.

    Different systems fit different players, and it’s still early in their careers, but I’m finding it harder and harder not to start thinking that when it comes to busts, Maroney’s is far more likely to be cast in negative opinions, than in bronze at the HOF. Sorry for the Kornheisereque bad analogy, just still can’t get over the Pats trading up to get Chad Jackson, and the spot they gave up lower in the round netting Greg Jennings. Didn’t know that until today.

    Still, I remain optimistic about this team. I just wonder if the window’s closing quicker than hoped due to aging talent and no young bucks around to pick up the slack. If so, the Pats ride has been a great and enjoyable one.

  12. DryHeave1 says:

    You can make the case that Cassel is WORSE than a rookie QB because he’s spent 8 years being a practice-only QB, and not a real-games QB.

  13. > Can we change the site name to United
    > Patriots Fans for a More Dedicated Ground Game?

    Suicidal.

    If the running game wins the game, why isn’t Vikings winning every game with Adrian Peterson running every play?
    Tell me why Browns beat Giants while Giants had 149yard, 6.1yard/attempt running game?
    Go to coldhardfootballfacts.com and learn the fact that the ground game has little impact on winning and loosing.

    Besides, the reason why Pats loosing now is because Cassel is not Brady. How else can you explain the 16points drop per game?
    With “issue” Maroney, Morris and Faulk, how could we possibly have a running game that can make a difference?
    If Cassel is our man, let Cassel have more throwing oppotunities so that he can improve.

    I’m pretty sure I’m not alone wishing Matt Ryan is here. Ryan looks far more comfortable than Cassel in the pocket, and Ryan made a Brady-like play last week.

  14. DryHeave1 says:

    ntai, I don’t get the “Matt Ryan” reference. It’s not like the Patriots were in a position to draft him and passed him up or anything. ….Hell, if we’re going to play the “wishing game”. I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing Peyton Manning were here, or Drew Brees, or Jay Cutler, or Joe Montana in his prime or……..

  15. ntai, it’s not a great running game per se nor a great passing game that wins games, but, rather, the defense not being able to load up against either. A balanced attack is what is called for. The Browns won because they blasted the run up the gut against the Giants and negated their pass rush while Eli threw 3 pics. In the SB the Giants knew we were going to pass so schemed appropriately. The problem as you said is we don’t have the horses to present a running threat. Our draft pick has been a bust. But you still have to run and pass out of running formations.

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