AS AN NFL head coach, Bill Belichick has a .789 winning percentage and three Super Bowl victories when Tom Brady has been his starting quarterback. When someone else has been under center, Belichick is .420. But there's reason to believe the Patriots can overcome Brady's season-ending knee injury and make the playoffs without him.
"Bill has instilled in his players [the belief] that whether Tom Brady or Matt Cassel plays, they'll find a way to win—by one point or by 30," Vinny Testaverde, who was Belichick's starting QB for 2 1/2 seasons in Cleveland and a backup briefly in New England, said on Sunday night. "He doesn't care." Brady was hurt early in the first quarter at Gillette Stadium when Kansas City safety Bernard Pollard rolled into his left knee on a tackle attempt. On Monday the Patriots said Brady would require surgery on the knee and placed him on injured reserve, ending his 2008 season.
There are a few similarities between Brady and Cassel, who stepped in on Sunday and guided New England to a 17--10 win. Both were late-round draft picks by the Pats ( Brady was a sixth-rounder in 2000, Cassel a seventh-rounder in '05), both are regarded as coach-on-the-field types, and both got their starting shots because of injuries to the incumbent. But when Brady got his first start in September '01, after longtime No. 1 Drew Bledsoe suffered internal bleeding as the result of a hit by Jets linebacker Mo Lewis, he had an advantage then that Cassel does not: playing experience. Brady had been a two-year starter at Michigan with a 20--5 record. Cassel backed up Heisman Trophy--winning quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart at USC and has not started a game that mattered since he was a senior at Chatsworth ( Calif.) High in 1999.
Brady went 11--3 as the starter in 2001 and then carried his team to a Super Bowl title. If Cassel is to lead the Pats to the playoffs, he has much to prove in a hurry. He failed to impress in the preseason, completing 55.9% of his throws with no touchdowns and only narrowly beating out Matt Gutierrez for the backup job. ( New England subsequently cut Gutierrez and kept 2008 third-round pick Kevin O'Connell of San Diego State, who is not yet ready to play in the NFL.) But those who know Cassel say he can execute the offense as Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels envision it. The New England attack is not easily categorized as pro style or West Coast because it's an amalgam of several systems. Belichick formulates game plans based on the strengths and the weaknesses of each week's opponent.
Cassel didn't blink in his first test, completing 13 of 18 passes for 152 yards and a touchdown against Kansas City. On the last play of the first quarter, when the Patriots were backed up inside their one-yard line after two unsuccessful runs up the gut, McDaniels called for Randy Moss to run a go-route up the right side; Cassel, after faking a handoff to keep the safeties honest, threw a beautiful strike for a 51-yard gain. That's the sort of pressure pass he'll have to make with regularity, beginning this Sunday in a road game against the Jets, for New England's season to be saved.
Expect running backs Laurence Maroney and Sammy Morris to take on a heavier workload, with Cassel throwing quick outs to Moss and intermediate curls to the sure-handed Wes Welker. The Patriots will want to keep their new quarterback comfortable and put him in position to succeed early.
"The one thing I know is that Bill will put together a great plan with Cassel," said Jets coach Eric Mangini, who apprenticed under Belichick for 10 years. "If anyone thinks they won't play well, they're wrong."