Apparently, this Belichick guy really does know what he’s doing.
And that knowledge may be tested more than ever before in the coming weeks.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick left many around the football world scratching their heads when he stuck with Matt Cassel as his backup quarterback despite his struggles throughout the preseason. No one in New England wanted to see that decision put to the test, but that’s exactly what happened when reigning league MVP Tom Brady went down clutching his left knee midway through the first quarter of Sunday’s season-opener against Kansas City.
Suddenly Cassel, who hadn’t started a game that counted since high school, was thrust into the most unenviable of positions.
“This is something I’ve been preparing for a long time,” said Cassel, who responded to the challenge by completing 13-of-18 passes for 152 yards and a TD without a turnover as New England held on for a 17-10 win. “It’s not something that we expected to come up on the opening day.
“As a quarterback you have to deal with adversity and I think through adversity comes advancement.”
Cassel certainly faced some adversity when he stepped on the field. He had to replace Brady, who limped into the locker room and never emerged again. And because Randy Moss fumbled the ball on the play Brady’s knee was rolled up by a hit from Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard, Cassel didn’t get to take the reins on offense until the Pats had been pinned at their own 2 by a punt.
After two Sammy Morris runs both barely avoided safeties, Cassel’s first pass attempt came from his own end zone on third-and-11. Cassel calmly stood in the pocket and dropped a perfect strike over KC cornerback Patrick Surtain into the waiting arms of Moss for a 51-yard strike.
“I thought that was a big play coming off the goal line,” Belichick said. “That was right in front of me so I got a good look at that one. He made a great throw on that coming out of the end zone.”
Things weren’t exactly all right again in Patriots Nation. But at least there was a sense that all might not be lost after all.
“Unfortunately we lost Brady during the course of the game,” said cornerback Deltha O’Neal. “That’s a shocker for us, but 16 (Cassel) did a hell of a job and we fed off his energy to keep the momentum on our side.”
Cassel had failed to lead the Pats to a single touchdown in 17 preseason possessions, but he was a perfect 4-of-4 for 63 yards as he drove New England 98 yards for the game’s first score. He capped that himself as he stepped up in the pocket and found Moss across the back of the end zone on third-and-8 from the 10.
Cassel was a perfect 4-of-4 again on an 80-yard drive in the third quarter that Morris capped with a 5-yard run to make it 14-3, but there were still more challenges ahead.
Kansas City had to turn to its own backup QB, as former Patriot Damon Huard came on for starter Brodie Croyle, who left with a separated right shoulder. Huard was 4-of-4 himself on his first drive, hitting Dwayne Bowe for a 13-yard scoring strike over Ellis Hobbs to make it 14-10 with 13:06 left in the fourth.
Stephen Gostkowski padded the lead with a 37-yard field goal after Hobbs redeemed himself with an interception
“That’s the life of a DB, you can’t worry about that,” said Hobbs, who also sacked Huard on a corner blitz and returned a kick 51 yards. “You go and make the plays and as long as at the end of the day you’re making more positive than negative, you know it’s a good day at the office.”
But the day’s work was far from done for Hobbs and the rest of the defense. Huard connected with Devard Darling for a 68-yard pickup with 53 seconds left, with only a game-saving tackle by O’Neal keeping the Chiefs from scoring the tying TD.
“They called the right play on the wrong defense,” said O’Neal, a nine-year veteran signed by New England this week after being released by the Bengals. “(Darling) made a good play. Hats off to him. I was just thinking, ‘Get him down, so we don’t have to go into overtime. Get him down, just get him down.’ Once you get him down, you’ve got four downs to stop them.”
KC still had those four cracks from the 5 to pull even, but couldn’t get any closer as New England escaped with the win after O’Neal broke up a fourth-and-goal pass intended for Bowe.
“That’s just gut-checking,” said O’Neal. “It’s the last play, fourth down. You know they’re gonna pass it. You know nine times out of 10 it’s either going to go to (tight end Tony) Gonzalez or to 82 (Bowe) and 82 was on my side, so in my head I’m thinking, ‘The ball is coming to me. I’ve got to play my position.”
The Pats will have plenty more gut-checks to come if Brady is sidelined for any length of time.
“As sad as it is, the train has to continue to move on,” said Hobbs. “You saw a guy come in today that’s been taking a lot of heat come in there and do is thing. And we’re not going to shy away from letting 1-6 (Cassel) take us all the way, wherever that is, we’re riding his shoulders.”
That’s not quite as terrifying a proposition as it would have been before Sunday’s surprise showing by Cassel. Still, there’s certainly not a lot of comfort in thinking about how far this team can go without Brady at the helm.